Famous Triathletes: Erin Baker

Back in the early days of triathlon, female triathletes were few and far between. Though there were a handful of women who joined modern triathlon’s inaugural race in 1974, female triathletes didn’t figure as much in the following races that were staged. In fact, it was not until 1980 that a female triathlete in the person of Lyn Lemaire competed at the second ever Hawaii Ironman race.

Triathlon has since then been regularly participated in by women. There’s Karen Smyers, for instance, as well as Julie Moss. And then there’s Erin Baker, who was not only well-loved for her astounding performance in races, but was also well-known for her advocacies that would later change the way triathlons were conducted.

Erin Baker (image via legendsoftriathlon.com)

Erin Baker
(image via legendsoftriathlon.com)

Who is Erin Baker?

Erin Baker, a native of New Zealand, is considered by many as one of the best female triathletes the sport has ever seen. Baker’s first foray into the sport of running was in the early 1970s. During an annual picnic for the company where her father worked, Baker decided to join the friendly track and field race usually held to cap off the gathering.

Along with the mixed crowd of children and adults, Baker would run her fastest and would finish the race in first place. Clearly showing potential for said sport, she would later be encouraged by her mother to pursue running competitively. Following her mother’s advice proved to be auspicious for three years later at 15 years old, she would be declared champion during her first ever cross-country competition.

Professional triathlon career

Erin Baker holds the distinction of winning a total of 104 out of the 121 races she joined. But of these races, a few stand out for this remarkable female triathlete. 1984 was memorable for it was her first entry into the sport as a professional triathlete.

Racing in the world championships in Nice, France was noteworthy, too, as it was from this competition that she bagged three long course championship titles. She no doubt would have added another Nice championship title to her feat had she not refused to start at one race. She did this to protest the inequitable distribution of prizes, for it turned out, the winner in the men’s division was going to be awarded a brand new car while the winner for the women’s won’t receive a similar reward. Due to her protests, the organizers changed the directive and instead ruled that whoever gets to the finish line first gets to win the car.

In 1986, she entered and won her very first Ironman triathlon competition in New Zealand. Though Hawaii Ironman had shot to worldwide fame in 1982, Baker could not travel to the island state. This was due to a 1981 conviction she received for throwing explosive devices during a rally to protest the arrival of South Africa’s rugby team in New Zealand.

Through the help of the Hawaii Ironman organizers, she’d be able to travel to the island state in 1987 and consequently win the championship for the women’s division that year. She’d go on to take another Hawaii Ironman championship title in 1990, as well as three second-place wins in the competition.

In 1989, she became the first ever ITU World Champion. Due to this feat as well as her other contributions to the sporting world, New Zealand’s Halberg awards would choose her as the New Zealand Sportsperson of the Year.

In 1990, she represented her native country to the Commonwealth Games and bagged the Women’s Demonstration Triathlon prize. She would go on to take two more New Zealand Ironman championship titles before her retirement in 1994.

For a great podcast interview with Erin Baker, visit the “Legends of Triathlon” podcast.

Sources:

Triathlon Champ Erin Baker Becomes A Woman On The Run

Erin Baker

New Zealand’s Wonder Woman

Erin Baker interview

Catching up with the greats: The ITU’s first World Champion Erin Baker

Famous Triathletes: Mike Pigg

Modern triathlon may be a comparatively young sport, but no doubt it’s been graced by some of the most remarkable pioneer triathletes the world has ever seen since its inception nearly forty years prior in 1974. And one of these astounding triathletes is Mike Pigg.

Mike Pigg(image via legendsoftriathlon.com)

Mike Pigg
(image via legendsoftriathlon.com)

Who is Mike Pigg?

Mike Pigg grew up and to this day still lives in Northern California, near the birth place of the sport of triathlon. When he was 10 years old, he got into swimming and was active in the sport for four years. After that, he participated in cross-country running well into his second year in college.

