Defending champs ready for battle

KAILUA-KONA — The 38th annual Ironman World Championship kicks off Saturday with the biggest field to date as 2,300 athletes enter the water of Kailua Bay for a 140.6-mile day of swimming, biking and running.

This year’s field also includes 700 female athletes and a two-thirds foreign triathlete majority — both records.

However, most eyes on race day will be focused on the pro division where both Jan Frodeno, of Germany, and Daniela Ryf, of Switzerland, return to defend their titles against one of the most competitive Ironman fields to step foot on the Big Island.

Frodeno will face a strong veteran field, with his biggest challenge coming from fellow countryman Sebastian Kienle, who is coming off a narrow second-place finish at the 2016 Ironman 70.3 World Championship and is also a former champion in Kona, winning in 2014. He also won this year’s Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt, Germany.

The two have a friendly rivalry going, which was on display at the pre-race pro press conference on Thursday on the Luau Grounds of Courtyard Marriott’s King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel.

When asked about his wins at the European Championship and the 70.3 World Championship, Kienle shrugged off his performances as though they didn’t count.

“Yeah, but Jan wasn’t there,” he said.

Frodeno, who became the first Olympic gold medalist to win the Ironman World Championship last year, has not had a lot of opportunities to race Kienle in the year since his big victory. He took some time off due to the birth of his son. However, that did not seem to stop the friendly ribbing between the two triathletes.

“I missed him all year, I had to pay for my own dinners,” Frodeno said. “Next year I’ll have to plan things better.”

On their heels

Kienle isn’t the only competitor on race day that Frodeno will have to look out for.

Also looking to climb on top of that podium in 2016 will be Canada’s Brent McMahon, Australia’s Tim Van Burkel, and two Americans, Tim O’Donnell and Andy Potts.

Both Potts and O’Donnell are 70.3 specialists from Colorado.

Potts has won 18 half-Ironman races since 2007, including two this year. He also won the 2016 Ironman Canada and placed fourth in the 2014 Ironman World Championship race.

O’Donnell has made many appearances in Kona, placing eighth, fifth and third in his last three appearances in the World Championship.

“I would like to think first is the next big leap, but these guys might say otherwise,” O’Donnell said of trying to climb the mountain.

McMahon may be the wild card pick to win the championship this year. The Canadian won the South American Championship in Brazil with a record breaking performance. He has also won three races in under eight hours.

“Ultimately, you are not trying to reinvent the wheel, but we have a formula, my coach and I, on how to go fast and be consistent,” McMahon said. “We are just doing the same thing and I took a midseason break so I am feeling strong, and fresh, and I still have races after this I am excited about.”

Female field

A healthy Carfrae will provide a challenge for a Ryf repeat

Ryf is coming off what she calls an “amazing experience” after her win at the 2015 World Championship. It was a banner year for the Swiss runner, who has not been competing at the pro level for very long. Last year she won both in Kona and in Frankfurt, Germany where she repeated as the 70.3 World Championship.

For Ryf, the last year has really been an adjustment because of her new fame.

“It took a bit of time to get use to the attention, but the last four to five months it has gotten more and more quiet and I was able to get back to training,” she said. “I have had a good buildup.”

Carfrae is a three-time Ironman World Champion, winning in 2010, 2013 and 2014. However, last year she had to pull out of the race midway through the 112-mile bike ride. Despite the setback, the Aussie runner is feeling prepared and injury free heading into the 2016 race.

“I feel like I have had two years of preparation for this race,” Carfrae said. “This is my eighth time racing here in Kona and while having an off year last year, at the time was really disappointing, it was really a blessing in disguise.

If Ryf wishes to repeat, or if Carfrae wants to regain her spot on top of the field, the two will have to fend off some stiff competition led by Germany’s Juia Gajer, Australia’s Mel Hauschildt, Finland’s Kaisa Lehtonen and American Heather Jackson.

Jackson qualified for the World Championship by winning the Lake Placid race. A half-Ironman specialist, she placed third in the 2012 70.3 World Championship. Jackson said she draws her inspiration for competing from Natascha Badmann and Heather Fuhr, two legends of the sport.

“When I first got into this sport, I had never swam before,” Jackson said. “So it is an inspiration for me when someone like Natasha and Heather, who are not usually in front of the swim pack, can still win.”

First time in the field

Competing in the Ironman World Championship is a dream come true for nearly every athlete, and the same can be said for Lehtonen, a first time competitor, who’s dream started when she was 12 years old.

“I heard about this race from my father and I knew it was something I wanted to do it,” Lehtonen said. “One beautiful day I took my pink little mountain bike, went out for a ride, and I ended up doing the whole 180 (kilometers). It was quite insane at that age, but I still remember the moment after that ride. I knew it was something that would give me so much joy in my life. It’s quite exciting that I am here.”

Lehtonen qualified for the World Championship by winning the 2016 African Championship Port Elizabeth. It was her first victory.

The pro race will head out ahead of the age groupers on Saturday, with the men taking off at 6:25 a.m. and the women following at 6:30 a.m.

Live coverage of the race will be available at Ironman.com. NBC will air their coverage of the race on Dec. 10.

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