The 31-year-old Canadian had not set foot on an elite start line in a year since triumphing at CHALLENGEDAYTONA® in 2019.
But it was like she had never been away as the strongest field in triathlon history was put to the sword in incredible style through this 100km test of endurance at the iconic motorsport venue.
Paula was faultless in all three disciplines as she came home comfortably in front of reigning IRONMAN World Champion Anne Haug. The German superstar had been up against it even before she incurred a two-minute drafting penalty during the bike leg.
Haug eventually set off on the 18km run more than six minutes adrift of the eventual winner, which proved a gap too far. She scorched through the field into second place, but was never in with a real chance of catching Findlay.
Coming into the race Paula had been full of confidence after a year without any injury interruptions. Even she though didn’t quite expect what was about to unfold.
Findlay (25:00) came out of the water seventh behind the trail-blazing Briton Lucy Hall, but she transformed the shape of the race on the bike.
Paula shared the workload at the front of the field with Lisa Norden. She came into T2 just behind the Swedish star after a 1:51:13 bike split, but she emerged in front on the back of a smooth transition.
The run was a virtual cruise for Paula as she gradually turned the screw. Norden meanwhile was soon reduced to walking pace by a torn calf muscle suffered just weeks before the race.
As Findlay dominated, the only question now was whether Haug’s blistering run prowess could recover that huge gap, or if that year away from on-course action would see Paula falter in the closing stages.
The answer to both was in the negative as Findlay completed the run in 1:06:26 to claim the $100,000 first prize amid memorable scenes with a time of 3:24:55.
A perfect day for Paula
She said: “This is so crazy. I don’t even know what to say. I didn’t expect that obviously. I just felt good all day. Just one of those perfect days that never happens, but it happened today.”
Paula added: “Lisa’s such an amazing time trialist, so I knew if I was within 20m of her I was in a good spot. I’m excited for next year, it’s good to have a race like this, the only race of the year.”
Haug classy in defeat
Haug’s superb run split of 1:05:01 was enough to easily claim second place and $70,000, but she ended the day more than two minutes adrift of the winner.
“It happens (the penalty), and I made the best out of it. Paula was just better today. It was a great race.
“I never give up because the race is over after the finish line and anything can happen.
“For me a race is never over, and I would never drop out because of a penalty.
“By the way, it was my first penalty ever!”
Haug’s fellow German Laura Philipp overcame considerable discomfort to surprise even herself by finishing third to claim prize money of $50,000.
“Really amazing, I didn’t know I was third. I had really bad cramps after the bike. I am really proud of my head and my legs so it’s amazing.”