Not fully decided what career path to take, and after having watched Dave Scott win the 1983 Hawaii Ironman, he decided to go full time as a professional triathlete. His typical work week would include training rides of at least 225 miles, running from 30 to 50 miles, as well as swimming from 15,000 t 25,000 yards.

Though trained in both swimming and running, incidentally, these are not the sporting disciplines that he is best known for. During the peak of his success in triathlon in the 1980s, he was especially feared for his power on the bike.

Mike Pigg at the first ITU Triathlon World Cup Series

Like every triathlete who truly loves the sport, all of his competitions are memorable for him. Of course, there are select races that he performed quite notably in. Arguably one of the most memorable was at the first ever ITU Triathlon World Cup Series in 1991.

It is crucial to remember that triathlon was then barely seventeen years old. During this stage in the sport, triathlon’s main movers were working furiously to get it into the Olympic program. And staging the event in 1991 was to prove to the International Olympic Committee that the sport, though quite new, was backed by an efficient system and that it was practiced by a considerable number of people worldwide.

Mike Pigg’s dominance during this race was particularly special for it was when numerous triathletes from different countries participated in. His winning of the race, touted by triathletes themselves as one of the world’s toughest race course, was astounding as it not only proved his mettle as an endurance athlete, but it also cemented the United States’ ascendancy over the sport.

Hawaii Ironman endeavors

Prior to his ITU Triathlon World Cup Series win in 1991, he was already a regular competitor at the Hawaii Ironman in Kailua-Kona. In fact, he took 7th place in his first ever race in the island in 1985. Determined to get to the top, he trained furiously, and from 7th, improved his position to 4th, and finally to 2nd in 1988.

However, while he was swimming, biking, and running to the top, he unfortunately caught a stomach infection that severely affected his performance. Though this was the case, he nevertheless set to his Hawaii Ironman trainings for the upcoming 1989 competition. Though struggling during the race for being unable to digest food on the fly, he still managed to finish 15th. He would take three years off to recover from the affliction. His return and subsequent 16th place finish at the 1993 Hawaii Ironman was what caused him to finally let go of his Ironman championship bid.

Olympic Distance Triathlon endeavors

Though he no longer raced at the Hawaii Ironman due to his physical maladies, he continued dominating Olympic distance and off-road triathlons. These races were more to his liking for they were not as physically draining as the ones done in Kailua-Kona. He would go on to join more than 150 races and would win practically half of all these. And during his 17-year stint as a professional triathlete, he would receive the US Olympic Committee Male Triathlete of the Year award from 1993 through 1996.

For a great podcast interview with Mike Pigg, visit the “Legends of Triathlon” podcast.

Sources:

Ironman Profiles: Mike Pigg – Hard Work Almost Took Him To The Ironman Pinnacle

Pigg Power – Mike Pigg

20 years of ITU World Cups: Q&A with Mike Pigg

Famous Triathletes: Tom Knoll

Back when the Ironman was conceptualized, folks who heard the idea thought it was outrageous. Who would have thought that years later, it would become such a popular event that even acquiring slots for the race would become difficult. But as with any remarkable event, Hawaii Ironman too started small. Among those who have a significant part in its humble beginnings is Tom Knoll.

Tom Knoll(image via www.the-two-malcontents.com)

Tom Knoll
(image via www.the-two-malcontents.com)

Who is Tom Knoll?

Tom Knoll was with the United States Marine Corps when he got acquainted with triathlon. Prior to his introduction to the sport, he was already very much into running. In his 40s in the early 1970s, Knoll would join younger Marines during their 10-mile lunch runs. He grew so fond of the sport that he would eventually run hundred-mile distances, a discipline which has come to be known as ultrarunning.

Race preparation for first Hawaii Ironman

Knoll, much like fellow original Ironman Dave Orlowski, was among those present during the awarding ceremony of the Oahu Perimeter Relay in 1977 where then-Commander John Collins famously challenged them for a three-part race. Being so used to grueling races, Knoll did not think twice about joining the competition.

