By Kent Gray/Triathlon.kiwi
History will forever highlight Hannah Berry as the 2023 champion but the performance of the second Hannah home at Ironman 70.3 Taupō on Saturday was no less laudable.
In her very first race over the half iron distance, Tri NZ High Performance squad member Hannah Knighton finished 4th to sensationally seal a start at next December’s Ironman 70.3 World Championships over the same Waikato course.
The second of the two world championship slots available rolled down to Greerton’s Deb Fuller who finished 5th behind already qualified Berry, Lotte Wilms (NED), Rebecca Clarke and Knighton.
In the men’s race won by Kyle Smith, the world championship slots were snapped up by second placed Aucklander Jack Moody and Wanaka warrior Braden Currie whose late entry paid rich dividends courtesy of his 4th place.
Knighton hinted at a step up in distance in 2024 after successfully defending her Tinman standard distance title in Tauranga last month. Punching her return ticket to Taupō has only emboldened those plans for the understandably excited Cambridge 23-year-old.
“Next year I will be focusing more on the middle distance and will look at coming back to short course potentially for the next Olympic cycle [LA 2028],” Knighton told Triathlon.kiwi.
“But for now I’m just really loving the new challenge of middle-distance racing. Never say never for the longer distance races like Ironman but for now, the half distance seems like a very long way and the body feels very sore and stiff today.”
Knighton won’t be totally lost to short distance racing. She’s eyeing Triathlon Tauranga’s EVES Surfbreaker on December 27 and intends contesting the Oceania Standard Distance Championship in Napier on April 14. But her early season schedule is distance heavy and will feature a couple of events set to benefit her aero riding and bike handling: the elite Time Trial at the Cycling NZ Road National Championships in Timaru on February 8 and the Xterra Rotorua Festival cross tri on April 6.
“All going well, I’m hoping to do Surfbreaker, the Tauranga half, elite TT Nationals and Challenge Wanaka. Then hopefully I’ll head to 70.3 Geelong and use Xterra Rotorua as a lead into the Oceania Standard Distance Champs in Napier, ” Knighton said.
“I love using mountain biking as cross training. It’s great to simulate the on-off nature of crit style courses. It’s also good for my handling and just really fun. Then I’ll reassess where I’m at with [coach] Chris [Willett] and I will make a plan to lead into worlds in December.”
By her own admission, Knighton “didn’t have the season I wanted” in Europe in 2023 despite the high of helping the NZ quartet claim U23 bronze at the World Triathlon Relay Championships in Hamburg and finishing 23rd in the U23 World Triathlon Championships (standard distance) in Pontevedra in late September.
The mid-season decision to race Challenge Davos in August proved an awakening, especially with the Paris Olympics seemingly out of reach.
“That was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in triathlon,” Knighton said of Davos where she finished 8th in the 9-strong pro field.
“The race was at altitude and the ride, 54km with 1700m of climbing, was over the Fluela Pass and is the most scenic ride I have ever done.”
Nothing beats racing at home though as Knighton experienced on Saturday. She can’t wait for a repeat dose when the ambiance will be heightened again given next December 14-15’s world championship status.
“The atmosphere in Taupo was so insane, so many people were out cheering and hearing my name from the sidelines really helped me when I was deep in the [hurt] box,”Knighton said.
“I’m so excited to have gotten a spot of the world champs next year. It’s pretty rare to get a home world champs and it will be so special to race at the highest level in front of my friends and family.”
She found the competition from the likes of Berry and Clarke inspirational as well. Berry used all her experience to win in 4:14:59, nearly 18 minutes clear of Knighton in 4:32:55.
Berry’s splits – 25:07 for the 1900m swim, 2:22:07 for the 90km bike (38.13km/hr ave pace) and 1:22:34 for the half marathon (3:55 min/km ave pace) –gave Knighton further makers as she builds her experience database in the longer distances.
“It was so cool lining up and testing myself against the more established middle and long course girls,” said Knighton after 25:10 swim, 2:27:37 bike (36.70km/hr ave pace) and 1:34:44 run (4:30 min/km) splits.
“It’s been really cool seeing them progress and do really well on the international scene over the last couple of years and hopefully I’ll get to have some closer battles with them in the future.
“I had no expectations going into this race, it’s my first 70.3 and a completely different style of racing to the short course world I am used to but I am loving the new challenge and learning so much.”