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Pro women: how to win in Kona...
Posted by: John Levison
Posted on: Thursday 4th October 2012


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...and the FOUR women that can WIN in 2012

Having taking a detailed analytical look at the 2012 Kona Men's Pro field, Tri247 Editor John Levison puts the crystal ball predictions on hold to see if the same statistical approach can help pick a Ladies Ironman World Championship 2012 winner. As with the men, he believes that history suggests it can.


"The three best stretches", "the five steps to a faster bike split", "the seven ways to improve your running"...etc.

Magazines, websites, books - they (we...) all do it. It grabs the attention, it provides a focus, it 'seems' as if any particular topic can be summarised in a bullet point of any particular number the author chooses. It also provides, to the unaware at least, a sense of certainty as if putting a number on a topic it makes it "true". Of course, it rarely if ever does!

And yet, in one sense at least that's what I've done/am doing here - except, I can promise that the 'four' in the title was the very last word I wrote. Only when I got to the very end of this analysis could I come up with a number I was happy with. Let me explain.

In a little under two weeks, Saturday 13th October to be precise, the 2012 Ironman World Championships in Kona will be run and won. That means of course that the triathlon world - athletes, media, fans, coaches - will start the annual prediction-fest for the Kona podium. Will the absence of Wellington impact the race? Can Rachel Joyce keep on improving? Can Leanda Cave complete the 'double'? Can Steffen be stopped? And on, and on. And, that's great. It's fun, and it's not an insignificant part of what I've done myself on Tri247 over the last five or more years. And I'm sure I'll be doing more before Kona too!

Every year I hear that it's 'the strongest field ever' or 'the most open race' or 'difficult to predict, any one of 15 or so could win'. But... I think that's rubbish.

I wanted to see if there was anything from history that would be a great pointer towards forecasting the Kona future, to try and take (mostly at least), opinions out of the equation and use what I suppose scientists might call, an 'evidence based approach'. At least, I think that's what they might call it - but it's been a fair few years since I collected my Chemistry and Physics A-Levels, so I could be mistaken...

How many, and who of the women's start list for Kona 2012 can WIN the Ironman World Championship this year?

That word 'WIN' is very important here. For this analysis, I'm not assessing who can be competitive, or who can impact the race, or who could make the podium - it's solely focussed on identifying the potential winners. Ignoring the "past performance cannot be used to predict future performance" warnings of an investment commercial, I'm going to try just that.

Ironman World Champions (Women) - Last 25 Years

Year
Winner
Previous Best Result
2011
Chrissie Wellington (GBR)
Winner
2010
Mirinda Carfrae (AUS)
2nd (2009)
2009
Chrissie Wellington (GBR)
Winner
2008
Chrissie Wellington (GBR)
Winner
2007
Chrissie Wellington (GBR)
DEBUT
2006
Michellie Jones (AUS)
2nd (2005)
2005
Natascha Badmann (SUI)
Winner
2004
Natascha Badmann (SUI)
Winner
2003
Lori Bowden (CAN)
Winner
2002
Natascha Badmann (SUI)
Winner
2001
Natascha Badmann (SUI)
Winner
2000
Natascha Badmann (SUI)
Winner
1999
Lori Bowden (CAN)
2nd (1998, 1997)
1998
Natascha Badmann (SUI)
2nd (1996)
1997
Heather Fuhr (CAN)
6th (1993)
1996
Paula Newby-Fraser (ZIM)
Winner
1995
Karen Smyers (USA)
2nd (1994)
1994
Paula Newby-Fraser (ZIM)
Winner
1993
Paula Newby-Fraser (ZIM)
Winner
1992
Paula Newby-Fraser (ZIM)
Winner
1991
Paula Newby-Fraser (ZIM)
Winner
1990
Erin Baker (NZL)
Winner
1989
Paula Newby-Fraser (ZIM)
Winner
1988
Paula Newby-Fraser (ZIM)
Winner
1987
Erin Baker (NZL)
DEBUT

The table above shows the female winners of the Ironman World Championship over the past 25 years. In addition, what is also shown is their best previous Kona result, prior to winning that year, plus the year in which that was achieved. Thus, when Lori Bowden for example won her first title in 1999, her previous best performance was second (in both 1998 and 1997). When she won again in 2003, her best previous result was, of course, winner. So, what can we take from all of this?

  • Over the past 25 years only nine different women have won an Ironman World Championship.
  • Of those, five of the nine (56%) are multiple winners. Turning it around - Mirinda Carfrae, Michellie Jones, Heather Fuhr and Karen Smyers are the only winners in the past 25 years NOT to have (yet, perhaps, in the case of Carfrae), gone on to win in Kona more than once.
  • In 25 years, only two athletes (Erin Baker 1987 and Chrissie Wellington 2007) have won on their Ironman World Championship debut. Fair to say that they are two of the greatest athletes in the history of the sport, suggesting that a debut win for anyone is a very tough proposition.
  • Excluding those two debut wins, Heather Fuhr (winner in 1997) is the only first time champion that hadn't previously finished second. Fuhr's previous best was 6th in 1993.
  • Of the five athletes who finished second and then went on to win for the first time during this period, four (80%) did so the following year. Even the other (Natascha Badmann who won for the first time in 1998, previous best 2nd in 1996), only had two years between second place and winning.
  • 17 of the 25 years (68%) reviewed were won by previous or defending champions.
  • 92% of Kona winners in the last 25 years had previously finished sixth or better.
  • 88% of Kona winners in the last 25 years had previously finished either first or second.
  • In the last 14 years, Chrissie's 2007 debut win is the only time that a Kona win was achieved without an athlete finishing (at least) second previously.

