Famous Triathletes: Judy Collins

Many credit then-Commander John Collins for the creation of Ironman, the most grueling multi-sport competition in the world right now. If not for his wild idea to combine the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the Around Oahu Bike Race, and the Honolulu Marathon in one nonstop race, there wouldn’t be an Ironman in existence.

The unlikely concept for a race may be credited to John Collins, but handling the many aspects of the competition, specifically during the first two staged in 1978 and 1979, may be attributed to Judy Collins.

Who is Judy Collins?

Judy is none other than then-Commander John Collins’ wife. A housewife tending to two teenage kids in the mid 1970s, Judy would still find time to pursue her interest in sports. In fact, joining athletic competitions would become a family affair for the Collinses then, with husband and wife, as well as their two children Michael and Kristin, running in track meets together.

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

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

Participation in the first modern triathlon

John Collins was in 1974 stationed in San Diego, California. Both avid health buffs, John and Judy would practically be in every masters athletic competition in and around the area, which back then weren’t that many. Having gotten wind of the 1974 Mission Bay Triathlon organized by Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan, the couple eagerly signed up.

Race day was a late Wednesday afternoon on September 25, 1974. Judy, then 35 years old, placed 30th while the Commander was somewhere in the 22nd or 23rd place. Their children Kristin and Michael placed 33rd and 34th, respectively.

Contributions to Hawaii Ironman

The Collins family had to move to the scenic island of Oahu in Hawaii in the late 1970s due to the Commander’s job. In the island, it was not uncommon for families of armed forces personnel stationed there to each take turn to organize athletic competitions.

Having issued the unlikely concept for a race during a 1977 Oahu Perimeter Relay, the Commander would often get asked by those who have heard about it. Finally, in 1978, it was the Collins family’s turn to host an event, and the husband-and-wife team ultimately decided on staging the Ironman.

Preparation for the first Ironman was of course tedious. After disseminating information about the event, Judy helped organize manpower for the upcoming competition. Fortunately, Hank Grundman and Valerie Silk, then-owners of a chain of fitness shops in Hawaii, agreed to extend support.

Then crucial details for the event such as race course, rules, and other guidelines had to be straightened out. Judy was involved in ironing out said aspects. She also assisted in the tedious tasks like assembling trophies from scratch, the design of which was created especially by the Commander.

John Collins took part in the first ever Hawaii Ironman. Judy did not join the race though. Instead, she was her husband’s support crew that day.

Triathlon in Panama

In 1980, the Collinses again had to move for the Commander got assigned back to the mainland United States. Years would pass and the couple would have no idea how popular and successful the event they had conceptualized had become. Though Kristin and Michael would represent the Collins family to a handful of Hawaii Ironman competitions for years to follow, the couple would remain unacquainted of the event’s renown.

In the mid 1990s, John and Judy were already residing in Panama, in the scenic port city of Portobelo in Colon Province. Seeing as how the city was an ideal location for a triathlon, they wasted no time in organizing competitions there. John and Judy assisted in setting up a local triathlon association as well and eventually handed down the race organizing to the said group. In 1997, John and Judy would return to Hawaii Ironman and from then on would serve as ambassadors for triathlon, traveling to other countries to further spread the sport.

Sources:

Triathlon – The Early History Of The Sport

An Officer and a Gentleman – John Collins

Right Time, Right Place. Triathlon’s Roots Run Deep In San Diego.

Famous Triathletes: Gordon Haller

The Ironman triathlon finally got staged in 1978. Though it was only contested by 15 folks, three of whom unfortunately failed to complete the course, this competition will forever be remarkable for it is where some of the legends of triathlon came from.

Who is Gordon Haller?

Gordon Haller was then a 27 year old fitness enthusiast. A graduate of Physics from the Pacific University, Haller joined the US Navy as a Communications Specialist. He would later retire and do an assortment of jobs while in Hawaii.

In 1978, Haller was a taxi cab driver working the night shift. During the day, he would sleep and wake up past noon to do his workouts which would usually be running, cycling, or swimming. He’d then have a nap before going back to work.

Haller would often join local athletic competitions in the island, which back then, weren’t that many. At the Honolulu Marathon in 1978, Haller signed up along with a friend. But midway through the race, his foot injury acted up. Figuring he wouldn’t be able to do his usual fast pace, he decided to drop out as an official entrant. Still, he wanted to accompany his friend all the way through the course. Haller was at the local bike shop waiting for his friend to emerge. That’s when he overheard the shop owner talk about the dare then-Commander John Collins made.