As it would turn out, however, it would take quite long for the event to really materialize. But as soon as the go signal for the race was given, Knoll was among those who, without second thought, signed up. And to prepare for the three-discipline event, he would train in all three sports every single day months prior to the scheduled February 18, 1978 race.

Race day of first Hawaii Ironman

Race day of the first ever Ironman couldn’t be more favorable. The sea was calm though the competitors were a little anxious during the first leg for some saw what looked like a shark in the water at the start of the swim. Most of the competitors slogged through the second portion of the race as the majority were not that experienced with the bike. Knoll, for his part, took the swimming and bike legs in a slow but steady pace. Because of this strategy, he performed quite well in the third leg, having the third best finish in the marathon. Overall, he placed sixth, though he was at least a decade older than the other competitors.

Post-Ironman endeavors

After participating in the inaugural Ironman, Knoll returned to his first love – ultrarunning. He would go on to use his unlikely hobby to help raise funds for causes he feels so strongly for. It all started way before the Ironman, actually, when he was asked for a donation by a charity back in 1976. Instead of handing out money, he organized a charity run. He ended up raising $500 for his effort, a sum that was far bigger than he could have ever given upfront.

In 2008, he did the Freedom Run Across America with his son Warren. Fellow original Ironman Dave Orlowski ran with them during the first three days of this endeavor, proceeds of which went to a handful of institutions like the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) co-founded by Bob Babbitt.

In October of that same year, Knoll flew to Kailua Kona to return Orlowski’s support. Orlowski was coming back for the first time to the race after his participation in the 1978 Hawaii Ironman. Orlowski was as well dedicating his run to dear friend Henry Forrest, who at that time, managed to still fly from Georgia to Hawaii though he was already battling pancreatic cancer. Barely a month after this, Forrest sadly succumbed to the dreaded disease.

In 2011, Knoll reached his goal of raising one million dollars for his chosen charitable institutions. But he’s not stopping yet. In fact, he’s preparing for yet another cross-country run scheduled for 2013.

Sources:

Original Ironman Tom Knoll Raises $1 Million for Charity

Original Ironman Tom Knoll

Famous Triathletes: Bob Babbitt

Triathlon events always bring together a mixed bunch of folks. Some are there for the fame and the monetary rewards, while there are those who join to satisfy their curiosity about this very popular sport. But regardless of personal backgrounds or motivations for joining, one thing seems to be common among those who join triathlons, and that is this: having the guts to attempt to conquer the most difficult of elements, and come out a better person in the end.

One of those who were changed forever for the better by the sport of triathlon is Bob Babbitt.

Bob Babbitt(image via www.usatriathlon.org)

Bob Babbitt
(image via www.usatriathlon.org)

Who is Bob Babbitt?

Bob Babbitt was a Physical Education teacher who moved from Chicago, Illinois to San Diego, California in 1978. In late 1979, he read Barry McDermott’s piece on Tom Warren in the Sports Illustrated magazine. He got so inspired by the story of the 1979 Hawaii Ironman champion as well as the other athletes featured that he wanted to give the event a try as well.

Preparing for the 1980 Hawaii Ironman

Back then, there were hardly any books about race training and nutrition. Though jogging was in full swing, thanks to folks like Dave Pain who helped launch running as a sport, folks who wanted to learn more about the ins and outs of athleticism on their own had no reliable materials they could turn to.

Because this was the case, Babbitt immediately considered approaching Warren. No other individual would be more qualified than him to teach Babbitt how to train for the event. Warren was after all the 1979 Ironman.

So Babbitt called Warren, and was able to convince the latter to mentor him and roommate Ned Overend. Babbitt and Overend trained furiously for the upcoming January 10, 1980 Ironman to be held in the island of Oahu. They would do hundreds of laps in a 15-meter apartment pool just so they could cover the 2.4-mile swim required for the event.

They each bought a bike, and his was from a police auction, complete with a charred seat end. Because he had no idea how to change a flat tire, he outfitted his new secondhand bike with solid rubber tires.