Want to win Kona? Here goes:

  • You need to be exceptional - only nine different women have left Kona as Ironman World Champion in the past 25 years.
  • Make sure you've won it before! Not many ladies have won even once; and most that did went on to do so again (and again...).
  • If it all possible - and it isn't your debut race - you'll probably need to have finished second before. It can be done (Heather Fuhr, 1997 - previous best of 6th), but your chances fall away drastically if you haven't.
  • Once you've got that top finish on your CV - ideally second - try and win it the following year if you can.
  • A debut win is possible (two of 25 over the last quarter century), but when those names are Wellington and Baker, it suggests you need to be - or on the way to becoming - one of the true all-time greats. A first time out Kona win is very difficult.

Applying this to 2012?

Previous winners

Mirinda Carfrae has finished 2nd / 1st / 2nd on her only three visits to Kona over the past three years. Only Chrissie Wellington has beaten her in the lava fields - and Chrissie isn't racing this year. Clearly, Carfrae is a potential winner.

Natascha Badmann is the only other previous winner starting - but her last win was seven years ago, and she'll be 46 years old in December. A 2012 Kona winner? Surely not. That would be a comeback of European Ryder Cup team proportions. Imagine the size of the Badmann smile though!

Mirinda Carfrae

Previous performers

Ok, let's - initially at least - look at top three finishers. Why top three? Well, the 'statistics' say that a previous second place is huge indicator for a potential win for athletes who haven't won already. But, I'm going to expand that here (slightly), because Chrissie Wellington, the dominant athlete of the last five years isn't racing. Other things being equal - she won 13 out of 13 attempts at ironman distance - that 'should' move everyone up one position. Where does that leave us?

Kona ladies with a previous top three finish, who are starting in 2012, but haven't yet won the title:

Leanda Cave 3rd (2011)
Caroline Steffen 2nd (2010)

Leanda Cave's best previous Kona result was last year. She recently won the Ironman 70.3 World Championship too. Box ticked, Cave must be in the 'potential winner' mix. An injury-impacted fifth last season was a disappointment for Xena, but with a second place two years ago and crushing wins in Melbourne and Frankfurt this year, you don't need statistical analysis to work out that Caroline Steffen has to be on anybody's favourites list.

Caroline Steffen / Leanda Cave ©Triathlon.org | Rich Cruse / ITU

So, add in Rinny and we've now got three. Can anyone else win? Well, Heather Fuhr took her first win after a previous best of 6th. That's only happened once in 25 years, but, let's take a look and see if we can add any others into the mix by expanding this analysis.

Kona ladies with a previous 4th/5th/6th finish, who are starting in 2012, but haven't yet won the title:

Rachel Joyce 4th (2011)
Erica Csomor 4th (2008)
Linsey Corbin 5th (2008)
Joanna Lawn 4th (2007, 2005)
Rebekah Keat 6th (2007)

Ok, I'm going to rule out all but Joyce straight away. Why? Well - following our statistics (!), we already know that the chances of winning when you haven't already got that top finish is very slim. Outside of Rachel, it's also at least four years on from the best Kona performances of Csomor, Corbin, Lawn and Keat. Given that I'm approaching this analysis statistically, that indicates very long odds of a winning opportunity, based on Kona history.

But, what about Rachel Joyce? Firstly, her best result so far was last year which is a good sign. Secondly, she's performed well in Kona and improved every year in Kona too: 6th/5th/4th (9:32, 9:18, 9:06). Thirdly, she has been in great form during 2012; second in Melbourne (8:46) and winner of Challenge Roth (8:45), both performances suggesting continued improvement. She was just behind Leanda in Kona last year and beat Leanda at the ITU World Champs last year - all that considered, if we are marking Leanda Cave as a potential winner then I think Rachel must be in that grouping too.

Rachel Joyce ©Getty Images / Alexander Hassenstein

Debut sensations?

It can be done, as proven by Erin Baker and Chrissie Wellington, but as with the men, an Ironman World Championship win at the first attempt is a seriously tough task. Looking at the women's start list, is there anyone there that could possibly buck this trend? Who is the most likley newcomer to spoil the party?

Anja Beranek (née Ippach). The German Beranek may not be a household name, but she is an athlete tipped by no less than Caroline Steffen to race well in Kona. The much improved Beranek won the European 70.3 Champs in Wiesbaden and finished second to Steffen in the European Ironman Champs in Frankfurt. An Ironman World Champion first time out though? I think that would be a very unfair expectation and pressure. A strong top ten finish is more likely I feel.

And...that's it. I think. Having gone through the start list I really can't see anyone else who, on debut, could realistically challenge for the win given the quality of those athletes highlighted above - something that history suggests is extremely difficult anyway.

And then there were four...

So, to answer the question I started with - using a statistical approach - there are four potential ladies 2012 Ironman World Championship winners, and here they are:

  • Mirinda Carfrae
  • Leanda Cave
  • Caroline Steffen
  • Rachel Joyce

We'll find out on 13th October whether that proves to be the case....

Rinny, Big Bird, Xena or The Joycinator - who's your money on?

#GBKONA 2012 Coverage


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