Olympic medallist and defending champion to go head-to-head in Ironman 70.3 Melbourne clash

Steve McKenna as title defender at IM 70.3 Melbourne (Picture: press release IM)

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games medallist Hayden Wilde and defending champion Steve McKenna take top billing at this Sunday’s Ironman 70.3 Melbourne, with the pair to go head-to-head for the first time. The men’s professional field features 22 athletes, with a number of Ironman 70.3 and Ironman race winners mixed in amongst the start list.

New Zealand’s Hayden Wilde will take on his first IM 70.3 since contesting his home event in Taupō back in 2019 and heads to Melbourne having set a new course best time on his way to victory last weekend at the Noosa Triathlon.

While Wilde will be racing for the win on Sunday, he also has one eye on securing a qualification spot for next December’s 2024 IM 70.3 World Championships to be held in his hometown of Taupō, New Zealand.

“I’m looking forward to it, the preparations have gone really well,” said Wilde. “I got into the aero tunnels in the velodrome to get as much opportunity to be as fast as possible, so I think I’ll be pretty sweet until about the 60k mark and then we’ll see how the legs go from there. And then just really keen to get on the run and post a fast half marathon. But yeah, looking forward to it and hopefully I can get that qualification slot.

“I guess there’s a little bit more risk heading into this one because I know that everyone on the start line is also looking for the qualification,” he said. “You can sometimes turn up to some of the top races and a lot of the guys would already be qualified and they’re just racing to be racing, but this one I know no one will have a qualification spot so everything is kind of up for grabs in Melbourne.”

The 26-year-old is keen to lock in that spot at next year’s IM 70.3 World Championship as soon as possible so he can focus on another strong Olympic Games result at Paris 2024.

“One of the main reasons for me competing in Melbourne is so I can get a qualification spot for Taupō. I was born in Taupō so it would be extremely rude not to be able to race in front of the place I was born, so I’d love to race,” said Wilde. “But obviously full focus on Paris, it’s the main reason why I’m still racing so late into the year so I can kind of just tick that box and not have to worry about Taupō in December next year. So definitely the plan is to get that ticked off, get my feet up for a few weeks and then start really preparing for Paris, and then there’s about a four-month block which is kind of perfect heading into Taupō so I can really get back on the time trial bike and really get into the best physical shape I can get into for a the World Champs at home.”

Adelaide’s Steve McKenna will be out to make sure that Wilde doesn’t have everything his own way on Sunday. The 32-year-old has had another strong year of racing, with a win at Ironman Australia in May and second place finishes at the IM Asia-Pacific Championship Cairns and IM 70.3 Geelong.

“The body is great, I’ve trained a little less into this race and fed off my Europe training to lower the volume and simply nail key sessions between more rest than usual,” said McKenna. “My body needed it, but also it has responded really well fitness wise. After a long year of base Ironman work this is probably what I needed for a great end to the season.”

McKenna claimed victory in Melbourne last November, debuting a robot-style dance as he took the finish tape and despite having fun as he crossed the line the race meant a lot to him. “Seeing as I turned into a robot as I came across the line I felt nothing, I joke,” said McKenna. “It is definitely the best feeling outside of children and special family moments. We work so hard as athletes in this sport, so having your dreams come true breaking an Ironman tape is a great emotional experience.

“Looking ahead to Sunday I expect each leg to be as hard as it ever has been with some strong Aussies and Wilde from New Zealand coming too, we will be full throttle from start to finish,” he said.

While there is rightly plenty of focus on Wilde and McKenna, West Australian athlete Nick Thompson has burst onto the scene in his debut season as a professional, culminating in victory at September’s Qatar Airways Ironman 70.3 Sunshine Coast.

“The body is feeling pretty good, I’ve had a pretty good run staying injury free these past few months while trying to increase load for Ironman Western Australia in just under four weeks’ time,” said Thompson. “The taper and race this week should be a good opportunity to freshen up then rip in.

“The race in the Sunshine Coast was unreal. It was awesome being able to go head-to-head with some of the best long course athletes in the country and above all else I think it made me feel like I belong a bit more at this level,” he said. “Looking at Sunday’s start list I think anyone could take the race, it’s a really solid field which is really exciting. I’m expecting it to be fast throughout and hopefully a really honest battle between us all.” 

Also set to line up in St Kilda on Sunday is 2022 Garmin Noosa Triathlon champion Charlie Quin, former Ironman 70.3 race winner Nicholas Free and IM race winners Matt Burton and Nicholas Kastelein.