Daniela Ryf, born in Solothurn and now living in Feldrunnen (Switzerland), is quite simply one of the most successful long-course triathletes ever.
When people discuss the greatest female IRONMAN World Champions, Chrissie Wellington with her four world titles is rightly near the forefront of that debate but Daniela has now overtaken her with five crowns – to match her tally of World 70.3 titles.
Arguably Ryf’s problem is that she has made it look too easy. Sometimes being too successful can be a curse, because people start to expect that success and don’t fully appreciate what it takes to win.
Nicknamed the ‘Angry Bird’, due to a face she supposedly pulls when concentrating (or her look of steely determination when putting the competition to the sword), Ryf dominated racing beyond the Olympic distance from 2014 to 2019. For example, in 2015, 2017, and 2018 she doubled up by becoming World Champion at both IRONMAN and IRONMAN 70.3 distances.
A few were starting to doubt she’d reach those heights again after a relatively quiet couple of years but she roared back to form in trademark style with a dominant victory in the rescheduled IRONMAN World Championship in St George in May 2022.
Despite being an accomplished swimmer, much of Daniela’s long-course success has been built on coming from behind after the swim (especially with the emergence of uber-swimmers like Lucy Charles-Barclay), swiftly riding up to lead on the bike and and then often extending her lead on the run. She has for example often run sub-three hours for the marathon at the end of a full-distance race.
Recognition of her abilities has not been limited to the triathlon world. She was Swiss Sport Personality of the Year in 2015 and 2018, and in 2018 she was also nominated for the title of Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year. She was the first female triathlete and first Swiss woman nominated for the prestigious award.
Similar to other elite athletes, Daniela is also using her success as platform to help others. She is a patron of Solothurn Triathlon and Duathlon Regional Development Centre, where she aims to pass on her knowledge to future athletes. Outside of triathlon she has an interest in nutrition and has studied Food Sciences & Management at the HAFL (School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences) in Zolikofen, Switzerland.
Career record and results
It is easy to think of Daniela as simply a diesel engine, designed for long hard days. However, although not reaching the heady heights of her long-distance career (see below), she did have an accomplished spell in short-course triathlon.
Daniela won the 2008 World Under-23 title and went to her first Olympics in Beijing, where she finished an impressive seventh at the age of 21. She also went to the London 2012 Games, but her 40th place effectively triggered the conclusion of her short-course career – which ended with only one individual ITU World Triathlon Series victory (Seoul 2010).
Since stepping away from Olympic-distance racing, Daniela’s level of success has been exceptional. She has posted more than 30 victories across middle and full-distance races. These wins weren’t just in any races either, they included taking the tape in Alpe d’Huez in 2019, Challenge Roth in 2016 and 2017, IRONMAN Austria in 2019 and the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship on five occasions (2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, and 2019).
Within those victories there have been many top-class performances. One would certainly be Alpe d’Huez in 2019, where Daniela finished sixth overall and circa 30 mins ahead of the next lady. However, her fifth 70.3 World title performance, also in 2019, would take some beating.
Firstly, aesthetically it was a great race location with an interesting/different parcours – the course in Nice was quite spectacular with the start of the bike consisting of a huge climb up the Col de Vence before a technically challenging fast descent. The swim was led out by Charles-Barclay, but Ryf was with the leading pack exiting the water in seventh – only just over a minute behind Lucy and close to 2016 World 70.3 Champion Holly Lawrence.
On the bike Ryf was imperious, attacking on the descent and appearing to take control of the race. Entering T2 she had a lead over Lawrence of 02.26. Initially Lawrence was making ground on Daniela, but Ryf then looked to step on the gas as she pulled out an impressive 1:18:37 (the fifth fastest female run split) to win by almost four minutes.
Ryf at Kona
After a second place on her debut at Kona in 2014, Ryf went on to take an unprecedented four consecutive victories at the IRONMAN World Championship – dominating the event in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018 (as well as that St George success in 2022). You should not be fooled into thinking it has always been plain sailing for Daniela in Hawaii though.
