Women of triathlon

Over the years the women of triathlon have come a long way

In the early days of the Ironman it was mostly men who took part in the race. Lyn Lemaire was the first woman to complete the Ironman distance. That was in 1979 and because she was the only woman in the race and by default will always be known as the first female Ironman winner.

There is a lot of history that people are not aware of when it comes to the women of triathlon and endurance sports in general.

Every year there are more and more amazing female triathletes who not only manage to hold their own in a race as grueling as the Ironman Triathlon, but seem to be edging closer and closer to the results posted by the best male pros on the planet.

It’s hard to believe that less than 5 decades ago women were not allowed to take part in endurance events like the Boston Marathon as it was deemed beyond the female athlete’s ability and such races were strictly an all-male domain.

Breaking into this forbidden territory was an important step as far as women and endurance racing in any sport was concerned. It all began with some of the first women marathoners who would not accept their exclusion from races like the Boston Marathon.

To fully grasp how far women have come in the world of triathlon, it’s important to first know the story of a handful of women endurance runners who were instrumental in changing the way the world viewed women and their role in endurance sports in general.


In 1966, Sports Illustrated published the story of a woman named Bobbie(Roberta)Gibb who had hidden in some bushes and waited for about half the men to pass in the running of the Boston Marathon and then slipped into the race.

She finished the marathon, but her time was not recorded and she was not recognized as she did not wear a race number and was not an official entry.

Many people believe that it was Kathrine Switzer who was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, but actually she was the first one to be “officially entered” when she ran Boston in 1967. It was actually Robert’s gutsy move that helped inspire katherine to enter the race.

Race official trying to remove Katherine Switzer from course.

When Katherine read the entry rules, there was no mention that it was for men only that women were forbidden to enter. It was just assumed that it was beyond their capabilities so it was never actually stipulated in the rules.

When Katherine Switzer took part in the 1967 Boston Marathon it made world headlines. Katherine had officially entered and wore a race number but her time of around 4:20 was considered unofficial because she was a woman. The BAA(Boston Athletic Association)chose to ignore her accomplishment.

At one point in the 1967 Boston Marathon a race official ran onto the course and tried to physically stop Katherine Switzer from running once he realized a woman had dared to enter the sanctity of the male-only event. Her football playing boyfriend intervened and threw a body block and knocked the official off his feet and Katherine went on to finish the marathon.

In 1969, three women including Nina Kuscsik ran the Boston Marathon unofficially. Katherine stayed away for a few years, but returned in 1970 and along with four other women ran in Boston. This time Katherine’s time of 3:34 was officially recorded.

After taking part in the 1971 race, Nina Kuscsik, Katherine Switzer, and a woman named Sara Mae Berman joined forces to try and have the ban on women in the Boston Marathon officially lifted and also championed the cause for the inclusion of women’s long distance events in the Olympics.

It was the efforts of these early trail-blazers that resulted in the running of the first women’s Olympic Marathon in 1984.


While all this was going on in the world of running, the very first triathlon was taking place. It was called the Mission Bay Triathlon and on September 25, 1974 46 people entered the historic race.

A woman named Eileen Water was 23rd in that race and it appears that she was the first woman in the history of the sport to cross a triathlon finish line. Of all the women of triathlon who have entered the sport, Eileen Water was the trail-blazer.

In February 1978, the very first Ironman Triathlon took place and there were 12 entries and they were all male.

In 1979 15 people stood on the start line of the 2nd Ironman race and one of them was Lyn Lemaire a championship cyclist who was from (would you believe)Boston.

Lyn place sixth overall and was the first woman to cross the Ironman finish line. Actually, her time was quite spectacular when you consider it was a rough water swim and the equipment of the day and knowledge of training and diet were a long way from what is available today.

Women of triathlon

Women are just as tough as men when it comes to triathlon.

Her finish time was 12:55:38 with a 1:16:20 swim, a 6:30 bike, and a 5:10 marathon. I suppose it helped that Lyn biked from Vancouver, British Columbia to Los Angeles in her senior year of college. She also held the U.S. woman’s record for a 25-mile time trial when she posted a 1:06.7 in 1976.

To the credit of the creators of the Ironman at “no time” were women ever considered unable to compete in the race. They were “never” told that it was beyond their capabilities.

It probably has a lot to do with the fact that Judy Collins, the wife of John Collins one of the creators of the Ironman, was an athlete in her own right and also took part in that very first triathlon in Mission Bay in 1974 along with John Collins.


In the 30-plus years that the Ironman Triathlon has been taking place there have been so many great female triathletes who have entered the pro ranks. Even in the very beginning their were pro women of triathlon making their mark on the sport.

There were the Puntos Twins of the 1980’s, Laurie Bowden in the 1990’s, Paula Newby-Fraser who would win eight Ironman Hawaii championships, Natashcha Badmann(the Swiss Miss) who won her sixth Ironman Hawaii in 2005 and the list goes on and on.

Now there are dozens and dozens of female pros taking part in Ironman races all over the world.

