woman running

Endurance sports: Swiss women at the top

Swiss women are at the top of their disciplines in triathlon, ski mountaineering, trail running, orienteering and mountain biking, but they're hardly household names. So what keeps them going – and winning – these toughest of athletes?

On 25 October 2019, Judith Wyder won the Annapurna Trail Marathon in Pokhara, Nepal. This was her début skyrunning season after switching from orienteering, in which she is six times world champion. She took the Golden Trail World Series 2019 title minutes ahead of Maude Mathys from the canton of Vaud, three-time European trail champion and last summer's winner of the Sierre-Zinal mountain race.

Last October, there had been high hopes for Daniela Ryf from Solothurn, who took a disappointing 13th place at the Ironman World Championship In Hawaii, after winning for four years straight. In Nice the previous month, Ryf had pocketed her fifth world title in the Half Ironman distance (4 hours 23 minutes of endurance all the same). The shorter Olympic distance marathon is the preserve of Zurich's Nicola Spirig, who won gold at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. St Gallen athlete Jolanda Neff is still waiting for her Olympic gold. The 26-year-old five times world champion in mountain bike cross-country qualified last October in Tokyo for the next Olympic Games.

Cyclist on the Urnerseite of the Furkapasses.

Ultimate women athletes

There's nothing new about this multitude of Swiss women competing at the highest level in so many endurance disciplines. With her 23 world championship titles, Simone Niggli-Luder from Bern dominated orienteering like no one before. Natascha Badmann was the first European triathlete to win the Ironman World Championship title. She repeated this feat six times in the course of her career. Joanna Ryter is now treading in her footsteps. The 25-year-old from Neuchâtel just made the podium in the professional circuit for the first time in her career, a year after winning the Hawaii Ironman in the U23 category.


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Among the most promising newcomers is Neuchâtel's Marianne Fatton, 23, ski mountaineering junior world champion in 2017 and double bronze medallist this last spring at the ISMF SkiMo World Championships in Villars (Relay and Team events). In In May 2019, another Neuchâtel athlete, Loanne Duvoisin won the M23 world title in cross triathlon in Pontevedra, Spain, two days after the victory of Delia Sclabas from Bern, now three-time world junior duathlon champion.


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The benefits of being Swiss

Are Swiss women the Kenyans of trail running or the Jamaicans of ski mountaineering? "In triathlon, coming from Switzerland is a good thing, that's true," says Joanna Ryter. So what are the benefits of being Swiss? "We have the right conditions, with all types of terrain in easy access. The lakes and swimming pools are not too polluted, roads are relatively safe for cycling. It doesn't sound like much, but abroad we are sometimes reluctant to go out to train in the run-up to competitions."

In Zug, former TV presenter Janine Geigele handles the PR of many athletes, including Daniela Ryf, Nicola Spirig and Jolanda Neff. Does she think they have anything in common? "I've often asked myself this question," she says. "I think the explanation lies in putting together a puzzle: talent, the people around you, infrastructure, the potential to find sponsors in a rich country. What I have observed is that there is a lot of contact between these athletes. For example, it was Nicola Spirig who advised Daniela Ryf to work with her coach, Brett Sutton, at a difficult time in her career. I also know that if either of them gets pregnant, she asks and gets a lot of advice from those who have already been there."


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Culture of resourcefulness

In other countries, these top results can be explained by well-structured federations, like in France where some 200 athletes ensure worldwide success in the biathlon. In Switzerland, it's rather the opposite. "We don't have this culture of elite sports and athletes are often left to fend for themselves," says former triathlete and marathon runner Magali Di Marco. A champion like Maude Mathys has never had a system to rely on, but in these sports where the federations are not all that powerful, that is not necessarily a handicap. Having to spend nine months a year in Magglingen (the Swiss Federal Institute of Sport) doesn't suit everyone...""

"It's not much better in triathlon, even if it is an Olympic discipline," says Joanna Ryter. In Switzerland, we help the next generation a little, but not really the elite athletes. You have to raise your own funds and get by, which can become an advantage because you remain free to choose your programme, your coach and your equipment." For Di Marco that's what makes us strong in little-known sports, "for as long as other countries aren't pouring funding into these disciplines."

A top training ground

Former triathlon champion Grégoire Millet is a professor at the Institute of Sport Sciences at the University of Lausanne. "At the macro level, Switzerland is a country with higher than average physical activity and lower obesity levels. There are a great many popular competitions, major events, so it's a top training ground", he says.

But the renowned specialist in high-altitude training does not subscribe to the theory that Swiss women are naturally better at endurance sports. "There is not an overwhelming Swiss presence in marathon or in Nordic skiing, where there are few competitors waiting to take the place of Nathalie von Siebenthal, who has just retired. Even sports with a high-density of [Swiss] athletes are – with the exception of triathlon – less globalised, non-Olympic disciplines, in which many countries do not invest. So there's less competition."

Trainer and sport historian Pierre Morath doesn't mince his words. "These are disciplines for the rich; they are expensive and offer little financial gain." For the documentary filmmaker, such sports demand the sort of detached patronage practised by the aristocrats of the last century. "For women, they also presuppose a degree of autonomy and empowerment that is not available everywhere. And we are talking about relatively new sports that are often linked to expensive new technologies, which require the existence of a wealthy middle class. Without wanting to diminish their achievements, when you look at all these conditions, it's clear why Switzerland and Swiss women excel."

Taking inspiration from Norway

To demonstrate a true propensity to succeed in these sports, Grégoire Millet says Switzerland would have to learn from Norway, which is "very much at the forefront in supporting scientific research applied to elite sport" and obtains good results in every endurance discipline for a relatively similar population and standard of living. For the academic "there is a lack of shared vision and applied research here. About ten doctoral positions attached to federations providing half of the funding would already be a large step in the right direction".

In the meantime, these Swiss women have the mindset to succeed and are managing pretty well on their own. "These are all sports where character plays a key role," says Joanna Ryter. I often say that your body gets you to the finish line, but it is your head that allows you to cross it. Maybe in Switzerland, we get that from our education, this ability to follow through."

Translation of an article by Laurent Favre, published in Le Temps, October 2019.