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IRONMAN Kona 2023: Expert predictions and podium picks for a stacked World Championship

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It might be the toughest question to answer in the whole of sports this week – who wins the 2023 IRONMAN World Championship in Kona.

For the first time, the pro women take centre stage and all of the limelight on the Big Island, and what a race it promises to be.

One of the deepest fields in triathlon history will plunge into the water in Hawaii early on Saturday with opinion split on who will eventually take the tape in the early afternoon.

It would not be a reach to suggest that the potential winners number close to double figures, with the wide open betting odds just ramming home the fact it is a red-hot race.

Somebody has to put their reputations on the line and make our picks, and it is our Jenny Lucas-Hill and John Levison who get that thankless task. They have spent all week agonising about their selections, but now it’s time.

Here are their big-race verdicts on who makes the podium, and where an epic race will be decided.

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Favourites for the win

Jenny: It’s hard to recall a start list so packed full of potential champions – and that’s what will make the 2023 IRONMAN World Championship in Kona so exciting. It’s a race where anything could happen.

Defending champion Chelsea Sodaro will be looking to put any doubts about her ability to contend against a world-class field to rest after an up-and-down season.

Following a record-breaking performance at Challenge Roth, Daniela Ryf will be aiming to make history by securing her sixth IRONMAN World Championship title. Anne Haug might not have been able to catch Ryf in Roth, but her 2:44 run split cemented her status as one of the fastest runners in the sport. So a repeat of her 2019 charge to the top step could be repeated.

Lucy Charles-Barclay will be on a mission to end her second place streak and finally take home the title. And of course, we can’t discount the Kona rookies – Taylor Knibb and Kat Matthews – two of the most dynamic racers in the sport. They could very well flip the script and battle for the win.

As Daniela herself said in her recent interview with TRI247, this is so wide open. 

John: To my eyes, there’s a ‘super seven’ who will be the focus of this discussion, and I’d be amazed if the winner did not come from this group. However, I said something similar 12 months ago and Chelsea Sodaro ripped up that script!

With four previous Kona wins, and a ‘perfect’ race at Challenge Roth this year, Daniela Ryf has to be in the discussion. At her best she’s perhaps unbeatable, yet anything less than that may not be enough on Saturday – such is the depth of this field.

Can Anne Haug break another record? After Sam Laidlow claimed the youngest Men’s IRONMAN World Champion status in Nice, Haug (40) would be the oldest winner – male or female – in IRONMAN World Champs history. Her 2023 season gives no indication that she’s on the slide either.

Historically at least, the biggest predictor of Kona success has been previous Big Island performance. On that basis, I can’t overlook the defending champion Chelsea Sodaro as a potential winner. Her trump card is the run, but her success 12 months ago was also due to strong performances across all disciplines. Her season has been up and down, but none of that would be remembered with a repeat win here.

To the three previous winners, I’m going to add a debutant with perhaps the potential to win it – and that’s Great Britain’s Kat Matthews. 70.3 Worlds clearly shows form, and with her full-distance experience and consistency in this format, she could follow Chelsea in making it back-to-back rookie wins.

Live outsiders

Jenny: Fenella Langridge could be one to watch. Her sixth place debut at Kona last year proves her more than capable of thriving in the Big Island’s tough conditions and her fourth-place finish in that stacked field in Roth this year shows she can contend with the best of them. 

Sarah True returns to Kona with a score to settle after DNFs in 2019 and 2022. She was crowned European Champion at Ironman Frankfurt earlier this year, proving her current form. Those DNFs might just provide the firepower she needs to improve on her previous best fourth-place Kona finish. 

John: Taylor Knibb looks set to play a major role in Saturday’s race and could quite realistically lead for much of the day. On balance though, I think she’s more likely to be holding on in a podium battle in the late stages of the marathon, rather than running clear to an inaugural iron-distance victory on Ali’i Drive.

I’m going to include Laura Philipp in my contenders. She’s a class act, will be there or thereabouts in the swim before her strengths come on dry land. With the depth here though, I’m not sure if the win is within reach this year.

Lucy Charles-Barclay has never not finished on the Kona podium. My head is telling me that an extended period away from run training post-Kraichgau will again put the top step of the podium just out of reach… while also thinking, she did a rather impressive job of returning from an even more serious setback last year!

The keys to victory: How will the race be decided?

Jenny: If we see a repeat of the untouchable bike form Ryf showed at Roth, the key to victory will be who’s got the legs to keep up and stay within striking distance. But we’ve also got the Knibb factor to consider. If Taylor can stay on Lucy Charles-Barclay’s feet for the swim, the powerful duo could work together and make quite the break for it at the start of the bike. Leaving Ryf with more work to do to get to the front.

With so many strong contenders looking to take control of the race, the question of who will take the victory could come down to the run. We’ll see the strong bikers trying to stay away, the uber runners charging their way through the field and the infamous Kona Energy Lab looking for victims to claim along the way. Expect a marathon of epic battles and potential blow-ups. 

John: Will Taylor swim with Lucy? Maybe, maybe not – but she’s unlikely to be too far back either way. She will surely bike to the front in double-quick time and potentially create an exciting breakaway duo… or simply go solo. The degree to which athletes react to the ‘Knibb factor’, or not, could lead to some interesting dynamics.

For Daniela, I think the swim will give an early indication of her day. At Roth she swam with Fenella (and almost two minutes quicker than Chelsea), yet was three minutes slower than the defending champion here 12 months ago in the water. When her swim is on, she’s very difficult to stop – and unlikely to be ready to hand the ‘triathlon’s best cyclist’ crown to the young American just yet!

Like Jenny, I agree that the run could be incredible. The prospect of potentially Knibb, Charles-Barclay and Ryf being hunted by Haug, Matthews, Sodaro and Philipp has all the ingredients for the next ‘Iron War’. With full focus on the women, grab your popcorn for this one

Verdict, predictions and podium picks

Jenny: Picking a top three feels a bit like trying to decide what pastry to choose in a really good bakery: I kind of want them all. But push comes to shove, I think we’ll see Daniela reclaim her Kona crown – her unstoppable form in Roth proving she’s very much still got it. The ever-determined Anne Haug will chase Ryf down but will run out of tarmac, taking second place. And Kat Matthews, who should never be underestimated, will put in a powerful debut performance on the Big Island to round off the podium. But to quote Taylor Knibb: “We’ll see!”

  1. Daniela Ryf
  2. Anne Haug
  3. Kat Matthews

John: I’m truly excited that I am really struggling to come up with three podium names. If any of seven athletes I’ve mentioned won, I wouldn’t be surprised, and that’s incredibly exciting for the sport and you, the viewer. Indeed, take those athletes and list any three in any order you want, and I think you could make a reasonable case for your pick. But, here goes with my picks:

  1. Daniela Ryf
  2. Chelsea Sodaro
  3. Anne Haug
Daniela Ryf IRONMAN World Championship St George
Our experts belief it will be a sixth title for Daniela Ryf (Tom Pennington/Getty Images for IRONMAN).
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