Gallery: Daniela Ryf becomes first to win three Ironman 70.3 Championships with victory in Chattanooga
Daniela Ryf became the first person to win three Ironman 70.3 World Championships on Saturday in one of the biggest outdoor events in Chattanooga history.
The win makes Ryf, 30, of Switzerland, one of the most decorated female athletes in Ironman history. But she's not locked in on her legacy, she said, instead choosing to focus and train for each race as a singular event.
"I don't try to count the titles," Ryf said. "That doesn't mean that much to me. To me, it's more that I won today, and that means a lot."
It was Ryf's fifth world championship in an Ironman event, with world titles in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 and two wins in the world championship in Kona, Hawaii.
Early Saturday at Ross's Landing, live banjo music played, a lifeguard did handstands on his stand-up paddleboard and a spectator blew a vuvuzela as thousands lined the riverfront to take in the start of the women's race.
Nearly 1,700 female athletes, many in wetsuits, jumped in the chilly Tennessee River for the staggered start near the Southern Belle Riverboat.
"When I came out here and saw everything, I was humbled," Chattanooga Sports Committee president Tim Morgan said. "It has exceeded our expectations."
In last year's race, Ryf finished fourth after Holly Lawrence gained more than four minutes on her in the bike leg and claimed victory. The two entered the race as favorites, but Lawrence wasn't able to overpower the field.
She finished the swim more than two minutes behind the leaders and struggled early in the bike leg before dropping out in a surprise move.
"I just didn't have the fight today," Lawrence told race officials at the time.
She wrote an apology on Instagram to her supporters, stating it was the worst swim of her career and she didn't feel any better on the bike.
Ryf credited Lawrence for much of her success on the world championship stage.
"I'm quite grateful for her. She helped motivate me last year with her performance," Ryf said. "It really motivated me for this race. Of course, I would have liked to race her [this year]."
Ryf overcame obstacles of her own. A back injury sidelined her earlier this year, but she is back and peaking in prime time for Ironman athletes. The Ironman World Championship next month follows Saturday's world championship and would be Ryf's third consecutive title in that race.
She races for the Bahrain Endurance team owned by the prince of Bahrain, Sheikh Nasser Al Khalifa.
Al Khalifa came to Chattanooga with the team and will take part in today's men's race.
"I'm super happy and super proud of my team," the prince said. "We put this team together to be the best in the world, and they keep proving themselves."
The success of the team and the signing of Ryf wasn't something Al Khalifa had in mind when he began cycling and then got interested in triathlons.
"When I started, I saw this as an adventure and something I wanted to do," he said. "And then the normal thing that happens to everyone happened. We got addicted to Ironman, and we wanted to get faster and faster. I saw the potential in creating this team to represent my nation of Bahrain around the world."
Ryf took a commanding lead during the bike leg and gained time on her rivals, finishing more than eight minutes ahead of them at the start of the run.
Emma Pallant, a running specialist, finished second with a time of 4:18:36. Laura Philipp improved on a Top 10 finish in last year's race to round out the podium. The second- through fifth-place finishers all came in within four minutes of each other, with Sarah True taking fourth place as the top American.
True began racing in Ironman events again this year after competing in shorter triathlons for nearly a decade. Her first event was the Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga in May, where she placed second.
"The race earlier this year got me thinking about what I wanted to do with my triathlon career," True said. "I had a good experience here. I learned so much during that race, and the idea of coming back to the world championships in North America [for the first time in four years] got me excited."
True, from New Hampshire, has stayed with the family of Ryan Schumacher during both her races in Chattanooga. Schumacher will be competing in today's race in what will likely be his last race as an age-grouper before turning professional.
"[The family and I] really hit it off when I came earlier," True said. "I sent them a note to let them know I was coming back. I really enjoyed their company. They opened up their home to me in the best possible way. These races wouldn't happen without the community support."
For Chattanooga, the race further added to its reputation as an outdoor mecca.
"This is defining the capabilities of our community," Morgan said. "If we can host an Ironman 70.3 World Championship, what else can we do? I can assure you, we're going to find out."
Contact staff writer Mark Pace at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.