Famous Triathletes: Valerie Silk

The unlikely challenge from then-Commander John Collins resulted in none other than the Ironman race. But his idea for the grueling competition did not immediately take off. And if not for the contribution of one woman, this very popular endurance competition would not be where it is today.

Who is Valerie Silk?

Many recognize and acknowledge Valerie Silk as the mother of the Ironman race. But everything about the race would have been entirely different had Silk refused the responsibility of handling the race after John Collin’s departure from Hawaii.

John Collins and Valerie Silk
(image via www.shygiants.com)

Back in the 1970s, Silk and then-husband Hank Grundman were the proud owners of a chain of fitness gyms in Hawaii. The couple inevitably got involved in the dynamic sporting community in the island due to their involvement in said business.

In 1978, the couple worked closely with the Collins family when the latter’s turn to host an athletic competition in the island came up. Silk and then-husband Grundman would grant Gordon Haller a free gym membership and training in preparation for his Ironman race. Pre- and post-race, the couple’s involvement was crucial too as they helped ensure manpower for the inaugural race.

On the third staging of the Ironman in 1980, John Collins and family had to leave Hawaii permanently. This prompted the Commander to find someone who would take over the organization of the Ironman. Having worked with Valerie and Hank for the race, the Commander requested the couple to take over the event upon his leaving.

Silk was reluctant of the responsibility for she already had a lot on her plate, what with handling a chain of fitness clubs. Add to the fact that the prior races used up their resources considerably. But his then-husband was successful in persuading her, and though unwilling at first, she took to heart the handling of the race. She will subsequently become almost solely responsible for the event’s growth during its crucial early years.

Modifications to the race

Silk put into effect changes that would prove to be beneficial for the Ironman race and for the sport of triathlon as a whole.

Transferred to Kona

A key change was the race’s move to the island of Kailua-Kona. Silk’s primary reason for this was safety. With participants increasing in number, the island of Oahu just wasn’t big enough to accommodate a large crowd.

Race month changed

Another modification was moving the race from February to October. Silk was concerned that February was a stormy month. She made the move as a consideration for the athletes as well so that they’d no longer have to train in the winter and subsequently be subjected to Kailua-Kona’s punishing humidity and heat during February.

Set up qualifying races

Silk established the qualifying races for the Ironman race as well. Though this development meant that the organizers won’t accept just about every applicant, the qualifying races helped ensure safety for all the competitors.

Ironman goes professional

1985 was a landmark for Silk as well, for it was during this year that she finally decided for the Ironman to become pro. Leaving behind the amateur race arena meant more sponsors, which was beneficial business-wise for the Hawaiian Triathlon Corporation.

Established the IronKids

Providing the Ironman experience to everyone was one of Silk’s foremost aims. So she put into motion the IronKids Triathlon Series so that children aged 7 to 15 can take part in this life-changing sport as well. Since its inception in 1985, the event has been participated in by thousands of kids. It served as the starting ground for some of the big names in the sport such as Hunter Kemper who won five times, and Lance Armstrong who won twice.

Valerie Silk may have had to relinquish the organization of the Ironman in 1990, but her decade-long run as owner and race director of the event certainly were years well spent.

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

Valerie Silk – USA Triathlon Athlete Profile

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.


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