Chrissie Wellington is Iron Lady who deserves your vote

Chrissie Wellington celebrates her fourth Hawaii Ironman win on Saturday

STEVEN DOWNES, the editor of the SJA website, suggests that a steely determined triathlete at the weekend laid the strongest claim yet to becoming the Sportswoman of the Year

For the past five years or so, we have endeavoured to create more interest around the British Sports Awards and help SJA members sift through their decision of who to vote for by providing a selection of features about the merits of the leading contenders.

We have been fortunate to have our content “donated” by some of the country’s leading sports journalists, by writers who were there, at the trackside, on the roadside, on the touchline or by the poolside throughout the previous 12 months, witnessing some great sporting endeavour at first-hand. And invariably, I’ve been expected to volunteer my two penn’orth, too. But this past weekend, my task – of choosing an outstanding sportsman or woman to advocate, got appreciably easier.

Even within sports, the choices are usually invidious: how can you differentiate the comparative claims of the winner of the US Open with the man who took the Open title at Sandwich? Which world athletics silver medal is “better” – 1,500 metres or heptathlon?

When it comes to weighing up the relative merits across different sports, the process becomes almost impossible: is a 800m freestyle world title better than being world champion at triathlon?

I had been minded to make a case for Helen Jenkins to be the SJA Sportswoman of the Year, after she won the triathlon world title for the first time this year. Like Formula 1 motor racing, the world title in triathlon is now determined by a year-long season of races, so Jenkins had to be outstanding all year long.

But on Saturday, another woman in the same sport laid an even greater claim to being recognised by SJA members as our 2011 Sportswoman of the Year: Chrissie Wellington.

Wellington is nothing short of a phenomenon. On Saturday, the 34-year-old former civil servant from Norfolk won the Hawaii Ironman. For the fourth time. In five years.

Let’s not underestimate quite how tough the Hawaii Ironman race is. This is the event which “invented” the sport of triathlon, with its 2.4-mile swim through the Pacific swells, a 112-mile bike ride across the lava fields and all finished off with a full marathon run. Wellington’s race on Saturday took her nearly nine hours. The likes of Jenkins and Alistair Brownlee, our outstanding male triathlon world champion in the made-for-TV, sanitised Olympic distance version of the sport, usually get to swim in still-water lakes, cycle just 25 miles and finish off with a mere 10km sprint.

And let’s not underestimate how iron-tough Wellington is. She only took up the sport in 2004. She might have been going for her fifth straight Hawaii win this year, but for illness on the eve of the 2010 event which prevented her from racing. This year, a crash on her bike two weeks ago left her bruised and injured, and nearly ruled her out of competing, too.

Wellington normally blitzes her races from the front, and she has set a series of world records and course records on the long-distance triathlon circuit, including her latest, the 8hr 18min 13sec world record for the 226.3-mile Ironman distance which she set in Germany in July this year, where she finished off the race with a 2hr 44min marathon run. Inevitably, Wellington holds the course record for the classic Hawaii race, 8:54:02, set in 2009, and bettering a record that had stood since 1992.

One of Wellington’s world records was set while she was suffering from shingles. Another was accomplished despite cycling the last three miles of the bike course on a flat tyre. Last year, she had to go undergo major surgery to repair broken bones in her arm and rib cage after a bike crash when training near her UK home at Richmond, but she returned to racing five months later for her latest undefeated season.

Because of the intense demands of her races, even Wellington is rarely able to race more than five or six times a year. In her last 21 races, stretching back to July 2008, she has lost just twice.

Your votes for the SJA Sportswoman of the Year award, of course, ought to be based on performances in 2011 rather than career achievements. But a fourth Ironman world championship and yet another world record by Chrissie Wellington this year is plenty good enough to get my vote.