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The X Factor: Can Taylor Knibb rewrite the Kona script on her IRONMAN World Championship debut?

John Levison ponders the question everybody is asking

Chief Correspondent
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We are less than two weeks away now from the Women’s IRONMAN World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, and the name on the start list that seems to have generated the most discussion and interest is that of Taylor Knibb.

Already qualified (for triathlon at least!) for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, when the 2x IRONMAN 70.3 World Champion withdrew from the WTCS Championship Finals in Pontevedra, that gave rise to plenty of chat that the 25-year-old would take up the invitation for Hawaii earned by winning the 2022 70.3 Worlds. That of course is now confirmed.

So what are her prospects, and is she a realistic contender to take home the title and the $125,000 first prize on Ali’i Drive?

I’ve heard views ranging from ‘no chance’ to ‘Kona is now boring… Knibb racing equals game over’, so here’s my take on what is certainly an incredibly exciting addition to an already stacked field.

The challenge of the double

The standard small print of “Past performance is no guarantee of future results” is a regularly quoted one in the world of finance and investing. Can it tell us anything of the scale of the challenge ahead if Knibb is to not just race, but potentially win on October 14?

Having retained her IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship title in style in Finland in August, what chance making that an IRONMAN World Championship double, in the same season? Historically at least, that has proven to be an incredibly tough challenge.

Looking through history (noting that the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship was first held in 2006), there is a very short list of athletes who have achieved that feat:

  • Craig Alexander – 2011 (Las Vegas and Kona)
  • Leanda Cave – 2012 (Las Vegas and Kona)
  • Jan Frodeno – 2015 (Zell am See and Kona)
  • Daniela Ryf – 2015 (Zell am See and Kona),
  • Daniela Ryf – 2017 (Chattanooga and Kona)
  • Daniela Ryf – 2018 (Port Elizabeth and Kona)
  • Kristian Blummenfelt – 2022 (St George and St George) **

(** Technically, Kristian won the (delayed) 2021 IRONMAN Championship and then the 2022 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship, though both were held in the 2022 calendar year. As the 2022 IRONMAN World Championship in Kona fell between those two races, he didn’t hold both titles concurrently however).

That is clearly a very elite list of athletes to potentially be a part of.

What it also highlights, again, is just how exceptional Daniela Ryf has been over both distances, to have completed the double three times over four seasons, between 2015 and 2018. Winning four back-to-back Kona titles between 2015 and 2018, the Angry Bird will be amongst the toughest challengers for Knibb, especially if she can reproduce the sort of performance which saw her add a fifth IRONMAN World Championship last year in St George.

Daniela Ryf Collins Cup 2021
Daniela Ryf in action for Team Europe in the first ever Collins Cup in Samorin, Slovakia.

Having produced “my best performance ever, a perfect day” at Challenge Roth in late June, the Swiss star – whilst a distant ninth in Lahti – cannot be ruled out. Having been comprehensively beaten by Knibb in all three of their middle-distance match ups to date, the Swiss athlete will no doubt relish the opportunity to turn those tables on a course and distance she knows so well.

Championship performer

One of the aspects of Taylor Knibb’s racing history that I think is impressive, is that more often than not, she performs well at the biggest races.

Taylor Knibb
World Junior Champion in 2017

If you look back at history, as a I regularly do, Taylor’s top-tier performances are not limited to the past two or three years. Check out this impressive selection of major results from her C.V. For example, she had three World Championship victories to her name before she had even turned 21:

  • 2015 World Junior Championship – Silver
  • 2016 World Junior Championship – Gold
  • 2017 World Junior Championship – Gold
  • 2017 World Triathlon Series Edmonton – Second (while still a Junior)
  • 2018 World U23 Championship – Gold
  • 2021 WTCS Yokohama – Winner (securing Olympic selection for Tokyo)
  • 2021 Olympic Games MTR – Silver, after superb third leg for Team USA
  • 2021 Championship Finals Edmonton – Winner
  • 2021 Collins Cup – Match winner and fastest athlete
  • 2021 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship – Bronze
  • 2022 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship – Gold
  • 2023 PTO US Open – Winner
  • 2023 Paris Test Event – Fifth (securing Olympic selection for Paris, a week before Lahti)
  • 2023 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship – Gold
Taylor Knibb wins IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships 2023
[Photo Credit – Nigel Roddis Getty Images for IRONMAN]

Knibb the complete triathlete?

Still just 25 years of age, there’s every reason to believe that the best years of Taylor Knibb’s sporting career are ahead of her.

