Kona swim: Waves, swell and tricky sighting top the challenges

You can’t win a full-distance race during the swim, but you can lose one.

At the IRONMAN World Championship, you need to master the heat, waves and swell, difficult sighting, and swim without a wetsuit. That only begins to explain what’s so special about the Kona swim…


The course

The course is a single out-and-back swim in Kailua Bay. It’s a wide-open, deep-water start heading out into the ocean to the turn boat and back. There are only really the swim buoys for sighting, but there are landmarks on the shoreline, such as large hotels and the boat is easy to see.

The water is warm, hence the lack of wetsuits, but the saltwater keeps swimmers buoyant and swim skins worn over trisuits do provide additional buoyancy.

Kona Swim Course 2022
[Kona Swim Course – Credit: IRONMAN]

Technique and tactics

Swimming in a straight line is perhaps the most important factor. In rough water, it may be necessary to sight more often. Waves can also disrupt arm recovery, but as long as the underwater pull is powerful, that shouldn’t be an issue.

Andy Horsfall-Turner, current PTO ranked number one swimmer (and coach), said: “Normally in open water you should sight once every 6-12 strokes, but I would normally move to more of a 4-8 stroke target in rough water.”

If the swell prevents good sighting of the buoys, swimmers may be looking for some fast, reliable feet to pull them along in the right direction. In fact, the weaker swimmers will rely on this to help conserve energy. Positioning at the start will be key to finding the right set of feet. Expect some jostling when the gun goes, but that’s likely to settle down quickly.

IRONMAN World Championship 2019 / Kona 2019
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for IRONMAN

Course records

The swim records were both set in 2018 to Jan Sibbersen (46:29) and Lucy Charles-Barclay (48:14). Charles-Barclay went on to finish second overall to Daniela Ryf. Sibbersen, on the other hand, a former Pro athlete competing in the 40-44 age group, finished 1,135th

Sibbersen, was a German national team swimmer as well as a Pro triathlete. He had missed the record in previous years and came back to Kona at the age of 43 after training for two years specifically to break the record. 

The conditions were perfect, a slack tide, hardly any current and cloud cover to bring the temperature down a little. He commented at the time that there’s no chance of breaking the record on a day with waves and current – which is what athletes usually expect.

When he got out of the water, Sibbersen sat down and threw up in the changing tent. Therein lies the reason why Pro male triathletes won’t be prepared to chase the record. The effort involved versus the benefit isn’t worth it. 

Charles-Barclay, however, swam solo and exited the water nearly three minutes ahead of Lauren Brandon. She was 38 seconds inside the previous record, which had stood since 1999. She then rode faster than the previous bike course record, but Ryf went 12 minutes faster. 

Charles-Barclay tends to always race from the front; she’s simply that much better than everyone else at the moment.

NICE, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 07: Lucy Charles-Barclay of Britain leads the swim section of Ironman 70.3 World Championship Women's race on September 7, 2019 in Nice, France. (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images for IRONMAN)
Lucy Charles-Barclay – Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images for IRONMAN

Breaking the record 

Depending on the conditions, Charles-Barclay could break her own record this year. Her swimming may have actually improved during lockdown and possibly had some additional focus as a result of her injury. The chances of anyone else breaking it are very unlikely.

The key contenders in the men’s race are all better known for their cycling than their swimming. Unless the conditions are perfect and an elite group can work together, we’re unlikely to see the record go this year. Although, given the quality of the field, the likes of Daniel Bækkegård, Florian Angert and Josh Amberger could get close.

Current PTO number one swimmer, Horsfall-Turner is waiting for his opportunity in the future. He said: “I think there are maybe three or four of us that given the perfect day could dip under 46:29. Two of the others would be Lukasz Wojt and Richard Varga.”

Having swum 44:29 in ferociously wavy conditions at IRONMAN Wales last month, he has a chance.

Daniel Baekkegard

Daniel Bækkegård


Baekkegard, Angert and Amberger will be motivated to get a head start on the likes of Kristian Blummenfelt, Patrick Lange, Magnus Ditlev and Lionel Sanders. 

If Charles-Barclay isn’t first out of the water, it will be a shock. Likely chasers are Rachel Zilinskas and Brandon.

TRI247’s Kona course guides:

Helen Gorman
Written by
Helen Gorman
Helen is part of the editorial team at TRI247 after spending ten years as a Press Officer with British Triathlon. She's mostly found at a pool, sometimes breaking world masters records.
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