The 25 Greatest Male Triathletes Of All Time Presented By ROKA Sports
The definition of “great” is loose and up for debate, and that’s precisely why we chose it for the name of this ranking. There is no perfect way to rank athletes from different eras who specialized in varying distances from sprint to Olympic to iron to off-road. Some athletes dominated events that were once considered major events but are no longer in existence, such as the United States Triathlon Series. Others are from the era before triathlon became an Olympic sport, while some have built their reputations winning Ironman 70.3 races, a series that has been in existence for less than a decade. And how does the value of an Olympic gold compare to victory in Kona? All are things we wrestled with in our ranking. Here’s how we did it:
• We did not use a scoring system to objectively rank athletes—this list is subjective.
• The magnitude of the difference between an athlete and his peers is important—dominance counts. Concrete accomplishments and personal judgment of each athlete’s ability are both factors.
• Longevity—total accomplishments accumulated over a career and time spent at the top of the sport—and consistency are also considered.
• Athletes are judged against their contemporaries and the quality of the era during which they competed. An Ironman world title from this decade speaks louder than Gordon Haller’s victory in 1978, for example. (No offense, Gordon.)
• The quality of a championship is important. For instance, an Olympic gold counts more than an XTERRA world title because we believe the Olympics to be a more competitive and important race.
• Achievements in non-championship races count too, of course.
• Potential and hypothetical future accomplishments don’t count, only actual achievements.
• Accomplishments in duathlon are not considered.
• Athletes with a doping conviction are out. But: Athletes suspected of doping and never convicted are eligible.
Creating an unassailable list of the 25 greatest male triathletes in history is impossible and we want to continue the debate. Tell us how you think it should look at our Facebook page or on Twitter. We want to hear from you!
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25. Andreas Raelert
Had he gone a few seconds faster in the right races, Raelert would be much higher up this list. He has routinely been on and close to the podium at championship races without ever earning a world title or Olympic medal. The two-time Olympian started to focus on long-course racing after finishing sixth in the Athens Olympics in 2004 and blossomed at the long distances. He took second at the 2008 Ironman 70.3 World Championship, then went third, second, third and second at Ironman Hawaii from 2009 to 2012. It was a remarkable stretch of consistency during which he almost won the 2010 title. Chris McCormack out-dueled him over the marathon that year and kicked away from the German with less than a mile to go before the finish.
His close calls aside, Raelert has one unique achievement on his list of credentials: He set the current iron-distance world record with a 7:41:33 victory at Challenge Roth in 2011, four minutes better than the previous best over 140.6 miles.
Photo: Steve Godwin
24. Mike Pigg
The most important race series in the world in the 1980s was the United States Triathlon Series (USTS), and Mike Pigg was a dominant force—winning 30 times. He repeatedly beat the best in the world, including the top two on this list, over short distances. He was the four-time USTS National Champion and was the United States Olympic Committee’s male triathlete of the year in 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996. The three-time Escape from Alcatraz champion won the first ever ITU World Cup race in St. Croix in 1991, knocking off the 1989 and 1990 ITU world champions, Mark Allen and Greg Welch respectively. His other ITU World Cup wins were in Las Vegas in 1991 and in Orange County in 1993. In 1988 Pigg had one of his best seasons when he won 15 of the 20 races he entered plus took second to Scott Molina at the Ironman World Championship, his best result there. Pigg will be inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in June as part of the class of 2013.
Photo: Lois Schwartz
23. Cameron Brown
Few Ironman athletes have a record as consistent as New Zealand’s Cameron Brown. His claim to fame is 10 Ironman New Zealand wins from 2001 to 2011 (2006 was the exception), in his home country’s most important long-course race. But nearly as impressive are his multiple appearances on the podium in Kona, including two second-place and two third-place finishes, and an Ironman European Championship the one year he didn’t win New Zealand. Tinley twice did what Brown couldn’t do even once—break the tape in Kona. But one of those wins came against a relatively shallow field, and Brown’s unparalleled record of consistency at Ironman New Zealand distinguished his track record.
Brown continues to add to his record late into his career. At the inaugural Ironman Melbourne in 2012, Brown gave Craig Alexander a run for his money in a thrilling battle coming off the two fastest bike splits of the day. The pair ran stride for stride until after mile 20 of the marathon, when Alexander eventually grew his lead to take the victory. Brown held on for a strong second in 8:00:12 against a stacked field that included future Ironman World Champion Frederik Van Lierde and Eneko Llanos. At the 30th anniversary of Ironman New Zealand, Brown, now 41, took second.
