KAILUA-KONA — In a pre-race face off, Ironman World Championship top contenders Sebastian Kienle and Jan Frodeno stared each other down and flexed their muscles.
The interaction between the German triathletes was far from hostile, however.
“I came prepared for arm wrestling this year,” Kienle joked, responding to a question on who would win in a match of muscle. “Jan is (built) like a runner. I’m a little bit more of an arm wrestler.”
The exchange was just one of a few lighthearted moments from the professional press conference at King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, which brought together the top male and female athletes who will be competing in today’s 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run.
Kienle, the 2014 Ironman World Champion, was a little less confident when it came to facing Frodeno — the two-time defending Ironman Kona champ and Olympic gold medalist — during their 140.6-mile battle today.
“I have probably a little bit better chances arm wrestling than in the race on Saturday,” Kienle said with a smile. “It would take a perfect race for me, but I probably won’t be able to match Jan’s perfect day. I think he’s prepared to bring a perfect day.”
Frodeno has been pretty close to perfect when it comes to Kona, and he enters the race as the prohibitive favorite.
Another win would certainly put him in the conversation among best triathletes of all-time. Only Kona legends Dave Scott (1982-84) and Mark Allen (1989-1993) have won three or more Ironman World Championships in a row.
But Frodeno is not stressing about pulling off the Kona hat-trick. With all the challenges that the Kona course can throw at the athletes, he knows he has to be focused on the task at hand.
“I don’t even look at No. 3. I think getting caught up in that would be somewhat disrespectful to the whole scenario. The depth is increasing in the field and I feel it is a tough crew I am up against this year,” Frodeno said. “You have to focus on every step. We all know Kona can catch you on an off day very, very quickly. I’m prepared to take it one step at a time.”
Kienle has a similar outlook, and despite being on the biggest stage in the sport, he’s not losing sight of what’s important.
“After I won the race in 2014, what I experienced was that it was not about getting in the absolute perfect shape to win the race, but also the way you lead up to the race,” Kienle said. “You need to enjoy it and you need to laugh. That’s the most important thing.”
Patrick Lange helped make it an all-German podium last year, and he will likely be in contention against to be one of the first across the famous Alii Drive finish line. Lange made headlines last year for his 2 hour and 39 minute marathon time, breaking Mark Allen’s 27-year-old run course record.
“He has raised the bar on what is possible on the run,” Frodeno said. “There are other athletes here that raise the bar as well in the swim and the bike. In the end it hasn’t changed that much. You just have to be on top of it for the swim, bike and run.”
Other notable names to watch for are Lionel Sanders (Canada), Josh Amberger (Australia), Frederik Van Lierde (Belgium) and Andi Bocherer (Germany).
Tim Don, who set the world record for an Ironman finish earlier this year, will not be in the field after suffering a fractured vertebrae in a bike crash while training this week in Kona.
The top American gunning for a podium finish is Ben Hoffman. The Colorado-based triathlete finished second in 2014. Veteran Timothy O’Donnell — who finished third last year — is another U.S. athlete to watch. The last time an American won the world championship race was back in 2002, when Tim DeBoom took the title.
Female field: Catching Ryf
Much like Frodeno, Daniela Ryf is a force to be reckoned with in the female field.
The “Angry Bird” ripped off back-to-back titles a year ago in dominant fashion, finishing nearly 25 minutes ahead of the next closest pro and setting a new course record. If she does pull off the three-peat, it would be the first since recently inducted Ironman Hall of Famer Chrissie Wellington did it from 2007-09.
Ryf had dealt with a back injury to begin the year, but proved to be in prime form in June at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Chattanooga, Tennessee, winning her third world title at that distance — a first for the sport.
It was also a form of verification for Ryf that despite her struggles with her back, she was still the best in the world.
“It was a challenging year, but coming back in Chatanooga was really amazing. It was a big goal,” said Ryf, who returned to the top after a fourth-place finish at the 70.3 worlds in 2016. “It was helpful to know that my body was catching the training and that I was right.”
But as all the pros know all too well — throw out the rest of the year when it comes to Kona. The conditions will always provide a test, no matter who you are.
“Kona is totally different,” Ryf said. “It is warm, humid, and will push you all day.”
Former Princeton hockey standout and quickly ascending American Heather Jackson will look to push Ryf. She earned the bronze a year ago and was the first American to finish on the podium in a decade.
Other names to watch are Sarah Crowley (Australia), Lucy Charles (England), Anja Beranek (Germany) and Kaisa Sali (Finland).
A familiar Kona face that will be absent for this year’s race is Mirinda Carfrae (Australia), who won the race in 2010, ‘13 and ‘14. Carfrae recently gave birth to a baby girl. Since 2009, she had finished on the podium all but once.