Photos courtesy Damon Clark/

By Kent Gray/
Aucklander Rebecca Clark has cracked the top 20 in her Kona debut after American Chelsea Sodaro sensationally streaked away with the Ironman World Championship on Friday (NZT) – in just her second start at the distance.

Sadaro clocked a blistering 2:51:45 marathon to win in 8:33:46, condemning Brit Lucy Charles-Barclay to a bitter-sweet fourth world champs runner-up finish ahead of 2019 winner Anne Haug (GER) in third.

The 33-year-old ended the longest US victory drought in the event’s 44-year history, becoming the first American winner in 27 years since Paula Newby-Fraser in 1995 and the first rookie to win in Kona since Chrissie Wellington (GBR) in 2007

Clarke, meanwhile, finished 17th overall in 9:24:21.

The 33-year-old Kiwi was third out of the water in 51:41, 44 seconds down on Charles-Barclay. Coupled with the second fastest T1 transition, Clarke propelled herself out onto the 180km bike course in a strong position and jockeyed for third place with American Lauren Brandon for the first half of the leg. However, a demoralising, five-minute stop-go penalty stalled her momentum and saw her drift backwards.

The only New Zealander in the Pro Women’s field eventually recorded a 5:03:48 split (26th fastest) for the bike and 3:23:31 (23rd fastest) for the marathon to climb inside the top 20 in ‘real feel’ conditions of 35 degrees and 81 percent humidity.

“It definitely affected my race, I’m pretty disappointed,” Clarke said of her Blue card for drafting. “It was my first drafting penalty and to do it at the World Champs is a bit frustrating. They reckoned I went into that, I was making sure I kept my distance but it was maybe just a lapse, we had about five or six girls and it was very surgy so, especially with the hills, you can drift into that.

“At least I didn’t have to take the penalty for a while, so I was still with that group and I just kind of treated it as a chance to take on some food and extra drink and stuff. There were a few other girls in the tent, it was the longest five minutes of my life.”

After dropping to as low as 20th on the bike,  Clarke needed medical attention after spending every last ounce of energy on the run.

“I’m feeling pretty wrecked to be honest, just had a little lie down with medical. That was just super tough out there, that run is just relentless, there’s no shade so at times I just felt like I was close to overheating,” said Clarke. 

“It was very tough. I felt like Ali`i Drive was amazing with the crowds and everything, but it was also quite hot. Actually, getting out on the Queen K there was a little bit more breeze, but it was a long way out to the Energy Lab. I had actually not felt too bad at the Energy Lab, but I was just hydrating at every aid station,” she said. “There were a few girls I passed so that was motivating, just ticking them off. I was holding 16th right until a couple of k left and then a Spanish girl passed me.” 

“I was 4.30 back from 14th so without the penalty, a top 15 would have been in reach. I’m sure I will look back once I’m recovered and be very pleased to finish top 20 with mistakes made. The atmosphere on course was amazing [and] thanks for all the support from back home.”

Sodaro (nee Reilly) is a former U.S. Olympic 10,000m triallist who turned to triathlon in 2017 and won World Cup Huatulco in 2018 and placed 20th at World Cup New Plymouth the same year before switching to the longer distances. She finished fourth at the 70.3 Worlds in 2019 before the pandemic, pregnancy and childbirth; her 18-month daughter Skye and fireman husband Steve were on hand for Friday’s surprise victory embrace.

Sadaro only turned to the full distance this year but qualified for Kona with an 8:36:41 at Ironman Hamburg in June – the second-fastest Ironman debut. She also podiumed at the  PTO Canadian Open in Edmonton the following month.

Still, few gave her any chance of victory in Kona, instead expecting five-time world champion Daniela Ryf and then former world champion Haug to run her down. What they hadn’t figured on was a balanced swim-bike before a veteran-like display of nutrition refuelling at the aid stations dotted along the run route. The commentators feared Sadaro had had a rush of rookie adrenaline when she hit the road fast to overtake Ryf and then Charles Barclay but she maintained an impressive 4:02 min/km average pace.

“My mind is a little bit blown right now,” told MC Mike Reilly moments afterwards.

“I think this is the culmination of things being right in my life and having perspective. This is freaking incredible. The greatest gift at the finish line is my little 18-month-old.

“This is a real family operation. I don’t have a super big, flashy team around me, but I have an incredible team. My dad has sagged all of my rides for the last month. My mom has helped with childcare. My husband is a Reno firefighter. This is for them.”

Charles-Barclay’s time of 8:41:37 was agonisingly so close and yet so far again but a personal triumph all the same after a hip fracture threatened to end her career.

“At the start of the year, I didn’t think I’d be here,” Charles-Barclay said. “Just never give up, when things aren’t going to plan, have some patience, believe in yourself, and you can get there.”

Haug rounded out the podium with a time of 8:42:22 but was unable to reel in Charles-Barclay on the run, let alone Sadaro. The third fastest bike split of 4:41;49 (Ryf had the fastest time of 4:36:11) ultimately cost Haug.

“I think I burned my candle a bit too much on the bike, so there wasn’t too much left for the run. It’s hard for the mind to run 30K behind Lucy,” said Haug. “I gave it all, and that was it.”

Germany’s Laura Phillips was 4th and Australian Sarah Crowley 7th despite both being served five-minute penalties on the bike. Ryf eventually finished 8th.

The Pro Men’s race, featuring Kiwis Braden Currie and Kyle Smith, takes the canon at 5.25am on Sunday (NZT).

Top 10 Women

1. Chelsea Sodaro (USA): 54:48 | 4:42:08| 2:51:45 | 8:33:46

2. Lucy Charles-Barclay (GBR): 50:57 | 4:43:12 | 3:02:49 | 8:42:22

3. Anne Haug (DEU): 57:58 | 4:41:49 | 2:57:57 | 8:42:22

4. Laura Philipp (DEU): 57:54 | 4:45:27 | 3:01:33 |  8:50:31

5. Lisa Norden (SWE): 54:42 | 4:42:25 | 3:12:41 | 8:54:43

6. Fenella Langridge (GBR): 51:42 | 4:43:25 | 3:16:30 | 8:56:26

7. Sarah Crowley (AUS): 54:40 | 4:55:03 | 3:06:56 | 9:01:58

8. Daniela Ryf (CHE): 57:52 | 4:36:11 | 3:23:45 | 9:02:26

9. Skye Moench (USA): 54:52 | 4:44:36 | 3:19:38 | 9:04:31

10. Laura Siddall (GBR): 58:09 | 4:46:58 | 3:17:34 | 9:07:49

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