Photo: Delly Carr
22. Sebastian Kienle
Earning the respect of peers is a sure sign of a professional athlete’s capabilities, and Kienle is downright feared on the Ironman 70.3 circuit. While he has won far fewer total races than many of the people on this list and some who didn’t make the cut, Kienle earns a spot because of the level he showed winning consecutive Ironman 70.3 World Championship titles in 2012 and 2013, as well as a budding list of Ironman credentials.
The strong German hit the top level of the sport in 2012 when he tore past the rest of the leaders on the bike so decisively during the Ironman 70.3 World Championship that athletes including Craig Alexander likened him to a motorcycle—they didn’t allow Kienle to build the decisive lead but rather he took it, and they couldn’t do anything about it. He has one Kona podium to his credit as well as a sub-eight-hour iron-distance PR.
Kienle’s résumé lacks depth primarily because the career long-course specialist is just 29 years old. Still, the young German’s peak, which he’s currently in the midst of, is higher than Brown or Raelert ever reached because he won an extremely competitive world title in back-to-back years.
Photo: John David Becker
21. Scott Molina
The man nicknamed “The Terminator” dominated short-course triathlon from 1982 through 1992—but present-day fans of the sport might overlook his achievements because many of the races he won are no longer around. He won 104 races in his career, including 50 United States Triathlon Series events (then the premier Olympic-distance series), six USA Pro Championship titles, two World’s Toughest Triathlon titles and one Ultraman Championship. Of course, he also won the 1988 Ironman World Championship. Always a factor whenever he was on the starting line, Molina finished second or third 46 times in his career. Molina was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2012.
Note: Scott Molina tested positive for nandrolone in 1988 at the Nice Triathlon and was given a one-year ban by the French Federation. But after reviewing the testing procedures, the U.S. Federation decided not to support the finding and he was not banned by any international governing body or other federation, which is why Molina is included on this list.
Photo: Lois Schwartz
20. Greg Bennett
North American fans of triathlon are likely to remember Bennett for his flawless 2007 season on the Life Time Fitness Grand Slam series, but non-drafting races were a second act to the Australian’s career. That year he won the Life Time Fitness Triathlon, New York City Triathlon, Chicago Triathlon, Los Angeles Triathlon and Dallas Triathlon, and in 2007 those weren’t ordinary big-city triathlons—all the best athletes showed up to complete for the richest prize purse in the sport. He beat Craig Alexander, Simon Lessing, Hunter Kemper, Bevan Docherty, Rasmus Henning, Matt Reed, Craig Walton and Peter Robertson, among others, who all came out to race for the big money. Bennett beat them every time, winning all five races and the enormous bonus for sweeping the series.
As a younger athlete Bennett was among the best ITU racers in the world, winning the ITU Triathlon World Cup series championship in 2002 and 2003. He raced the 2004 Olympics and finished fourth.
Photo: Delly Carr/Triathlon.org
19. Thomas Hellriegel
Known as “Hell on Wheels” for his dominating cycling speed in the ’90s, Thomas Hellriegel struck fear into his competitors on the bike leg of Ironman races. In 1996, he set the Kona bike course record (4:24:50) and held it for 11 years until Normann Stadler bested his time.
The German had an impressive three year-year run in Kona through the mid-nineties against incredible competition: In 1995, he was second to Mark Allen; in 1996, he was second to Luc Van Lierde; in 1997 he won, becoming the first German to ever do so on the Big Island. He was fantastically consistent in Kona: In an eight-year span, he never once finished out of the top 10.
Photo: Rich Cruse
18. Scott Tinley
Tinley had success at all distances from sprint to Olympic to Ironman and won more than 100 races in his professional career. His work ethic and consistency made him one of the most durable and feared triathletes of all time, earning him three titles in the now defunct Ironman World Series. Tinley is most closely associated with the Ironman World Championship and raced that event 20 times with two wins, four second-place finishes and two third-place finishes. Between 1981 and 1990, he raced Kona 11 times (twice in 1982) and never finished worse than sixth. One of Tinley’s Kona victories (1982) came over Dave Scott. The other came in a year when the top athletes including Scott and Mark Allen elected not to compete as prize money wasn’t yet offered. Tinley beat everyone who lined up that day, but he was the only truly elite competitor in the field.
