A Brief History of the Women's Ironman World Championship


, by Micah Ling

Photograph courtesy of Ironman.com

The Ironman World Championship has been held in Hawaii since 1978. Sort of. Things have changed over the past 45 years. But the human urge to push physically and mentally remains.

In 1975, Judy and John Collins moved from California to Hawaii. Before they moved to Oahu they participated in the Mission Bay Triathlon in San Diego, generally thought to be the real beginning of triathlon in the U.S.

With Mission Bay on their minds, they decided to organize a triathlon in Hawaii specifically for endurance athletes. They used two existing events — the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, and the Honolulu Marathon — and added in a local bike club route that circled the entire island, 115-miles / 185km.

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According to Ironman history, when Judy and John announced their “Around the Island Triathlon” to the Waikiki Swim Club during a banquet in October, 1977, people laughed. But the couple believed many would eventually sign up, and it would become an annual event. John famously said, “Whoever finishes first, we’ll call him the Iron Man.”

And on February 18, 1978, the first ever Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon happened. They reduced the bike stage by 3 miles / 4.8km so that it could link up with the start of the marathon course.

When Judy and John announced their “Around the Island Triathlon” to the Waikiki Swim Club during a banquet in October, 1977, people laughed

In 1981, the race was moved from Oahu to the more rural Big Island. But the distances remained the same: a 2.4 miles (3.86 km) open water swim in Kailua-Kona Bay, a 112 mile (180.25 km) bike across the Hawaiian lava desert to Hāwī and back, and a marathon (26.2 miles, 42.195 km) run from Keauhou to Keahole Point and back to Kailua-Kona, finishing on Aliʻi Drive.

Women in Triathlon

Eleanor Lynette Lemaire (Lyn) was the first woman to complete the Hawaii Ironman, in 1979. An accomplished cyclist, she also held the U.S. women's record for the 25-mile (40 km) time trial. Lyn completed the Ironman in 12:55:38. The winning men’s time that year was 11:15:56.

In 1980 two women completed the race, Robin Beck and Eve Anderson. And in 1981 the women had a full podium, including Sally Edwards taking second place. Edwards would go on to complete the Ironman two more times, placing third each time. In 1983 she qualified for the first women’s marathon Olympic Trials. She was later inducted into the Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2012, and the Sacramento Running Hall of Fame in 2016.

One of the most (in)famous finishes in Ironman history

College student Julie Moss famously collapsed just meters from the finish line in 1982, and ultimately crawled to second place after Kathleen McCartney passed her. Moss had entered the race without real training, as part of her research for her exercise physiology thesis.

Paula Newby-Fraser made her Ironman World Championship debut in 1985, where she took third place. She went on to win the race 8 times: 1986, 1988–1989, 1991–1994, and 1996. Understandably, she became known as the “Queen of Kona.” Over 12 years, she won 21 of 26 Ironman races she entered around the world. She was also the first woman to go sub-9 at Kona, with a 8:55:28 in 1992.

Fernanda Keller was the first Brazilian woman to medal in the Ironman World Championships, in 1994. She went on to take third place at Kona in 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000.

RELATED: Laidlow Becomes Youngest Male Ironman World Champion

The “Swiss Miss,” Natascha Badmann was a 6-time winner of the Ironman World Championships, in 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, and 2005.

Paula Newby-Fraser’s course record stood for 17 years until Chrissie Wellington broke it in 2009, when she went 8:54:02. Then Miranda Carfrae took the record in 2013 with a 8:52:14. Daniela Ryf, 5-time Ironman World Championship winner currently holds the record at 8:26:18, from 2018.

Ryf, now 36, will take on Kona again in 2023. Will we see her break her own record? Will someone else lower the numbers? With a super stacked field, it’s going to be a fierce race. We wouldn’t be at all surprised to see some new fastest times on the board after this race.

Women's Ironman World Championships - Kona Fast Facts:

  • 08:26:10. Daniela Ryf's Kona course record (Splits: 57:27 - 3:22 - 4:26:07 - 2:17 - 2:57:05)

  • 48:14. Lucy Charles-Barclay's Kona Swim Course record (2018).

  • 4:26:07. Daniela Ryf's Kona Bike record (2018).

  • 2:50:26. Mirinda Carfrae's Kona Run record (2014).

  • 8. The number of times Paula Newby-Fraser won in Kona.

  • 5. Daniela Ryf, who will compete in 2023, has won the race five times.

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