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Commentary: Give Women a Stage, They’ll Put on a Show

If yesterday’s race at the Ironman World Championship proved anything, it’s that the women’s pro race is not a sideshow - it’s the main event.

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My favorite part about yesterday’s race was not seeing Chelsea Sodaro absolutely blow everyone’s mind. It wasn’t the enthusiastic fist-pump Fenella Langridge gave as she cruised past crowds of spectators Googling “Who is Fenella Langridge?” It wasn’t even seeing the final finisher, which is usually the emotional crescendo of every Ironman race.

No, my favorite moment happened in the media room, when a fellow member of the triathlon media scrolled through some photos and said “Oh, yeah. That’s right, there were men racing today, too.”

If you’re a woman in triathlon, you know exactly why that moment mattered. For years, the women’s pro race at the Ironman World Championship has been a sideshow. Before 2022, there were fewer qualifying spots for women (“There’s no room on the pier for that” was the sad excuse), and the 30 or so professional women who did get the opportunity to race were sandwiched between the pro men and the age-group men. Clean racing was hard to come by for the pro women, who had to play a constant game of Frogger around a hodgepodge of slower pro males and the pointy end of the age-group men’s field.

I’m not exaggerating when I say this – at the pre-race press conference before this year’s event, Lionel Sanders shared a story about how his slow swim in 2015 meant that his exit coincided with Daniela Ryf’s fast swim, and Ryf “aggressively” told him to get out of the way. “I was affecting the women’s race and that’s not how it should be,” he said.

And even when there was a good women’s race, we often didn’t see it. Time after time, the most dramatic moments in the women’s event didn’t even make the livestream. On more than one occasion, the broadcast would cut away from a thrilling shoulder-to-shoulder battle at the front of the women’s race to show the men’s fifth-place finisher crossing the finish line.

But if yesterday’s race proved anything, it’s that the women are not a sideshow. They’re the freaking main event. This was one of the tightest women’s fields in history, and that made for nine hours of thrilling, edge-of-your-seat racing. Could Lucy handle the intensity of racing after being sidelined by injury? When would Daniela Ryf make her move on the bike? Who was this crazy Brit fist-pumping in pole position? And we’re all in agreement there’s no way Chelsea Sodaro can hold this pace for a full marathon, right?

The answers: Yes, mile 80, Fenella, and you’re damn right she can. Where other races try to manufacture drama, yesterday’s race simply had it. If you’ve been paying attention to women’s triathlon at all, you know that drama has always been there, it’s just been hiding in the shadows of the men’s race.

If you’ve been paying attention to women’s triathlon at all, you know that drama has always been there, it’s just been hiding in the shadows of the men’s race.

By giving women the opportunity to race on a historic course under historic circumstances, by giving them their own stage to really show what they could do, we got to see professional triathletes at their very best. And yes, we could actually see them – from start to finish, we all got to witness every second of the action. The women were the main event, as they should be.

This is what the 50 Women to Kona movement was fighting for all those years – equal spots on the Kona pier as the men’s professional race, equal opportunity for clean racing, and equal airtime. This wasn’t just a numbers game, it was a full-on investment in the future of triathlon. This is how we grow the sport – if you want more women to become triathletes, women need to see themselves as triathletes. Simply look at the race that played out yesterday – a new mother won, a pair of feisty women battled it out on the bike (and had fun along the way), a 39-year-old superstar ran her way into third place. Icons, every one of them.

And yes, there were men racing yesterday, too – a handful of men’s age-group fields to balance out the pier for both days of the two-day event. Their race and their accomplishments have meaning, too. But for those who want to complain it’s unfair that the men had to race on the so-called “women’s day,” I invite you to consider that this is how a lot of women have always felt. Besides, these men should be honored – they get to say they were on the actual course on the actual day where history was made, and that’s pretty cool.

Ironman has committed to the two-day format for at least one more year. But now that we’ve seen what this does for the women’s field, there’s no way we’re going back to the way things used to be.

The women are finally standing in their own spotlight, and we can’t take our eyes off of them.

Can’t get enough Ironman World Championship coverage? Visit our Kona Hub for news, analysis, history, photo galleries, and so much more – new stories added daily from our team on the ground at the Big Island.