Photo: Lois Schwartz
17. Tim DeBoom
While many top professionals were groomed by national federations and elite development programs, DeBoom ascended to the very highest reaches of the sport after starting as an age grouper. He’s still the most recent American to win the Ironman World Championship, having done so in 2001 and 2002. He was a well-rounded athlete with a deadly run and unfailing focus on Ironman Hawaii.
DeBoom had his breakthrough in 1999 when he won Ironman New Zealand. His battles with onetime training partner and friend Peter Reid, as well DeBoom’s older brother, Tony, made for some epic races throughout his career. In 2011 he won the notoriously challenging Norseman Extreme Triathlon in Norway. He hung up his racing shoes in 2012.
DeBoom’s list of truly elite results may be shorter than those of Pigg, Hellriegel or Molina, but twice winning Ironman Hawaii is more significant than the achievements of the eight athletes lower on the list. With the possible exception of the Olympics, Kona is the most meaningful title in the sport. Putting two of those in a row over guys like Peter Reid, Hellriegel and Cam Brown distinguishes DeBoom’s career.
Photo: Rich Cruse
16. Lothar Leder
Leder never broke through on the Big Island, topping out at third place in Ironman Hawaii, but he has one of the most impressive records in other iron-distance events across the world. During his career Leder won Ironman South Africa, Ironman Florida and Ironman Arizona, and dominated the most prestigious Ironman events in triathlon-crazed Germany. Leder is a three-time Ironman Europe champion and twice won Challenge Roth. He finished top-eight in Hawaii on six occasions, including two third-place finishes, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth and an eighth.
In 1995 he took second at Ironman Europe in Roth—then won the following year in 7:57:21, becoming the first person to break eight hours. In 1997 and 1998 he took second at Ironman Europe; in 2000 he won Ironman Europe; in 2001 he won both Ironman Europe and Ironman Germany. In 2002 he won Ironman Germany and Challenge Roth. In 2003, he defended his title and won Challenge Roth again. Leder also finished second at the Nice Long Distance World Championship in 1994.
Putting Leder above a two-time Hawaii champ in DeBoom is tough. The American did the hardest thing in Ironman, and then did it again the following year. But the races Leder won in Germany weren’t akin to winning Ironman Florida today—the fields were deep and the German athletes all wanted to win. He did it repeatedly and may have been off top form in Hawaii as a result, while DeBoom crafted his season around Kona. Becoming the first person to break eight hours helps push Leder over DeBoom.
Note: Leder was suspected of blood manipulation on account of a test conducted before Ironman Frankfurt in 2007. He was never banned.
Photo: Rich Cruse
15. Brad Bevan
From 1992 to 1995, Brad Bevan won four consecutive ITU World Cup championships. While he never crossed the line first at the ITU World Championship—the single race used to determine the world champion—he earned the most points across the annual series a record four times in a row.
Consistency was his greatest achievement, finishing on the podium for seven of the 10 World Cup races, then the most elite designation, in 1992. Three times he was second at the one-race ITU World Championships, in 1990, 1994 and 1995. And while three runner-up finishes to two racers who are higher on this list—Simon Lessing twice and Greg Welch once—is impressive, it’s also the shortcoming of Bevan’s résumé. He never won a big one-day championship. Lacking an ITU World Title is a glaring hole when compared to some of the people above him on this list. Unfortunately for Bevan, the Olympics didn’t include triathlon until he had passed his prime.
Photo: Delly Carr
14. Luc Van Lierde
Luc Van Lierde hit a historically high level of performance for a short window of time, from 1996 to 1999. After that four-year span during which he won four world titles and set the iron-distance world record, he never reached the pinnacle again.
In 1996, he won the Olympic-distance ITU European Championships and took second at the ITU World Championships. He then took his second consecutive silver at the ITU world Long Distance Championship. He capped off his phenomenal season with his first visit to Kona that October and submitted one of the most impressive races in the history of the sport. Even though he had been given a penalty during the bike ride and had never completed a marathon before, he ran down Germany’s Thomas Hellriegel with a 2:41:48 marathon to win and break Mark Allen’s course record (which stood until 2011). In 1997 Van Lierde had an epic day at Ironman Europe when he put together a blazing 2:36 marathon split on his way to the fastest Ironman time ever at that point: 7:50:27. In 1998 he came back to Kona and took second to Canada’s Peter Reid before earning his second Ironman World Championship title in 1999.
