Quite simply, Switzerland’s Daniela Ryf is the most successful Ironman competitor of recent years. Since 2014, she’s scooped no fewer than nine world titles, spread across both half and full distance. And there’s no guarantee that she’s ready to stop just yet.
Who is Daniela Ryf?
Daniela Ryf was a reliable, consistent World Triathlon Series competitor until one day August day in 2012 changed the course of her triathlon career. Until that point, the Swiss athlete had enjoyed a handful of podium finishes across the WTS calendar (including a win in Seoul in 2010), but was never challenging the overall series standings.
Then came London 2012. Having finished seventh at the previous Olympics in Beijing in 2008 at the age of 21, Ryf was holding out for a medal of some colour. That didn’t happen. She trailed home in 40th place instead. Then a brave decision was made. Rather than being an above-average Olympic-distance triathlete, she opted to go long, to become much more than above-average in the Ironman pond.
Ryf’s first appearance at Kona, in 2014, resulted in a silver medal for the rookie. But, by then, she had already triumphed in the Ironman 70.3 world championships. And when she went one better the following year and took gold over the full distancean Ironman star was truly born.
Ryf dominated women’s long-distance triathlon over the latter half of the 2010s, resulting in nine Ironman world titles in all. None were as impressive as her 2018 victory, when she not only took a chunk of nearly 20 minutes off the Kona course record but did so having been stung by a jellyfish on her swim. They don’t come much tougher than Daniela Ryf.
How old is Daniela Ryf?
Daniela Ryf was born on 29 May 1987, making her 34 years of age.
Daniela Ryf’s career highlights
August 2008: Makes a splash at the Olympics in China
At the age of just 21, Ryf finishes a highly credible seventh at the Beijing Olympics. A lauded and well-decorated triathlon career surely awaits.
June 2009: A maiden podium finish in the WTS series
Following on from the promise of the previous summer’s Olympics, Ryf makes the top three of World Triathlon Series race in Washington DC. The following month, this is repeated with a podium finish in Hamburg. At the season’s end, Ryf comes fourth overall, ahead of defending champion Helen Jenkins.
May 2010: Ryf’s first – and only – WTS win
Ryf’s progress within the WTS ranks continues and she takes victory when the series reaches Seoul. It’s a tight race, but Ryf holds her nerves in a field full of established athletes, including Emma Moffatt, Nicola Spirig, Andrea Hewitt, Emma Snowsill and Helen Jenkins. It will be her only WTS win.
August 2010: Double medal glory in the Lausanne world champs
Two very satisfying days of racing on home turf in Lausanne. First comes a bronze medal in the inaugural sprint world championships; the following day, there’s a gold medal as the Swiss team take the mixed relay world title ahead of France and New Zealand.
August 2012: The result that made up her mind
The London Olympics brings Ryf to a T-junction in her career. Finishing down in 40th prompts thoughts of a reboot and, at the comparatively young age of 25, she upgrades from Olympic distance into the unremittingly tough world of Ironman.
September 2014: The first of many world titles in the Ironman universe
After less than two years racing long distance, Ryf takes the Ironman 70.3 world title in Mont-Tremblant in Canada. It is the first of an five such titles. A month later she finishes runner-up in Kona.
October 2015: World champ at both half and full distance
Six weeks after regaining her Ironman 70.3 world crown, Ryf improves on her silver won the previous year when she adds the Ironman world title to her ever-growing list of victories. She becomes only the second woman (after Britain’s Leandra Cave) to be a double Ironman world champ in the same year.
December 2015: Ryf pockets triathlon’s first million-dollar purse
Victory at the Ironman 70.3 Middle East championship in Bahrain completes a trinity of triumphs in the Nasser Bin Hamad Triple Crown series that also takes in Challenge Dubai and the Ironman 70.3 world championships. In doing so, Ryf triggers the prize offered to anyone who wins all three races. The reward for her hat-trick? A cool million dollars. It’s triathlon’s first seven-figure payday.
October 2017: Six of the best for the multiple world champ
Ryf’s victory at Kona completes a hat-trick of Ironman world titles after her successes in 2015 and 2016. A month earlier, she also took her third Ironman 70.3 world crown in Chattanooga, thus making it a wholly double hat-trick.
October 2018: A sting in the tail – but also a record time
Ryf registers her fourth Kona title on the trot – and this was undeniably the most brilliant of the lot. Helped by a bike leg with an average speed in excess of 40km/h, Ryf smashes her own course record, taking almost 20 minutes off her previous best. The feat was remarkable in itself, but went into the bounds of incredulity when Ryf declared that she had suffered a jellyfish sting on the swim.
September 2019: Nine world titles and counting…
In Nice, Ryf beats Britain’s Holly Lawrence and another Swiss athlete, Imogen Simmonds, to capture her fifth Ironman 70.3 world title in six years. It is her ninth Ironman crown. She’s going to have to build herself a bigger trophy cabinet.
2021: Misses out where it counts
Five solid wins (70.3 Dubai, 70.3 St George, Ironman Tulsa, Ironman Switzerland and 70.3 Switzerland) but runs in in 11th at the 70.3 Worldswhere GB’s Lucy Charles-Barclay reigns victorious, saying post-race: “It’s been a rough few months with weird things happening to my body.”
Daniela Ryf in quotes
On the career crossroads that sent her down the Ironman route: “Twenty-five was a hard age for me because that was just after the Olympics in London and I wasn’t in a good place. I almost quit.”
On being stung by a jellyfish at Kona in 2018 but still smashing the course record: “I didn’t know if I could stand the pain after being stung. Giving up was not an option. The plan was to get through the swim and get on the bike in the hope that the pain subsided. It was worth it because the tide turned and the day became great.”
On pushing herself to be the greatest-ever triathlete: “Whatever doesn’t hurt is just your comfort zone.”
What’s next for Daniela Ryf?
With the 2021 race having been rescheduled, 2022 offers Ryf double the opportunity to reach the milestone of winning five Ironman world titles, joining an elite club whose only members are her compatriot Natascha Badmann and the Zimbabwean Paula Newby-Fraser.
Perhaps Ryf might even trim her Kona course record even further. And, let’s not forget, neither Badmann nor Newby-Fraser ever won the Ironman 70.3 world title, an achievement that Ryf has managed on five occasions. Can arguably the greatest-ever long-course triathlete become even greater?
Top image: Jan Hetfleisch/Getty Images for Ironman