That said, as well as the consistency of results highlighted above, Knibb is also consistently strong across all three disciplines. While you can make plenty of arguments for and against it as a measurement tool, one data point of note is that by the PTO’s World Ranking System at least, at the time of writing, Taylor is the only female athlete who features in their top-10 rating across all three disciplines.

It’s difficult to quantify exactly what that can tell us about her Kona prospects – she’s never even raced the distance, after all – but she does in potential terms at least, bring an impressive array of tools to the iron-distance table. This is not the metaphorical equivalent of a boxer with limited skills, with little more than a puncher’s chance, hoping to land a lucky shot.

While her cycling is a standout (hence the potential triathlon / cycling double goal for Paris 2024) and sees her currently ranked #1 by the PTO’s data, she has shown she can deliver in the water and on the run too.

Taylor Knibb Trek-Segafredo
Photo Credit: Trek-Segafredo

On top form (70.3 Worlds and PTO US Open in 2022), she has been able to stick close to the feet of none other than Lucy Charles-Barclay, though the Paris Test Event swim was certainly not something she’ll be wanting to repeat next July.

Similarly on the run, while I don’t think she will be actively looking to go stride-for-stride with the likes of Anne Haug or Kat Matthews over 42km on the Big Island, she gave up barely two minutes to Tamara Jewett (Lahti) and Ashleigh Gentle (PTO US Open) in recent races, two of the most consistent speedsters over the middle distance. Bear in mind, she only had surgery for a stress fracture in her foot earlier this year.

Big-name backing

Did he know something we didn’t?! Earlier this year, Kristian Blummenfelt was asked who he thought was the best triathlete in the world right now, when interviewed on the How They Train podcast.

His answer was Taylor Knibb, commenting, “She is still young, so if she can stay injury-free, I think she has a massive potential.”

Two IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship titles and an Olympic silver medal would be regarded as a career for some, but Knibb is certainly showing all the signs to becoming one of the greats in the sport, as that potential is being realised and turned into headline results.

Kristian has a pretty good insight into how to be competitive across all distances and formats, after all.

IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship 2023 Start Lists Taylor Knibb Kristian Blummenfelt
Taylor Knibb and Kristian Blummenfelt

Race strategy and the Knibb factor

I think one of the most interesting aspects of Knibb’s addition to the start list, is the number of ways in which she could potentially impact the race.

Historically at least, a young, iron-distance debutant – in Hawaii no less – would rarely be considered a threat. Even younger than Knibb however, Sam Laidlow has a Kona second and an IRONMAN World Championship (Nice) on his C.V. As for the ‘rookie’ curse in Hawaii, both Chelsea Sodaro and Gustav Iden won first time out 12 months ago on the Big Island – and each had only one previous full-distance race on their record.

Whatever happens to Knibb in Hawaii, it is highly unlikely to come from a place of relatively anonymity all day.

  • If she has a great swim, will others feel pressure to react, and potentially feel they have to push harder, earlier on the bike than planned?
  • Will it be an asset or a liability to Lucy Charles-Barclay? Let’s not forget, in 2021 in what I still regard as her finest ever performance, LCB set the fastest time across all disciplines at the St George 70.3 World Champs. While we haven’t seen that level of form (yet) this year, the prospect of a bike breakaway companion of the highest order – at a race where you’ve spent many hours solo on the lava fields – could be a huge positive.
  • How will she cope in the conditions? We saw what happened in Dallas at the 2022 US Open, but Taylor was far from alone in suffering in some extreme conditions there.
  • As for the marathon, I doubt anyone – including Taylor – really has a good feel for her prospects there. The Norwegians almost both came unstuck thinking that Sam Laidlow would blow up last year. If Knibb does reach T2 solo, how much of a gap are you confident of catching?
IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship 2021 / Taylor Knibb
Photo by Donald Miralle for IRONMAN

And alongside all of that, this is almost a can’t lose situation for the American, with the primary objectives of her 2023 season already secured. She can race , relatively at least, pressure-free, explaining:

“This is very much the icing for me, it’s my dessert and I love dessert! Because I have had my productive part of the season, this is the bonus. Whilst here are a lot of unknowns in IRONMAN, and there are obviously ways to mitigate and prepare, you also never know what is going to happen on race day, but I’m excited.”

Popcorn at the ready

Returning to my introductory comments then, there are many reasons why the addition of Taylor Knibb to the 2023 IRONMAN World Championship start list is an incredibly exciting one.

Sport is typically at its best when there is drama, intrigue and we really are left pondering just what might happen. Knibb’s addition adds a little extra frisson, to an already great mix of athletes, and I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.

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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