Haller immediately thought that, indeed, he definitely can do this type of race. After all, he was already training in swimming, running, and cycling. The only difference is that this time, all three disciplines will have to be done continuously.

First ever Ironman triathlon

Haller was quite confident for aside from his usual workout routine, he’d been offered free training by the Nautilus Fitness Club in preparation for the race, courtesy of then-owners Hank Grundman and Valerie Silk.

Race day was on February 18, 1978 at the island of Oahu. Of the eighteen that had originally confirmed, only fifteen would proceed to start the race. After splashing out of the water, Haller proceeded to a nearby hotel to take a shower and change into his bike getup.

He then hopped on a borrowed high-geared bike. He had to switch to his trusty Raleigh tour bike which he normally uses to go to work when he reached the steep hills for the other bike became too difficult to pedal.

All the way through the two legs, Haller would be chasing John Dunbar, a college student who was his toughest opponent. Haller caught on Dunbar when the latter was having his legs massaged. He got past him too when Dunbar stopped to urinate. Surely he must be faster than this younger fellow for he kept catching up on him, Haller thought.

Gordon Haller and John Dunbar
(image via blog.naver.com)

Lastly, at the final leg of the race, Dunbar started to crumble from heat exhaustion and dehydration. Though his support crew finally found him after getting lost, their water supply for Dunbar had run out. Having no water to give him, they handed him beer, which Dunbar thirstily downed. He’d later become delirious, stumbling at parked cars.

Haller was meanwhile gunning it to the finish line. He mustered all his strength and completed the remaining 5 miles in astounding 31 minutes, finishing officially at 11 hours, 46 minutes, and 58 seconds. Dunbar would finish second at 12 hours and 20 minutes.

Second Ironman triathlon

The 1979 Ironman triathlon was fraught with logistical issues. Then-Commander Collins even had to move the race a day later because of extremely bad weather. The seas were perilously high making it impossible for a seasoned Navy officer to steer his sea vessels which he volunteered for the race out of the harbor. With only one rescue boat, thirteen of the original twenty eight competitors dropped out.

Haller was one of the brazen souls who would continue. He plunged into the high seas along with his navigator Jamie Neely. Unfortunately, Neely had to be rescued, leaving Haller without a guide in the ocean. This caused him his race, taking him almost two hours to swim back to the beach.

Tom Warren, a San Diego native, would snag the first place. John Dunbar, who donned a Superman costume during the race, and Ian Emberson, finished second and third respectively. Due to a disastrous swim, Haller would finish fourth.

Haller would continue to join triathlons and marathons, even flying to other countries like New Zealand just to do so. But unlike younger contemporaries who have enjoyed generous coverage for their athletic pursuits, Haller would remain in the background. But though this was the case, he’d successfully earned the distinction of being the first ever Ironman in history.

For a great podcast interview with Gordon Haller, visit the “Legends of Triathlon” podcast.

Sources:

Gordon Haller

Original Ironman still racing hard

Ironman

Ironman’s first champ, Gordon Haller, looks back 25 years

Competitor Radio interview with Gordon Haller

History of Triathlon: 1990

1990 was witness to a crucial transition period in the sport. It was the year that saw a change of leadership within the Triathlon Federation USA. Around the same time, Ironman Hawaii was transferred to its new owners as well.

Ironman Hawaii sold

Valerie Silk became the default owner and organizer of Ironman Hawaii since 1980. This was after Commander John Collins, Ironman’s creator, got posted to a different assignment and therefore could no longer handle the event in Hawaii.

According to Silk, she was apprehensive in taking over Ironman Hawaii as she was then quite busy handling two fitness clubs in downtown Honolulu which she and then husband Hank Grundman owned.

But while she only took the responsibility reluctantly, there’s no denying that the endurance competition flourished under her management. It was under her leadership that Ironman became wildly popular after garnering coveted coverage in both print and broadcast media. Ironman became a professional sporting competition under Silk as well, making the event highly profitable.

All the same, Silk decided to sell Ironman Hawaii, formally called Hawaiian Triathlon Corporation. In 1990, Dr. Jim Gill, an ophthalmologist and regular Ironman competitor, acquired the Ironman brand from Silk for $3 million. Gill then proceeded to establish the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), the for-profit organization that now handles and holds Ironman competitions around the globe.