His first Hawaii Ironman race

Babbitt flew with Overend and their support crew to Hawaii. He sincerely thought that he was going to do the race for two days so he brought a tent and sleeping bag with him.

January is storm month in Oahu. Days prior to the event, the organizers decided to move the swim leg to the protected Ala Moana Channel because the site for the Waikiki Roughwater Swim was too perilous. Fairly inexperienced in open and deepwater swimming, Babbitt made sure to swim at the shallow portion of the channel and somehow splashed out of the water unscathed.

He would proceed to do the second portion of the race donning a pair of beige shorts with a belt, and a long-sleeved shirt with pockets sewn at the back to store bags of Hawaiian sweet bread, his race food of choice. He’d slog through the bike which he’d rigged with a transistor radio on its fuzzy handlebars just so he’d have company during the long ride. He fitted it with panniers too to carry his tent and sleeping bag.

Through the race, he’d be fed by his crew with Big Mac, fries, and Coke, as well as a snow cone. He’d even gotten a 45-minute massage. His marathon was practically all walking and when he got weighed at one of the med stations, the aide was astonished that he’d gained instead of lost a few pounds, due to all the Hawaiian sweet bread he’d eaten.

Nearing the finish line, he couldn’t believe that he was able to do the race in one whole day. He expected to see crowds of people and a brass band to cheer and welcome his momentous finish. But all he saw ahead was a light bulb and the finish line drawn in chalk on the pavement. The official who was there asked him if he was part of the race, to which he replied a positive, in turn receiving a brisk reply that he’d completed the race.

Contributions to the multisport arena

Anticlimactic as the finish was, the race forever changed Babbitt’s life. He would go on to co-establish a magazine, the Competitor, dedicated solely to multi-sports. He would also later assist in putting up Competitor Radio, which to this day, is the premier source for multi-sport news in the broadcasting media. He would also create the Brooks Muddy Buddy Ride and Run Series which features fun obstacle races for the family and for folks who are just looking to unwind.

Babbitt would also become one of the founding directors of the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) which assists folks with disabilities pursue their athletic dreams. Babbitt would also be later inducted to the Ironman Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2002 and to the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2012.

Sources:

Running Down Memory Lane: 25 Years of Competitor

Bob Babbitt: Triathlon’s Greatest Ambassador, Ironman’s Spirited Soothsaye

Funky dude Bob Babbitt

More insight into Bob Babbitt

In the beginning there was Bob Babbitt

WTC Honors Bob Babbitt with Ironman Hall of Fame Induction

Famous Triathletes: Frank Day

The inaugural Hawaii Ironman may have only been attended by fifteen people, but the twelve who have managed to complete the grueling race have earned the distinction of being the original Ironmen. One of these twelve brazen folks is Frank Day.

Frank Day(image via www.slowtwitch.com)

Frank Day
(image via www.slowtwitch.com)

Who is Frank Day?

Frank Day served in the United States Navy for five years as a nuclear engineer and later as a medical doctor to a destroyer squadron in the late 1970s. While studying medicine in the US Naval Academy, Day along with his fellow students would be made to run the track competitions in the island like the Honolulu Marathon. This is so they would have firsthand experience as to the rigors of exercise and therefore be more efficient at helping heart attack survivors as well as sedentary patients on how to work out safely. Since then, Day had gotten the running bug and would never fail to squeeze in running even during his busy work week in the US Navy.

Race preparation

Day was unable to find a house that would be of comfortable running distance from his office in the Pearl Harbor naval shipyard. He bought a bike to ride it to and from work instead. While cycling from home one late afternoon, he heard a brief advertisement on the radio about a race that would include the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, The Around-Oahu Bike Race, and the Honolulu Marathon in one nonstop competition.

The 33-year old Day immediately thought the concept was outrageous. But while cycling back home, he had time to ponder the idea, thinking that he might just be able to do it after all. So upon reaching home, he called the radio station that ran the ad and got the contact number of the fellow in-charge of the race.

