Gwen Jorgensen in action at WTS Gold Coast.
Two weeks ago Helen Jenkins put in a terrific all-round performance to take the win at WTS Gold Coast. The victory breaking an outstanding two year winning streak of Gwen Jorgensen.
As soon as Jenkins crossed the finishing tape I was receiving emails:
Is this the chink in Gwen’s armour that will affect the Olympics? Can they breakaway? Are these the tactics you were planning with Nicola?
Firstly, I don’t believe so. Gold Coast was her first big race of the season and had a unique bike course. And while she lost touch with the breakaway she still ran very well.
All Champions lose eventually, and a rare race loss should only highlight her wonderful achievement in the sport.
Gwen’s emergence and now domination of triathlon over the last 2 seasons has been nothing short of fantastic. A testament to her and her coach’s dedication to improving all facets of her racing. They have worked very hard and we at Trisutto.com tip our hat to any athlete who turns themselves into a champion. Whether competition to our still recovering Champ (Nicola Spirig) or not.
Greatest Triathlon Runners of All Time
That said, I would however like to address those commentators who pronounce Gwen ‘the fastest ever’ with little context or appreciation of the sport’s history.
Gwen is very fast, but a ‘never seen before’ phenomenon she is not. We shouldn’t forget so many of our other great athletes over the history of ITU triathlon who use to run every bit as fast, if not faster, but are now forgotten because they competed in a different era of non-drafting triathlon.
In 1994 a former cross-country running star, Rina Bradshaw (later Hill), won the World Indoor Triathlon Championship with a 9:12 (3km) run split to finish on the track. 22 years later and this speed would hold up against any in the modern era.
The 1996 ITU World Champion, the late great Jackie Gallagher, won the biggest 10km race in Australia while competing in triathlon. On that day she ran 33:12 after a 5km swim and 80km worth of bike training. When Jackie retired from triathlon and duathlon racing (where she also had 2 World Championships) she represented Australia in the marathon (2:32 PB) at the Commonwealth Games and won bronze.
The 1997 ITU World Champion, Emma Carney, was a devastating runner with scintillating 3km and 5km runs to her name in athletics. With an equally strong bike, Emma, for those with short memories, along with Vanessa Fernandes, have not been surpassed as the most dominant female athletes in World Cup history (19 wins).
The 1998 ITU World Champion, Jo King, also had been selected for the Australian run team while winning the Junior and Senior triathlon World Titles. People might want to look at footage of the tall, lean Jo cutting through the field and see who it reminds them of.
But let’s look a little broader.
Erin Baker (New Zealand) won the 1987 ITU World Championship and her last race was to win Kona. She competed at the 10km Olympic trials and ran 32:40.
And one can only imagine the damage Carol Montgomery (Canada) could have done under the current format of women’s ITU racing. A strong swimmer and Olympic level runner, Carol had the potential to destroy the fields we see in ITU today.
Don’t believe me?
A 15:36 PB for Carol over 5km.
So we see triathlon has had many great women runners who are largely ignored in current day comparisons because of the different format of racing.
The Greatest of All Time Debate
Every year or so we see the tri mags create an updated ‘list’ of the greatest triathletes ever, each more biased towards current athletes than the last. The latest from 220 Triathlon just two days ago.
The list shows great athletes no doubt, but the extent of the analysis is to look at people’s CVs and then judge ‘the best’ based on a tally of results on paper. Sport doesn’t work like this.
It means that athletes like Loretta Harrop are often left off the ‘top’ lists, when she should be one of the first chosen.
Why? As we have seen in 96′, 97′, 98′ we had women ITU world champions who were all terrific bike / runners capable getting out of the swim in the second or third packs, riding themselves through the field and blowing everyone apart on the run.
Loretta more than anyone changed that.
With a crushing swim / bike combination the 99′ World Champion helped usher in a new era of racing whose impact is still being felt today. How many ITU short course winners since 99′ have come from way back in the swim? I’d say few if any.
When making comparisons what is also totally misunderstood is that in combination with Barb Lindquist and Sheila Taormina (as good as swimmers as Gwen is a runner), we saw a racing style that would still be dominant today.
I’ve had multiple current ITU coaches who were around back in the early 2000s ask me sheepishly:
‘Sutto is it just me or would Loretta still beat most of these current girls?’
To which I reply: ‘I’ve already tried to drag her out of retirement.’
Had Loretta, Barb, Siri, Sheila and co been racing today, the current generation would be struggling to get on the podium, let alone dominating. That will be hard to accept for some, but it’s an honest assessment.
Women’s triathlon has gradually evolved to swim-run dominance (the best exponents being Emma Snowsill and Gwen Jorgensen) and those making comparisons seem to have not accounted for the fact that today’s standard of cycling would not have matched up well at all.
If you wanted to beat Loretta you had to withstand a 40km time trial blowtorch on the bike first – which evidence suggests most of the current girls wouldn’t be able to.
We have seen multiple breaks this year, including at Gold Coast, and what is telling each time is the main pack’s inability to shut down the serious riders.
What happens every time Flora (Duffy) puts on the after-burners? Half the pack don’t even realise she’s gone let alone know how to close her down. And observe the difference in the second pack when the Spirig train is not there pushing things along. For her supporters complaining ‘No one helps! No one takes a turn!’ It’s not because they don’t want to. It’s because they can’t.
This is not to diminish Gwen’s achievements in any way. You can only race in the format and beat the competitors who line up against you on the day, which she has done time and again. For our American supporters, Gwen has the potential to improve and truly achieve GOAT status. And we’ll be the first to congratulate if and when she does so.
But in the meantime if we are going to have lists about the ‘best ever’, such judgements should be made on the basis of a deeper understanding of the sport and recognition of our past champions’ true place within it.
Brett Sutton has coached 16 ITU World Champions.
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