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The best triathlon sprint finishes – Top five most epic race endings

After a BLOCKBUSTER finish at the inaugural San Francisco T100, John Levison looks back at the top 5 most epic sprint finishes in triathlon history. Grab the popcorn and get ready to relive these iconic nail-biters!

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The Men’s race at Saturday’s San Francisco T100 delivered a finish for the ages on Saturday.

After racing shoulder-to-shoulder for a large part of the closing 18km run, Marten Van Riel, Kyle Smith and Rico Bogen entered the final 400m still locked together, with nothing to indicate who would come out on top.

Bogen made a move, Smith and Van Riel responded. Bogen pushed again, but still couldn’t break clear. It was only on the finishing straight that Smith and Van Riel gained a slight advantage, trading the lead until the tape, where the Belgian just took the narrowest of wins. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.

Of course, that has lead to plenty of ‘greatest’ references. It’s an interesting discussion – the type we all love to take part in – and got us thinking, which really are the best sprint finishes in triathlon history?

There’s really no way of getting to a ‘right’ answer… but here are a few thoughts from us.

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How we chose our top 5 – What makes these sprint finishes great?

Before diving in to our selections of the ultimate triathlon sprint finishes, how can you begin to try and put some element of objectivity around something that is ultimately a subjective viewpoint? I won’t claim to have a definitive answer here, but a loose framework might well include consideration of some or all of the following elements:

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Race status

I think this has to be a factor. The greatest memories, invariably, are linked to events that have significant stature. For example, just a week ago, there was a finish that was every bit as close as the Van Riel / Smith lunge for the tape in San Francisco at OSTO Challenge Salou in Spain. And yet Guillem Montiel and Kurt McDonald’s equally lunge-bursting efforts will not be remembered in the same way.

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History

In part linked to my first point, sometimes the results of a sprint finish may represent a fundamental change in the history of the sport. Legends colliding for the first time, a ‘passing of the torch’ etc. Again, it’s difficult to escape from that subjectivity… but some races just stand the test of time.

How close is a close finish?

If we are talking about a sprint, then ultimately we are really referencing a (very) close finish. And yet, simply being the closest finish isn’t everything. The battle that led to that sprint, the tactics at play, the back-and-forth to get there can all leave a bigger impact than simply measuring how close the (usually metaphorical) photo finish was.

Marten Van Riel and Kyle Smith put on a show at the San Francisco T100.
[Photo Credit – PTO]

How many players?

I think one of the things that grabbed the attention on Saturday was that this was a 3-up sprint for the line. In middle and long-course racing in particular, sprint finishes are less common than in the short-course world – so having three athletes genuinely in contention for the win with the finish arch in sight, added further to the significance of what we saw.

Sprinting for the win?

If we are trying to get to the most select of groupings… then I think we have to be looking at sprint finishes for victory. That doesn’t mean that others don’t live large (remember Lionel Sanders and Rudy von Berg battling for second?), but when narrowing to your top five/ten, I think those memorable winning efforts, will always take the lead where rankings are concerned.

The X-Factor

Something of a catch-all here, but whether it’s a combination of all of the above, that the race is broadcast widely, a home crowd, athletes have captured a wider public consciousness or there’s some other external factor. Some sprint finishes just live in the memory.

What’s NOT included here – iconic finishes worth remembering

While we all love a sprint finish, I think it’s worth highlighting that some of the best and most iconic finishes in our sport are not the result of a sprint finish – but captured our imaginations or had us on the edge of our seats all the same.

Brownlee Brothers Cozumel 2016
Alistair and Jonny Brownlee in that famous moment in Cozumel in 2016 (Delly Carr Media/ITU).

The Julie Moss crawl at the 1982 Hawaii IRONMAN, the ‘Iron War’ of 1989 and the Brownlee brothers at the Cozumel Grand Final in 2016 are just three legendary moments in the history of the development of triathlon that would have to be part of any ‘best finishes’ listing for their lasting impacts. But for today at least, we are looking at those sprint finishes!

And with all that said, we can’t put it off any more – here are our picks for the greatest sprint finishes in triathlon history:

1 – London 2012: Nicola Spirig and Lisa Norden’s photo finish

For the majority of the population, sport doesn’t get bigger than the Olympic Games in terms of sporting status. At London 2012, Nicola Spirig (SUI), Lisa Norden (SWE) and Erin Densham (AUS) reached the blue carpet of the finish straight practically shoulder-to-shoulder, before Nicola edged out Lisa – assessed by photo finish – by the narrowest of margins, estimated to be 15 centimetres.