As it turns out, that person would be John Collins, who like Day, was an officer of the US Navy as well. In fact, they worked in adjacent buildings in the Pearl Harbor naval shipyard. So Day went to see Collins the day after and the latter would be successful in convincing Day to join the first Ironman race.

Day was no stranger to running grueling marathons. He was knowledgeable at the bike too, though his rides were no longer than 10 miles each time. To convince himself that he would be able to manage the first leg of the race, he did a mile of swimming in a local pool.

Race day of the first Hawaii Ironman

The early morning start of the inaugural Ironman was just right. The water was calm, with barely any ripples in the sea. Ian Emberson would splash out of the water first, followed by Tom Warren and John Dunbar. Upon finishing this portion of the race, Day would take a 20-minute shower afterwards before starting the bike leg. Twenty miles into the race, Day would pass by Henry Forrest, who was struggling with the gears of his borrowed bike.

Day started the marathon in quite fantastic shape. But ten miles into the run, he would start to feel really exhausted yet his support crew would push him on. At mile twelve of the marathon, Day decided to stop at a McDonald’s and he fetched himself the largest drink. Forrest would run past while Day was resting.

After about 30 minutes, he would recover and run the succeeding four miles, and essentially walk the remaining thirteen miles to the finish line. Day finished eighth overall, after Henry Forrest who on the other hand nabbed the seventh place.

Post-Ironman endeavors

Frank Day would enlist in the 1979 Hawaii Ironman, hoping to finish in 12 hours or less. But stormy weather plagued this second Ironman, and his bike wheels would flatten twice during the second leg. But he took on the marathon all the same, though he had lost valuable time already. Eventually though, he would decide to officially drop out for he saw it was impossible to attain his target, plus his support crew needed to work the following day.

Day did not race in the Hawaii Ironman again after his DNF in 1979. But he would continue to be active in the multi-sport arena long after. Utilizing his engineering and medical backgrounds, he would proceed to invent the PowerCranks, a tool which can help improve an athlete’s performance on the bike.

Sources:

Original Ironman Henry Forrest

Frank Day recalls Ironman 1978

Memories of ’78: Original Ironman Frank Day Can’t Throw It Away

Famous Triathletes: Ian Emberson

Hawaii Ironman has become such a renowned event that folks from all walks of life, whether professional triathletes or otherwise, vie for coveted competitor slots year after year. But difficult as it may be to imagine, not everyone who join the race aim to earn a living or even become famous from it. There are actually folks like Ian Emberson who participated in a handful of Ironman races yet did not at all consider the event as a competitive race.

Ian Emberson(image via oceanswims.com)

Ian Emberson
(image via oceanswims.com)

Who is Ian Emberson?

Ian Emberson was born in Caracas in Venezuela. Growing up, he would spend much of his time swimming in the open waters of the West Indies and the Bahamas. He eventually moved with his family to Hawaii due to his father’s job. He would grow very fond of the island, its waters and beaches as well as its people that he would decide to stay in Hawaii for good.

Emberson would found the Maui Channel Swim while still in his early 20s. This event is the only the inter-island openwater relay race in the world to this day. Later on, he would also establish the Maui ‘Aumākua 2.4 Mile Swim and will be largely known to the sporting community because of these two accomplishments. But aside from these achievements, Emberson too, who at the time was working as a restaurant manager for a hotel in Honolulu, belongs to the original twelve finishers of the inaugural Hawaii Ironman.

Race day of the 1978 Hawaii Ironman

The water and weather conditions were favorable on that early Saturday morning in February 18, 1978. Most of the folks who enlisted arrived at the beach start before sunrise. Of the eighteen that originally signed up, three would decide to back out though.

The usual excitement pre-race hung in the air. Loud music was blaring from the speakers of a parked van owned by John Dunbar, one of the competitors. He would later change from his Superman costume to his swim gear as the race start time was nearing.

The fifteen competitors all raced to the calm water as soon as then-Commander John Collins signaled the start of the competition. With years of openwater swimming under his belt, it’s then no wonder how Emberson would splash out of the water first.