While DeBoom and Van Lierde both beat elite competition to each win a pair of Kona titles, the Belgian’s record stands above DeBoom because of his Kona course record, ITU Long Distance World Championships and significant although not brilliant ITU short-course career. Bevan hit a higher level in the ITU, but lacks the record in high-pressure one-day championships to surpass Van Lierde.
Photo: Rich Cruse
13. Bevan Docherty
The tall New Zealander had his best performances in the biggest races. He is clutch. As a draft-legal Olympic-distance racer, he used considerable tactical savvy and a strong kick to his advantage. Docherty sprinted to a silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Games and earned bronze in 2008.
In 2004, he won the ITU World Championships and took the silver in 2008. When he jumped up to longer distance races, Docherty was immediately a factor. He famously was the only pro to beat Lance Armstrong in the disgraced cyclist’s first race as a pro triathlete since retiring from cycling, and he took third at the 2012 Ironman 70.3 World Championship. Docherty sits below Whitfield and Carter in part because those two hold the gold medal that Docherty came so close to earning.
Van Lierde’s stratospheric peak might have been higher than Docherty ever reached, but the Kiwi has a longer, more varied list of achievements and, while they may not be golden, the secondary Olympic medals are arguably just as hard or harder to achieve as victory on the Big Island. They only run the Olympics every four years, and Ironman athletes get a crack every fall.
Photo: Delly Carr/Triathlon.org
12. Normann Stadler
Stadler’s career will be remembered for two things: incredible cycling prowess and a heated, occasionally personal rivalry with Chris McCormack. Both athletes retired with the same number of Kona crowns, but Stadler triumphed in their epic 2006 showdown when the two were at their peak. In that race, Stadler biked away from the field and set the course record for the second leg, which still stands today, to earn a big advantage at the start of the run. While Ironman running wasn’t his strength, Stadler held his fleet-footed rival at bay to earn his second Ironman world championship.
Two years earlier, Stadler used another dominant performance on the bike to win in Kona. 2004 was one of the windiest races in the event’s history and Stadler pedaled away from the field to earn a major advantage in T2. Everyone behind him was shattered by the conditions—only Stadler was strong enough to hold himself together. While the time wasn’t impressive that year due to the wind, he proved himself to be the sport’s best rider beyond any doubt.
He is widely considered either the best or second-best cyclist in Ironman history, with his countryman Thomas Hellriegel also in the discussion.
Photo: Rich Cruse
11. Greg Welch
Greg Welch dominated at a variety of distances, winning an Olympic-distance world title as well as Ironman Hawaii, but didn’t hold on to the top spot in either distance for long. His breakthrough came in 1989 when he finished third at the Ironman World Championship behind Mark Allen and Dave Scott in the sport’s all-time classic Ironman race. In 1990, Welchy won the ITU World Championship at Disney World in Orlando. He was known for his outgoing personality and for his ability to win races all over the globe at any distance.
The Australian won countless sprint races in his home country plus major events across the world, including the Orange County Performing Arts Center Triathlon, Escape from Alcatraz, the ITU Duathlon World Championship in 1993, the Ironman World Championship in 1994 and the ITU Long Distance World Championship in 1996. When he won the Ironman World Championship in 1994, he became the first non-American male and the first Australian to win the most prestigious title in the sport. In Kona, besides his third-place in 1989 and his 1994 victory, he took fifth in 1990, second in 1991, sixth in 1992, fourth in 1995 and third in 1996.
Welch’s list of accomplishments is among the most diverse in history. He was forced to retire prematurely when he was diagnosed with ventricular tachycardia after the 1999 Ironman World Championship. Even though he was having heart episodes throughout the race and was forced to stop numerous times to wait for his heart rate to drop, he still ran a 2:46:51 marathon and finished 11th overall.
Photo: Lois Schwartz
10. Hamish Carter
Over the course of 1997 to 2000, New Zealand’s Hamish Carter may have been the most consistent top performer on the ITU circuit. With 12 World Cup wins to his name and an incredibly consistent record that rarely had him outside of the top 10, Carter added the 1998 ITU World Cup championship. He went into the 2000 Sydney Olympics carrying that rating, but finished a disappointing 26th-place.