So close and so significant was the decision made based on that finish imagery, that the decision was subject to an appeal by the Swedish Triathlon Federation to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). CAS confirmed the results by dismissing that appeal.

For status and drama, for me at least, this is an easy pick as the greatest sprint finish in triathlon history.

2 – Hy-Vee Elite Cup Triathlon 2009: Simon Whitfield beats Frodeno and co. (with a bonus race…)

15+ years ago now, the Hy-Vee Elite Cup Triathlon in Des Moines, Iowa was THE big money race in the sport. First place alone was worth $200,000, which inflation-adjusted, is worth closer to $300k in today’s terms.

All of the Beijing 2008 medallists were present – Jan Frodeno, Simon Whitfield, Bevan Docherty – plus Javier Gomez, Kris Gemmell and many more.

With so much (financially) on the line, things got a little tactical in the final stages, ultimately leaving four athletes – Whitfield, Brad Kahlefeldt, Frodeno and Gemmell – in a desperate sprint for the tape. Whitfield took the biggest cheque, with all four separated by a single second in the official results.

Hy-Vee Triathlon Elite Cup 2009 Sprint Finish
Simon Whitfield sprints for the big money – Photo Credit: Delly Carr / ITU

Whether you agree (or not) with the ranking of this sprint finish in this list, it certainly resulted in an incredible image.

What it also did (and this is my not subtle way of squeezing in a sixth memory within my ‘top five’…), is get a little bit of revenge over Jan Frodeno, who surged past him for Olympic gold at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. That’s another classic, if only to remind yourself that Simon was dropped multiple times on the run in that race before surging back to the front, with Frodo the only man able to prevent him from claiming a second Olympic title.

3 – ITU World Triathlon London 2014: legends defeated

Over the years the World Triathlon Championship Series and its variously branded predecessors have delivered many exciting and close finishes. Of itself, that is not unusual in short-course racing. I’ve chosen to include this race from 2014 in London, because of some historical significance that many may have forgotten, and in perhaps even more cases, never been aware of.

Rewinding 10-15 years, the dominance of the Javier Gomez, Alistair Brownlee and Jonny Brownlee cannot be overstated. They towered over the sport like Federer (Javier), Nadal (Alistair) and Djokovic (Jonny) did in Grand Slam tennis. So extraordinary was their stranglehold, that until 31 May 2014, in a race in which all three started… one of them ALWAYS won.

Quite literally. Nobody had ever beaten all three on the same day. Until this happened.

I wrote an extensive article about this at the time, was interviewed about it live on the BBC broadcast on the day, and was also in the on-site commentary box to call the action to the many thousands watching on in Hyde Park. While I’m aware of the potential bias that could generate, the critical side of me still regards this as more than worthy of inclusion in my all-time best listing.

4 – ITU World Championship 1991: Miles Stewart surges to gold

Well, here’s one I didn’t expect to include when I started writing this piece. But when researching and finding the video, it was a reminder of an epic piece of triathlon history.

Since 2009, we’ve been used to the Formula 1 style season long points accumulation through the WTCS to determine the annual World Triathlon Champion. In 1991 however, and in only its third year, the ITU World Championship was a one day affair, with Gold Coast following in the footsteps of Avignon (1989) and Orlando (1990).

It’s worth noting of course, that this was long before triathlon’s debut at the Olympic Games which came in 2000, so this was the biggest race of the season for short course athletes.

At just 20 years of age, home athlete Miles Stewart surged to gold with a stunning final 200 metres – doing so in his home town. Quite a story – and when you watch the video below, you’ll see it was quite a finish too, enhanced by the excitement of the commentary.

5 – Tokyo Paralympic Games: Gretsch hunts down Parker

Not the first time, and likely not the last, that I have referenced this race on these pages. For good reason.

The Women’s PTWC (Wheelchair) finish at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games is simply one of the most incredible sporting moments I have ever seen. Kendall Gretsch, the multi-talented Team USA athlete who has both summer and winter Paralympic Games medals on her C.V. had spent the entire race chasing Australia’s Lauren Parker, starting the 5km in the racing chairs one minute and 20 seconds in arrears.

Reducing that gap throughout, she had Parker in her sights as the reached the final couple of corners at Odaiba Marine Park. Even as they reached the blue carpet with the finish line in sight however, the gap still looked too much to overcome… but inside the last five metres, the U.S. athlete finally edged ahead, and with it, earned the gold medal. Incredible drama.