One thing is certain, there is no longer any question that woman have what it takes to compete in endurance events. As a matter of fact, there is not all that much separating the top men from the top women and one wonders if the day will come when a pro woman triathlete is first-overall in an Ironman Triathlon.


So will a woman ever win an official M-dot Ironman Triathlon outright?

Many people think it’s simply not possible for a woman to match the physical strength that seems to keep men one step(or spin of the wheel)ahead of the women on the bike course and therein lies the biggest difference. The most gifted women of triathlon might come close, but the 112-mile bike might make it impossible.

The swim is not that big of a factor because women can stay close in the swim. It’s much the same in the run. The Ironman Marathon takes endurance, stamina, and courage, and women have shown over and over that they are not lacking any of these attributes.

So just how do they catch up to the men?

Well, they can always do what the East Germans did in the 70’s and 80’s and pump themselves full of steroids. After all, in 1976 the oddly broad-shouldered women of East Germany won 11 of 13 swim medals.

In many cases East German athletes were administered steroids by coaches and sports federation officials without their knowledge. It was virtually involuntary drug abuse and had serious side effects that ruined many lives for the sake of athletic superiority that was meaningless anyway.

Heidi Krieger was a GDR shot-putter who was given so many testosterone injections that she finally threw in the towel and opted for a gender change and went by the name of Andreas Krieger.

So is the only way a woman will ever be able to win an Ironman Triathlon outright?

Of course not.

This is just an extreme example of the perceived need to change the physical make-up of a woman so she has the physical strength of a man.


In many ways the Russians and Germans had if figured out when they were dominating so many Olympic events and it was not all about drugs.

When they spotted a young athlete with potential they were introduced to training regimens at a very young age. These “sports camps” would mold them into world and Olympic champions.

So to be the world’s best at any sport it only makes sense that the basic fundamentals should be learned at a young age. In other words pre-teens and teens should be introduced into the world of fitness as a way of life early on.

women of triathlon

Chrissie Wellington at the Challenge Roth finish line.

Find me a pro woman triathlete who does the 2.4 mile swim in around 50 minutes and chances are you will find someone who grew up in and around the water and perhaps swam competitively.

Find a woman who is capable of stressing herself physically and mentally during the Ironman bike and marathon and you will most likely find someone who has done just that in training more than once and who has perhaps trained “out of the box” in order to be head and shoulders above anyone else.

When you find that woman she might tell you that the right coach came along at the right time and was instrumental in sending her down the path to athletic success.

Find a woman with all these stars lining up in her Universe and you will most likely find Chrissie Wellington.


Chrissie was a self-proclaimed “sporty kid” who embraced sports as a way of life for it’s social aspects and not so much to be a star. She was also a competitive swimmer in her teens. This early development do doubt was a big factor in molding Chrissie into the athlete she became.

She experienced her first triathlon in May, 2004 and soon after began a sabbatical in Kathmandu, Nepal at an altitude of 1350m. While in Nepal she mountain-biked and ran around the surrounding villages on almost a daily basis. During one religious holiday she biked 1400k from Lhasa the capital of Tibet to Kathmandu and navigated mountain passes over 5000m high though all types of weather.

She reached Base Camp on the Tibetan side of Mount Everest at 5208m(17,090 feet). Talk about training out of the box. There is no doubt that this time in Nepal helped get Chrissie where she is today. One can only imagine the mental strength that she gained from this that puts her head and shoulders above the world’s most accomplished pro women.

You can have the all the potential in the world, but somewhere on your journey it’s crucial to have guidance that will set you out in the right direction.

For Chrissie this may have come from one of her earliest triathlon coaches, Brett Sutton, who was instrumental in heading Chrissie toward her first Ironman Triathlon and the rest is history. It’s probably safe to say that behind all the great women of triathlon there is an excellent coach involved.

He believed there was no need for her to do long distance training and that she was ready. There is a huge lesson here that sometimes “quality” in training is much more important than “quantity.

In her very first attempt Chrissie won Ironman Hawaii and in July of 2011 did the Iron-distance Roth Challenge in a time of 8:18:13.

She set a world record in the marathon with a time of 2:44:35 in the Roth triathlon. Only four men beat her to the finish line and only the race winner, Andreas Raelert ran a faster marathon time and not by much.

So could Chrissie have won an M-dot Ironman Triathlon outright? You bet she could have. She had all the tools but decided to retire from the sport.

Could she perhaps have won one of these races outright?

Winning time Ironman Korea 2011..................8:48:21
Winning time Ironman Canada 2011.................8:28:09
Winning time Ironman Ironman Lanzarote 2011......8:30:34
Winning time Ironman Lake Placid 2011............8:25:15
Winning time Ironman Utah 2011...................8:32:03

Chrissie's personal best.................. ...8:18:13

I guess we’ll never know what might have happened.

Read more about women triathletes.

Check out Ironman.com for training tips are race info.

This entry was posted in Inspiration, NEWS and tagged by Ray. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ray

Ray hasn’t stopped since his first Ironman in Kona, 1984. He has since run 14 more Ironman races, authored 5 Triathlon books, and is now bringing together a passionate community of triathletes. Contact Ray at ray@ironstruck.com

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