Famous Triathletes: John Collins

Modern triathlon’s first staging in San Diego was a huge success. And a husband-and-wife team, who later on will be instrumental in setting the direction of the sport of triathlon, was among the forty six eager participants who showed up on race day of the 1974 Mission Bay Triathlon.

John and Judy Collins
(image via www.ironman.com)

Who is John Collins?

John Collins, then a Commander of the United States Navy, got posted in San Diego, California in the 1970s. A fitness enthusiast, John, along with his wife Judy, would regularly join the athletic competitions in and around the Pacific Beach community. John Collins would later retire as a Captain of the US Navy.

Participation in the 1974 Mission Bay Triathlon

On September 25, 1974, John, Judy, along with their kids Michael and Kristin, then only 13 and 12 years old, eagerly signed up for the race organized by Jack Johntone and Don Shanahan.

Then-Commander Collins successfully finished the race. However, his name didn’t get included in the official results, which incidentally, also bore no one in the 35th place. After learning that Judy was the Commander’s wife, organizer Jack Johnstone listed John as the overall 35th finisher with a time of 79:19 minutes. Years later though, Johnstone would receive a call from Judy, saying that John was certain, as were others present at the race, that he finished in 71 minutes, thus placing him in the 22nd or 23rd place.

Concept for the Ironman

John Collins got posted from the mainland United States to Hawaii and so the family had to leave the bustling sporting community of San Diego. While new in Oahu, John Collins nevertheless continued to actively participate in the various athletic competitions held in the island.

At the awarding ceremonies of the 1977 Oahu Perimeter Relay, John and Judy were sitting at a table with close friends and colleagues. At the banquet, the argument on which athlete, the runner or the swimmer, was fitter, came up. Collins, having read about champion cyclist Eddy Merckx’s incredible oxygen uptake, mentioned that cyclists may just be the strongest. Of course, Collins’ input didn’t help the friendly discourse one bit.

That’s when the off the wall idea for the Ironman came to Collins. He thought; why not incorporate the three major athletic events held in the island into one? Surely, racing the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the Oahu Perimeter Relay, and the Honolulu Marathon continuously, would finally help settle their argument as to which athlete was fittest.

Clearly inspired with the idea, he went to the stage during the commissioned band’s intermission. He then issued the challenge and said that whoever gets to the finish line first will be aptly called the Ironman.

First ever Ironman race

John’s idea didn’t immediately take off though there were a handful of persistent folks who would regularly ask the Commander about when they would finally do the three-part race. Finally, in 1978, it was the Collins family’s turn to organize an athletic event in the island, and so they went right into preparing for the first ever Ironman race.

Race day was practically humdrum, with only 18 competitors showing up. Of these, three would drop out prior to commencement of the event, and three would be unsuccessful in finishing the course.

John Collins, the creator of this crazy grueling race, would finish in a little under 17 hours. Meanwhile, Gordon Haller, a taxi cab driver who was a retired Communications Specialist of the US Navy, dominated the race after having finished the course in 11 hours, 46 minutes, and 58 seconds, becoming the first ever Ironman in history.

Handing over the Ironman

The Collins family again staged the Ironman in 1979. Originally, 50 athletes signed up for the race. Many dropped out due to bad weather on race day though. This competition was meanwhile won by Tom Warren.

The following year in 1980, John Collins and family again had to move out of Hawaii due to the Commander’s job. But prior to leaving, Collins entrusted the show box full of race entries to Hank Gruenman, the fellow who owned the Nautilus Fitness Clubs that helped out during the two prior Ironman races.

No money exchanged between the two though Collins made sure to lay down two conditions; that his family could enter the race whenever they wanted; and that slots always be reserved for folks who aren’t professional athletes. Gruenman would consequently hand over this shoe box to then-wife Valerie Silk, who will later play a huge role in making Ironman the popular race that it is today.

Sources:

Triathlon – The Early History of the Sport

An Officer and a Gentleman – John Collins

From Unlikely Challenge to International Sensation

Famous Triathletes: Don Shanahan

Participating in the two prior Dave Pain Birthday Biathlons gave Jack Johnstone the inspiration to stage his very own multi-sport event. However, what he had in mind was to have more alternating runs and swims. Including the cycling leg was another man’s idea.

Who is Don Shanahan?

Don Shanahan moved to San Diego, California in 1972 as required by his job with the marines. A health buff very keen on running, Shanahan eventually joined the San Diego Track Club, one of the many track and field groups that emerged due to the explosion of the jogging craze in the early 1970s. Shanahan would later become one of the board members of the San Diego Track Club.

Introduced to cycling

Shanahan was nursing an injury from running. A sport buff through and through, this did not stop him from pursuing other sports. Through a friend, he got introduced to cycling which back then was not yet a popular discipline. Needless to say, he grew fond of the sport that he considered including it in a multi-sport race he was thinking of staging with the help of the SDTC.

Collaboration with Jack Johnstone

Still in the planning stages of the multi-sport race he was looking to conduct, Shanahan received a call from fellow SDTC member Jack Johnstone. Johnstone, at this time, had already conferred with Bill Stock, then in-charge of the club’s calendar of activities.

Pioneer triathletes Bill Phillips, Don Shanahan, and Jack Johnstone
(image via www.triathlonhistory.com)

Johnstone wanted to put the race he designed into the club’s calendar. Stock readily agreed though advised Johnstone to call Shanahan for the latter also had a unique concept for a race. Perhaps the two could incorporate their ideas into one so as not to have too many unusual races on the club’s official lineup of activities.

Johnstone, having no prior experience in competitive cycling, was not too keen on Shanahan’s idea of including a bike leg. But Johnstone nonetheless agreed and both proceeded to make the necessary arrangements for the competition.

Planning the very first modern triathlon

The event, which they dubbed the Mission Bay Triathlon, was finally set on September 25, 1974 and would consist of run-bike-run-swim-run legs. They then commissioned a short ad on the San Diego Track Club Newsletter, making sure to mention that competitors bring their own bikes. Since there were not too many races at that time, and given that the sporting community in the Pacific Beach area was very close-knit, it did not take long for word of the triathlon event to get out.

The two-man organizing team managed to pool volunteers to serve as lifeguards. Making sure the competitors’ shoes, which will surely be damp and smelly, will be at the starting line of every run leg, will be taken care of by an additional volunteer support crew which will comprise of Johnstone’s wife and other folks.

Staging the very first modern triathlon

On September 25, 1974, forty six enthusiastic competitors turned up. This surprised Shanahan and Johnstone. For one, they barely had a month to disseminate information regarding the event. Secondly, race day was on a weekday, and scheduled for late afternoon as well. Surely folks would be too tired from work to even bother showing up, much less race multiple legs of running, biking, and swimming.

Being on a very tight budget, the competition lacked logistics-wise. In fact, Shanahan had to make last minute arrangements and requested those with cars to turn their vehicles’ headlights on to provide light for those emerging from the last swim leg. But the event, considered the first ever modern triathlon in history, was a success. Bill Phillips, who won the Dave Pain Birthday Biathlon, emerged victorious at the 1974 Mission Bay Triathlon.

Sources:

Triathlon – The Early History of the Sport

Don Shanahan Interview