He would proceed to the second leg of the race using a women’s bicycle which he had borrowed and trained on a few days before the race. Prior to this cycle training, Emberson had no bike experience whatsoever.  But in spite of this, he would manage to complete this portion in 7 hours and 47 minutes.

At the start of the marathon, he changed into a pair of run-of-the-mill running shoes, slogged through the run portion, to finally nab the fourth place, clocking a finish time of 14 hours, 3 minutes, and 25 seconds.

Succeeding Ironman endeavors

Emberson would again join the 1979 Hawaii Ironman and again register an astounding swim time of a little over an hour. Having better training, he managed to complete the Ironman with an overall improved time, finishing 2 hours and 20 minutes earlier than in 1978.

In 1988, he got invited by then-owner of the Hawaii Ironman Valerie Silk to compete in the 10th anniversary of the event. To further illustrate just how much he does not consider the Ironman as a competitive race, he ran the marathon in canvas sneakers. But while this was the case, he managed to finish the race with an even more improved time as compared to his 1978 finish.

Contributions to the openwater swimming arena

Openwater swimming is no doubt Emberson’s first love. Through the years, he would not only serve as race director for the inter-island races which he founded, but he would join in the relay swims too. He’s now busily working in the financial sector, and though he’s relinquished his openwater race director duties to his wife Coco, he still manages to show up at events to inspire the new generation of openwater swimmers.

Sources:

Ian Emberson

Channelling Greatness

Ironman

Ian Emberson: From Day One, And Still Today, A Swimmer Extraordinaire

Famous Triathletes: Henry Forrest

The Hawaii Ironman is undoubtedly one of the most special multi-sport races in the world right now. And this isn’t only because it’s a grueling competition, but more so because of the folks who take part in it year after year. Each has a rousing story or two of perseverance. And one of the folks that have a particularly inspiring Hawaii Ironman tale is Henry Forrest.

Henry Forrest(image via www.slowtwitch.com)

Henry Forrest
(image via www.slowtwitch.com)

Who is Henry Forrest?

In the late 1970s, Henry Forrest was working with the Marine Corps and was stationed in the island of Oahu. A fitness enthusiast who would run to and from work, Forrest would practically be in every athletic competition held in the island, which back then were held mostly during the weekends. Forrest’s triathlon pursuits would later be known worldwide because of his participation in the first ever Hawaii Ironman in 1978.

Race preparation

Forrest would not have heard of the unlikely race had it not been for his wife Lou. Upon seeing a press release in the local paper detailing the grueling competition conceptualized by then US Navy Commander John Collins, Lou immediately informed his husband about it.

Henry’s reaction was one of surprise, saying that the concept was crazy. His wife encouraged him all the same. He later changed his mind though, thinking that he might just be able to do the race. After all, he was quite an excellent runner, and he did some swimming with the Marine Corps as well. Now, his only problem would be to teach himself again how to ride a bike for he has not ridden one since junior high school. Though his friends disagreed about his intention to participate in the race later on, he would proceed to preparing for the Ironman.

He sought the help of friends and colleagues to acquire a bike. Days prior to the race, an officer of the Marine Corps informed him that he had a 10-speed bike Forrest could borrow. The wicker basket at the front and the child seat at the back had to be removed though. He familiarized himself with the gears and did some training on the bike days before.

His plan was simple. He just needed to get through the swim portion and struggle through the bike leg. After these, he should have no trouble with the marathon, he thought.

Race day of the first Hawaii Ironman

Forrest and his support crew Lou and Nolan, a friend, got to the starting line at the beach at dawn. Participants and spectators soon started to pour in, and those who didn’t know him mistook his name as Henry Forrester, for when introduced, he would say “Henry Forrest, sir” briskly.

