“The pain we feel in sports is not negative like pain on the dentist chair… our pain makes you feel alive. I want to do it!”
That recent quote in many ways sums up Germany’s Sebastian Kienle.
Passionate, disciplined and determined, Kienle’s name would be on the shortlist of any triathlon fan in the world when asked who their favourite athlete is. Respected and feared in equal measure, Sebastian’s ‘uberbiker’ exploits are a highlight of any race he starts.
First exposed to the sport aged eight when he was a spectator at a small local race, ‘Sebi’ began competing in triathlons four years later and knew that he wanted to a professional triathlete. A quarter of a century later, having won every major championship that a long-distance triathlete can, he is still challenging at the very top.
His passion for the sport is reflected when asking what he is most proud of. It’s not a race victory or a winner’s cheque, but “…that I took the risk to listen to my heart and that lead me to where I am now”. Something we can all learn from.
Making the world take notice
Kienle first started collecting wins in Europe well over a decade ago. On German soil in 2009 he topped the podium at both IRONMAN 70.3 Wiesbaden and Challenge Kraichgau, and he wasted little time in going even longer.
His debut over the iron distance, also in Germany, came at Challenge Roth in 2010 when even a sub-eight hour finish (only the 13th male athlete at the time to achieve that feat), left him six-and-a-half minutes down on Denmark’s Rasmus Henning. Twelve months later he returned and went even quicker… only for his compatriot, Andreas Raelert to smash the world best ahead of him. His time would come though.
Race wins and top performances followed, but Kienle truly announced himself to the triathlon world in emphatic fashion in September 2012. The IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship in Henderson, Nevada was the venue - and the bike course delivered a moment that few will forget.
Three minutes in arrears after the opening 1.9km swim - not unusual for Sebi - he proved his uberbiker status over the next 90km. The race-coverage helicopter caught the moment that Kienle caught and passed the leaders, something he did in such a decisive manner that his bike time was more than five minutes quicker than anyone.
This wasn’t a case of ‘bike splits for show’ however. Sebastian proved he could run too, taking the Gold and his first World Championship title, pushing defending champion Craig Alexander into second place. From that point on, there would be no ‘under the radar’ status for the impressive German.
The IRONMAN World Championship in Kona is a notoriously difficult race for first-timers. His fourth-place finish (despite a flat tyre) on his Hawaii debut, just five weeks after Las Vegas, suggested that Kienle had what it took to compete for victory in future years. He has been proving that ever since.
Another IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship followed in 2013, and his second start in Kona this time saw him secure a podium spot, taking the Bronze medal behind Frederik Van Lierde and Luke McKenzie.
Kienle’s build-up to Hawaii in 2014 was not perfect. “I’ve had Achilles problems, and you need to have nearly perfect preparation to win this race,” he said.
Sebi reached dry land at Dig Me Beach after the opening 3.8km swim, three-and-a-half minutes down on the leading duo of Andy Potts and Jan Frodeno. The wind picked up on the lava fields - something a strong bike like Sebastian would welcome - and well before the halfway mark, that deficit had been eliminated.
Simply closing the gap was not enough however, and with memories of his efforts in Las Vegas, he hit the metaphorical accelerator on the return from Hawi. He reached T2 and the start of the marathon three minutes up on Maik Twelsiek, and a further five minutes on the next group of challengers.
If his bike split put him in position to win, his marathon run closed the deal. A 2:54:36 wasn’t the fastest, but it was still more than enough for him to enjoy the finish line on Ali’i Drive and an IRONMAN World Championship title. Second-placed Ben Hoffman arrived more than five minutes later.
“You could never feel safe, I just tried to push until the end… I’m so happy that I had enough in the tank to finally win it.”
Kienle’s CV has been collecting medals and victories ever since - second (2016) and third (2019) in Kona, second (2015 and 2016) at the IRONMAN 70.3 Worlds and three IRONMAN European Championship victories amongst them.
He was also able to return to Challenge Roth - with another sub-eight hour finish - and this time top the podium in 2018, while his hard-fought victory at The Championship in Samorin in 2019 followed two memorable head-to-head battles with Lionel Sanders at the same event in the previous two editions. As with Roth, it was a case of third time’s a charm.
Despite such impressive statistics, Kienle’s passion is far deeper than simply race results.
“The level of freedom I enjoy in my sport and that I can inspire some people to pick up sports” is a huge driver,” he says.
Sebastian says Jan Frodeno is his biggest rival, the pair having shared many epic battles over the years. Thankfully for Team Europe, they will both be on the same side at The Collins Cup.
That is quite a daunting prospect for their opposition.