It set the Kiwi up to work even harder to rectify his bad performance: After winning bronze at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, he earned his spot on the team for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He and fellow countryman Bevan Docherty, who was the favorite going into the Games, battled it out until the final 500 meters, when Carter passed him to earn the gold. He also added an XTERRA World Champion title to his name in 2006 as well as second-place finishes at the ITU World Championship in 1997 and again in 2006. He retired in 2007.
For winning the Olympic gold, Carter gets the nod over Stadler. Historically great cycling and a pair of Kona crowns simply don’t override the biggest prize in athletics, backed by a long list of other impressive short-course achievements. Welch and Carter both have a single ITU Olympic distance world title and a collection of impressive non-championship wins. Again, Carter’s Olympic gold pushes him over the top.
Photo: Frank Wechsel/Triathlon.org
9. Javier Gomez
Alistair Brownlee’s brilliance has shunted some attention away from Gomez’s accomplishments, but his résumé is among the longest in the history of the ITU. He has won 19 premier races (the name has changed from World Cup to WCS to WTS over his career) on the ITU circuit. He is a three-time world champion (2008, 2010 and 2013) and a three-time ITU World Cup champion. In the London 2012 Olympics he earned the silver medal (narrowly losing the gold to Brownlee) and was fourth in the Beijing Games.
He’s an athlete without a weakness, routinely swimming at the front, riding as well as needed and dropping blistering run splits that only the Brownlees can contend with. But the 30-year-old has already proven to be one of the best non-drafting triathletes in the world in addition to his considerable ITU chops. On his list of victories are Escape from Alcatraz, the Hy Vee 5150 Elite Cup, the XTERRA World Championship, the Los Angeles Triathlon and Ironman 70.3 Panama—and those wins came largely in his spare time around his ITU race schedule.
If Brownlee hadn’t clearly surpassed Gomez during his prime, the Spaniard would be higher on this list because of his prodigious accomplishments.
Photo: Janos Schmidt/Triathlon.org
8. Peter Reid
Peter Reid’s three Kona wins alone make him one of the top triathletes of all time. The Canadian was hugely successful in Hawaii; he not only took the world title three times, he also finished on the podium on four other occasions—he was second three times and third once. Reid first put himself on the map with a 1996 win at Wildflower, and he went on to win 10 total Ironman titles during his career. He started training with American Tim DeBoom in 1998, and won his first Kona title that year.
In 2000, he and his former training partner would battle in the lava fields before Reid regained his title. Reid was well known for his singular focus on Kona and some of his unconventional training rituals. Before Ironman Hawaii, he would train alone for two weeks on the Big Island, sleeping on a mattress in a shack 6,000 feet in the mountains. He also prepared his stomach for inevitable discomfort during the Ironman marathon by eating spicy nachos then going on a run during training.
Reid somewhat abruptly disappeared in 2006, when he left the sport and became a bush pilot. He reappeared in triathlon briefly in 2012 as an adviser to help launch of Challenge Penticton, the Challenge Family’s first North American race, an event he had won under the Ironman Canada name. Only three men have more combined Ironman long-course (140.6 and 70.3) world titles, and none are ranked behind Reid at 8.
Photo: Lois Schwartz
7. Simon Whitfield
As the first-ever Olympic gold medalist in triathlon, Simon Whitfield will always hold a secure spot in the sport’s history. His first Olympic win came in dramatic fashion—after crashing on the bike, he worked his way back up through the field and out-sprinted Germany’s Stefan Vuckovic in the final meters to take the coveted first gold medal.
He competed in all four Olympic triathlons held thus far, earning two podium spots throughout his career including a silver in 2008. (Unfortunately his last Olympic bid in London in 2012 ended with a crash on the bike.) In a 2011 issue of Inside Triathlon, former training partner Craig Alexander said, “I think Simon’s legacy in triathlon will be as one of the greatest male triathletes in our sport’s history. … He will always be remembered for being triathlon’s first male Olympic champion, but he has also won so much more. His legacy to us personally will be as a happy guy who loves to have fun, and as a good friend.”
With a Commonwealth Games gold to his credit, 14 ITU World Cup victories and 12 Canadian national titles, Whitfield’s Olympic distance résumé goes much deeper than his most memorable Olympic moments. He recently retired from the sport at the age of 38 without ever seriously venturing into non-drafting races to pursue a career in sports entertainment.