Logo of the Ironman, a brand now owned by the World Triathlon Corporation (image via www.ironman.com)

Changes to the Officials Program

The triathlon Federation USA established its Officials Program and subsequently held training and certification for its officiating personnel as early as 1987. Through the program, the referees’ myriad functions were made clear. Not only were they tasked with officiating competitions, but it is their recommendations that ultimately predict whether or not a race organizer’s application for sanctioning will be approved or declined. Needless to say, the Officials Program served to solidify the referees’ authority.

With the leadership changes, however, were modifications to the Officials Program and competitive rules. The appeals section of the rule book was modified, a move which the pioneers and supporters of the original Officials Program saw as a way to accommodate elite athletes and a shortcut to making Tri-Fed’s rules more suitable for the International Triathlon Union.

These changes inevitably affected the referees and essentially reduced their role in the sport. The new Executive Director, perhaps in an effort to bridge the gap within the leadership, assigned an Officials Coordinator. But this was received negatively as the others only saw it as a maneuver to take control away from the Board of Officials, thus furthering the misunderstanding within the federation’s leaders, a rift which lasted for nearly two years.

Triathlon-themed fashion line for women

Triathlon’s effect was far-reaching and even influenced women’s fashion. In 1990, Danskin, a leading manufacturer of women’s dance wear, released a fashion line especially dedicated to women triathletes. Danskin organized women-only triathlon competitions in various cities in the U.S as well.

Sources:

If Valerie Silk Had Gotten Her Way, There May Never Have Been an Ironman

World Triathlon Corporation

The History of Competitive Rules 1985-1990

The Triathlon Officials’ Program 1983-1998

Women in Triathlon

History of Triathlon: 1980

The 1979 Hawaii Ironman Triathlon was fraught with logistical problems due to stormy weather during competition day. But while this was the case, the event will long be recognized as one of the most important in the history of triathlon as it was instrumental in further bringing the sport to the public.

Ironman on Sports Illustrated

The 1980 Hawaii Ironman Triathlon saw entries increase almost tenfold, thanks to an in-depth article about the 1979 Ironman which got featured on Sports Illustrated. Columnist Barry McDermott was on assignment to cover a golf tournament in Hawaii. Having heard of the upcoming three-sport race, he proceeded to the island of Oahu to document the event.  Entries increased to 108 in 1980 from a meager 15 the year prior after McDermott’s piece on the influential magazine appeared.

This picture is part of ‘Ironman” by Barry McDermott, article published in Sports Illustrated May 14, 1979. (image via tri247.com.au)

John Collins posted from Hawaii

By this time, the Collins family was in the process of packing up all of their belongings as Commander Collins got a transfer order. Commander Collins, aware that he will no longer be able to organize the 1980 event as well as the succeeding competitions, had to look for someone to take over his place.

He convinced Hank Grundman, the owner of two fitness clubs in the area, to take on the task. Commander Collins handed Grundman the “race box”, a shoe box used to store the entries. Commander Collins, when prompted by Grundman about what he wished in exchange for handing over the race, said that he wanted slots to always be reserved for ordinary folks, and that his family could always participate. Grundman then entrusted the race box to his then-wife Valerie Silk for safekeeping.

Television Coverage

Incidentally, among the dozen entries was a letter from ABC Sports. To secure the right to document the race, the show called Commander Collins well ahead of the staging of the third Ironman. The Commander agreed on the condition that the arrangement won’t cost him any money, and that ABC will bring its own equipment and crew.

Familiar Faces in the Crowd

Much like the second Ironman, this race in 1980 brought together longtime local athletes as well as prominent triathletes from around the country. There was Gordon Haller, the title holder for the first ever Ironman in 1978. Henry Forest and Ian Emberson, who both participated in the two prior races, were in attendance too. Tom Warren, the San Diego native who took the 1979 Ironman title, came back to compete as well. Ken Shirk, better known as “Cowman” for his quirky race getup, joined too.

Dave Scott won the 1980 Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. Furthermore, the competition was participated in not only by Americans, but by Australians as well. The race is not only crucial for having gained coverage from a major television network, but because it is the first Ironman event that attracted international participants.

Sources:

An Officer and a Gentleman – John Collins

History of Ironman

Ironman Triathlon