During Saturday’s T100 broadcast, Jan Frodeno referenced on several occasions how being in the lead at the finish is ultimately the only thing that matters. That sums up the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games for Kendall Gretsch.

Honourable mentions!

The only problem with being asked to keep this feature to a top five… is that I have at least ten others that I’d like to squeeze in too. Saturday’s Men’s T100 in San Francisco would be one of them, and here are a few other strong contenders in no particular order. This is far from an exhaustive list, either:

IRONMAN New Zealand 1990. Back in 1990, there were very few official IRONMAN events on the calendar, and so this incredibly close finish between Paul Kiuru and Ken Glah was quite something.

ITU World Triathlon Grand Final 2013. Hyde Park, London hosted the ITU (now World Triathlon) finale in 2013, and the men’s standings meant that it was effectively a head-to-head between Javier Gomez and Jonny Brownlee for the World Championship title. Almost a minute clear of third place, Gomez broke the hearts of the British fans with a brilliant finish on the blue carpet. Alistair called his brother a ‘tactical numpty‘!

This race could, and perhaps should, be in the top five… but at the risk of including three races that were held in Hyde Park within my top five, I’m widening my net a little bit. But it was brilliant.

IRONMAN 70.3 Austria 2010. One of the most chaotic but closest finishes I’ve seen was the closing couple of minutes of this battle between Yvonne van Vlerken and Erika Csomor. Dodging age-group athletes, officials and navigating the twisting and narrow final metres, kudos for their awareness and concentration.

IRONMAN 70.3 St George 2021. This race probably came closest to the proving that a ‘5km long sprint finish’ is possible, than any other I can recall. As I said at the time:

The best race in history? No. The closest finish? No. The most important race? No, not that either.

But… if you can bottle what happened in that men’s race, then it was simply great sport

Challenge Roth 2003. While we’ve not yet seen a full-on sprint for victory at the IRONMAN World Championship in Hawaii, there have been some very close finishes at Europe’s legendary race in Roth. Back in 2003, Germany’s Lothar Leder (who was the first athlete to break eight hours for the iron-distance), was part of incredible finale with Chris McCormack, the German reaching the line inside Roth’s iconic finishing stadium just three seconds ahead of the Aussie.

New Plymouth ITU World Cup 2005. Let’s be honest, this has to be mentioned – primarily for the inspired addition of Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ soundtrack!

Super League Triathlon Grand Final Singapore 2019. It’s difficult to get a finish much closer than this:

Challenge Vieux Boucau 2023. This race provided a different aspect that the pressures of tough racing and a lung-bursting sprint can provide, as Mika Noodt’s legs failed him, with the finish line almost within touching distance.

IRONMAN Texas 2023 (and 2022). What’s in the water in The Woodlands?! This is seemingly the race that keeps on giving, where memorable finishes and stories are concerned. In 2022, Denmark’s Magnus Ditlev made his full-distance debut, where the uber-bike suffered a mechanical which cost him an estimated nine minutes. Undeterred, and after running almost the entire marathon in close proximity to Ben Hoffman, after trying to break each other multiple times in the final five miles, it was only in the final 200 metres that the American finally sprinted clear.

A year later, we were treated to another epic, as Rudy von Berg, Robert Wilkowiecki and Matthew Marquardt traded the lead over the final mile, as Rudy upped his pace to finally break the heart of the Pole. The Pro Women’s race was pretty emotional too.

WTS Abu Dhabi 2017. In ‘How did she manage that?!’ terms, Andrea Hewitt’s last gasp pass of Jodie Stimpson to take victory in the UAE is right up there.

IRONMAN Chattanooga 2015. While IRONMAN Chattanooga doesn’t doesn’t have the championship status of many of the examples on this list, the 2015 edition probably came the closest to matching that Kiuru / Glah finish from 1990, for one of the closest finishes in long distance history. Kiril Kotsegarov took the honours on that day…

And finally… Van Riel comes out on top!

Aside from the relief of taking the title in California last Saturday at T100 and retaining his unbeaten record in middle distance racing, victory for Marten Van Riel perhaps also but to rest a little history. That’s because the Belgian is no stranger to some incredible finishes – but in these two below at least, he came out on the wrong side of two memorable race sprints.

John Levison
Written by
John Levison
TRI247's Chief Correspondent, John has been involved in triathlon for well over 30 years, 15 of those writing on these pages, whilst he can also be found commentating for events across the UK.
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