Photo: Frank Wechsel/Triathlon.org
6. Chris McCormack
At the start of his career, Australia’s Chris McCormack seemed best suited for the Olympic distance. In 1997 he won the ITU World Series and the ITU World Championship, where he knocked off England’s Simon Lessing, who was considered the best triathlete in the world at the time. McCormack was ranked No. 3 in the world when he was left off the Australian team for the first-ever Olympic triathlon in 2000. Angry at the snub, he changed his focus to non- drafting events around the world and in 2000, 2001 and 2002 he won 33 consecutive triathlons including The Goodwill Games, Escape from Alcatraz, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, among others.
When he made the move to the iron distance he was just as dominant, winning Ironman Australia five times and Challenge Roth four.
But, just like Mark Allen before him, when it came to winning the most important event in triathlon, the Ironman World Championship in Kona, McCormack faltered. In his first attempt in 2002, he dropped out during the marathon. In 2003 he ended up walking most of the marathon and finished 59th before dropping out again in 2004.
In 2005, things started to turn around for him: He took sixth and had the fastest marathon of the day. In 2006 he finished second, only 71 seconds behind Germany’s Normann Stadler. In 2007 he finally won the Ironman world title, the biggest victory of his career. The man known as “Macca” was also one of the best tactical racers around and he proved that when he beat a younger Andreas Raelert at the 2010 Ironman World Championship in the last mile of the race for his second IM world championship.
Macca gets the nod ahead of Peter Reid because of his diverse list of accomplishments, even though both have three Ironman world titles. Whitfield’s accomplishments in the most demanding and infrequent championship, the Olympics, and his long list of World Cup wins can’t quite override Macca’s mastery of the two most competitive disciplines in triathlon. And Macca’s outsize personality, with which he blessed the sport with bitter feuds, boastful comments and cunning mind games, drove not just him but also some of his contemporaries to their very best. Other wilted under Macca’s pressure.
Photo: Paul Phillips
5. Alistair Brownlee
Every so often, a talent comes along that is more than just special—it’s game-changing. Alistair Brownlee is, without a doubt, one of those talents. The reigning Olympic gold medalist was primed as a junior for speed, and his record over the course of his career—relatively short considering he’s only 25—is mind-blowing.
His effect on ITU racing has been absolutely profound; he rarely comes from behind—he just dominates the entire race. Since 2009 (when he was just 21) Brownlee has been unquestionably the best ITU racer in the world, winning 16 of the 21 premier-level ITU races in that span, including WCS, WTS and Olympic events. His list of championships is shorter than many athletes ranked lower on this list, but his clear dominance separates Brownlee’s brilliant career from others who achieved as much over a longer period of time.
His peak, which we’re still in the midst of, has been as brilliant as any triathlete competing in any discipline in the sport’s history. If he keeps up anywhere near the amount of victories he’s had in his career already, Brownlee has the potential to be at the top of this list in the future.
Photo: Delly Carr/Triathlon.org
4. Simon Lessing
Just as Alistair Brownlee is dominating ITU racing today, Simon Lessing was the unquestioned top athlete in the 1990s. From 1992 to 1999, Lessing was on the ITU World Championships podium seven times, winning four world titles, taking second twice and third once. He was the best swimmer, best cyclist and best runner in the sport—no one could touch Lessing when he was on form.
While short-course racing was his specialty, Lessing made an impact on many other disciplines as well. He added a 1995 ITU Long Distance world championship win at the Nice Triathlon, victories at Escape from Alcatraz and Wildflower second place at the 2006 Ironman 70.3 World Championship and a win at Ironman Lake Placid. An Olympic medal is the only thing missing from his résumé. Lessing came up short in the 2000 Sydney Olympics despite entering the race as the favorite. That big caveat makes the distinction between Lessing and Brownlee incredibly narrow, as both athletes were similarly dominant at their peaks in the hyper-competitive ITU. Lessing gets the edge on account of a longer period atop the ITU and more career world titles as well as his long-course achievements, which Brownlee has yet to pursue.
Photo: Delly Carr
3. Craig Alexander
Australian Craig “Crowie” Alexander first put himself on the triathlon map relatively late in his career when he won the 2005 Life Time Fitness Triathlon in Minneapolis. The event was the nationally televised “The Battle of the Sexes” and came with what was then the richest first-place check in triathlon: $200,000. He was 32 years old and without a historically great list of results to his name.
The following year, Alexander won the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater, Fla., which automatically qualified him for the 2007 Ironman World Championship. There he finished second to fellow Aussie Chris McCormack.