It is accurate to say Ryf is a strong runner rather than a speed merchant. However, as can be seen from her run form at Kona, if it was a relative weakness she has clearly worked on negating any losses.
In 2014 Daniela was bested by the fleet-footed Mirinda Carfrae – Rinny posted a blisteringly fast (for Hawaii conditions) 2:50:26 marathon (the fifth fastest run split overall), compared to Daniela’s 3:07:00. In short, giving away 15 minutes on the run was too much. If Daniela wanted to win against an athlete of the calibre of Carfrae, something would need to change.
In 2016 Mirinda and Daniela returned to the big-island to duke it out once more. The result was an astonishing race from Ryf. She broke the Kona course record, finishing in 8:46:46 (nearly 25 minutes ahead of second). Her whole performance was impressive, but of particular note was her 2:56:51 marathon – the fastest run in the women’s field (Carfrae clocked 2:58:20).
The problem is, if you mention Ryf’s 2016 race, you also have to mention 2018. Carfrae is a relatively weak swimmer, but a great runner. In 2018, Daniela faced a very different challenge in the form of uber-swimmer Charles-Barclay. Lucy completed the 3.8km swim some nine minutes faster than Daniela!
Not to worry, Ryf’s solution was simply to ride the fastest women’s bike split followed by a sub-three hour marathon. The result was another, even more spectacular, course record. The conditions were perfect, leading to Daniela breaking her own record by more than 20 minutes (second place also beat the old record by 10 minutes)!
Nobody can win forever though, especially in endurance sports like iron-distance triathlon – there are just too many variables at play. 2019 did not go to plan for Ryf with her performance affected by stomach problems. Uncharacteristically she was not able to smash the bike leg, rolling into T2 in ninth position and close to 13 minutes behind the leader. It was testament to her resolve that she finished, but she did so in a distant 13th position.
Form is temporary however, class is permanent and we saw the Angry Bird return to her best at the 2022 IRONMAN World Championship in St George.
Daniela Ryf and family
In April 2021 in an interview with Switzerland’s Schweizer Illustrierte Daniela discussed her 18-month break from racing and how she had reflected on life during the COVID pandemic.
In the interview, she shared an insight into her life and how she has questioned what is important to her – including the pressures of winning, whether success makes her happy, changing her coach and also her personal relationships.
Ryf has historically kept her personal relationships out of the public eye, and intends to do so going forward, but she mentioned that she has been in love with a woman, having previously only loved men.
When questioned why she spoke about such a topic, she stated that she wanted to set an example, to say ‘live and let live’ and to be ‘Open, honest, and free’.
Daniela Ryf gear
Ryf is part of the Red Bull stable of athletes (which includes many of the most popular names in triathlon). This means she will invariably be seen wearing a Red Bull baseball cap on the run and the podium, and when on the bike a helmet with the brand’s very cool blue, red, and yellow livery. As an FYI, you can’t buy the Red Bull-branded helmets, so if you see someone wearing one, it means they are a Red Bull athlete!
Daniela is renowned as one of the strongest riders in the women’s field and her steed brand of choice is Felt, equipped with DT Swiss wheels. In August 2021, Ryf dominated IRONMAN 70.3 Switzerland and was spotted riding what appeared to be an eye-catching, and very new, prototype from the Californian company.
With the advent of carbon running shoes, and now that other brands have caught up with Nike, it can be quite interesting (if that’s your thing) to check what shoes triathlon’s elite are using. Daniela opts for the Asics Metaspeed, and with their distinctive orange and black upper, it is easy to see they are extremely well represented in the PRO field.
In addition to triathlon-focused sponsors, Daniela has the type of commercial relationships which befit her status as of one of the world’s best triathletes, with brands such as Mercedes and Breitling.