One of the most consistent and prolific racers in history, Alexander had 17 Ironman 70.3 wins and one world title from 2007 to 2010 as well as two Ironman world championships. Despite being injured and sick for a big portion of the 2011 season, Alexander won Ironman Coeur d’Alene before becoming the only male triathlete to win both the Ironman 70.3 World Championship (his second) and the Ironman World Championship (his third) in the same year. He is also one of only four men—Dave Scott, Mark Allen and Peter Reid are the others—to have more than two Ironman World Championship titles.
During his 2011 Kona win, Alexander set the current course record of 8:03:56, breaking Luc Van Lierde’s 1996 mark of 8:04:08. And at 38 years old at the time, he also became the oldest male triathlete to win the race.
In 2012 he added to his list of accomplishments with a win at Ironman Melbourne and took second place at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship. In June of 2013 he turned 40, but still won three 70.3 races and proved that for the man they call Crowie, age is just a number.
For a half-decade span his dominance of two distances, iron and half-iron, and the five world titles he accumulated over that period set him apart from Lessing, Brownlee and McCormack.
Photo: Nils Nilsen
2. Dave Scott
Dave Scott was more than just the biggest name in triathlon in the ‘80s; he, along with Mark Allen, are synonymous with the 140.6 distance. Scott found triathlon in its very early days, when only a select few had raced or even heard of triathlon, and singlehandedly wrote the modern definition of an “elite” Ironman performance.
Scott could reasonably be called the Roger Bannister of triathlon. He set the standard—he was the first guy to go under 11 hours, first guy to go under 10:30, under 10, under 9:30, under 9, under 8:30. There were no limits. from 1980 to 1996 he was at the top of the sport.
Scott’s Iron War battle with Allen in the 1989 Ironman Hawaii was one of the most exciting and clearly the most famous race the sport has ever seen. While Craig Alexander boasts a more diverse record—with 70.3 titles to complement his Ironman achievements—Scott blazed the trail for athletes like Alexander by first hitting a level that would still be world-class today. Being the first to break a barrier is hardest, and Scott did so more than anyone else in Ironman. Plus, six world titles (with several coming against the first-ranked person on this list) is worth quite a lot. Even in 1994, at the age of 40, Scott finished second in Kona. Two years later, he placed fifth.
Photo: Lois Schwartz
1. Mark Allen
Placing Mark Allen at No. 1 was the easiest decision of this entire list. He was the best in the world at every discipline at various points in his career and is nearly universally held up as the greatest of all time by current and former professionals.
Allen won the Nice Triathlon, then one of the biggest in the world, 10 times and the first-ever ITU World Championship in Avignon, France. His short-course credentials are incredible, but Ironman is where Allen left his most lasting mark on the sport.
After six attempts in Kona, Allen finally broke through on his seventh try against his nemesis, Dave Scott, the six-time champion, on Oct. 14, 1989. The two had a battle for the ages and destroyed Scott’s existing course record time of 8:28:37. After swimming and cycling within meters of each other, Allen broke away 23.5 miles into the marathon on the last uphill on the course. Scott finished that day with a time that would have won every previous Ironman World Championship: 8:10:13. Allen was a minute faster at 8:09:15.
Up until that day, Mark Allen had won every major triathlon on the planet, except the Ironman World Championship. The lava fields of the Kona Coast belonged to six-time champion Dave Scott. Beating Scott on his turf on a day when Scott took 18 minutes off of his own course record and ran 2:41:03, eight minutes faster than he had ever run before, was a turning point in Allen’s career. Mark Allen became a true legend that day.
Allen was a dominant force on the triathlon scene from the early 1980s through his final race in Kona at the age of 37 in 1995. He ended up winning his sixth and final Ironman World Championship in dramatic fashion by coming from more than 12 minutes down off the bike to run down Germany’s Thomas Hellriegel in the final miles of the marathon. After he won his last title, Allen walked away from the sport still at the very top of his game.
Photo: Lois Schwartz
Also look out for Triathlete.com’s upcoming lists of the 25 Greatest Female Athletes of All Time, the 20 Biggest Kona Meltdowns, and 20 Greatest Gear Innovations of All Time.
Bob Babbitt, Oliver Baker, Adam Elder, Aaron Hersh, Liz Hichens, Bethany Mavis and Jené Shaw contributed to this list.
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