At the swim leg, he wore his running shorts and alternated freestyle, breaststrokes and backstrokes and got through fairly all right. After emerging from the water, he didn’t bother to change his wet shorts for he didn’t have a pair anyway. Besides, he thought this would lessen his transition time. He donned his running shoes, again thinking that doing so would reduce his transition time later, and immediately started the bike leg.

Though unskilled with the bike, he didn’t think it would be hard. After all, he would be sitting all the way through. But not knowing how to manipulate the gears was disastrous for it only made his ride at the steep portions of the course much harder. But he pedaled through and eventually completed this portion.

Once at the marathon leg, his spirits were up. Finally, he was at the last leg, and he was good at it. But perhaps due to the unfamiliar pedaling movements he made earlier, his body felt quite uncoordinated at the start of the run. But he ran mechanically, and one mile into the marathon, he felt his stride come back. He ran through the dark streets amid the light rain.

As he was nearing the finish line, he thought maybe there’d be crowds of people to cheer him on his triumph. But as he reached it, there were only three, Lou and Nolan, and a race official with a stop watch, waiting for him in the dark. He’d finished in 15 hours, 30 minutes, and 14 seconds, placing 7th overall.

Henry Forrest would go on to complete 6 Ironman races. In his later years, though he was no longer a competitor, he would be in the races to cheer on the participants. In 2007, he was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas and would succumb to the disease on November 6, 2008.

The Ironman didn’t turn professional until the latter part of the 1980s. There weren’t big cash prizes at the first few years of the competition. But this didn’t stop men like Henry Forrest from chasing their athletic pursuits and consequently inspire other regular folks to conquer their dreams.

Sources:

Original Ironman Henry Forrest

Ironman Pioneer Henry Forrest Passes Away

Ironman

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: John Dunbar

The Hawaii Ironman that we have come to love actually has very humble beginnings. Back then, the race was practically humdrum, quite unlike the grandiose event that gets staged today. Competition rules regarding race getup or acceptable hydration beverages were nonexistent as well. But the race, especially the first two conducted in 1978 and 1979, were nonetheless interesting because of some colorful personalities who dared to take the unlikely challenge given by then-Commander John Collins.

Who is John Dunbar?

Dunbar was a 24 year old college student back in 1978. An avid health buff, he would frequently join athletic competitions in Hawaii. A soft-spoken and a good natured fellow, he had no qualms about running in an all-women’s charity race while donning a shirt that read “Token”.

John Dunbar(image via www.triatlet.com)

John Dunbar
(image via www.triatlet.com)

Dunbar was stationed in the island when he became a member of the US Navy SEALS. Having been in this military organization, Dunbar was then no stranger to grueling training. Upon hearing of the race that Commander Collins devised, Dunbar immediately signed up.

Race day of the 1978 Hawaii Ironman

Dunbar was certainly ready to take on the competition though he had been up practically the rest of the night organizing his race supplies. An excellent swimmer, he took to the ocean as soon as then-Commander Collins signaled the start of the race. He would consequently dominate this portion, with an astounding lead of 20 minutes over Gordon Haller, his closest opponent during this leg of the race.

Dunbar would not immediately get to start the bike leg of the competition for he had to first borrow a pair of cycling shorts. Throughout this and the marathon leg, Dunbar would be chased furiously by the older Haller. And the latter would catch up on Dunbar four times, first when he had his legs massaged by his support crew, and second, when he badly needed to make a stop to urinate.

But Dunbar’s prospects of winning first place would soon become dim during the marathon leg. His support crew was somewhere out there lost. Having no one to give him the badly needed hydration, he would slowly deteriorate.

Finally, his support crew found him. But ten miles to the finish line, already quite disoriented from both exhaustion and dehydration, Dunbar’s crew would inform him that his drinking water had run out. Having nothing else but beer in the van, his support crew had no choice but to give him two cans of the alcoholic beverage.

This would prove disastrous for it would worsen Dunbar’s physical condition. He would stumble into parked cars and would accuse his crew of attempting to poison him and sabotaging his race. But he would slog through, and would eventually complete the race 34 minutes after Haller crossed the finish line, thereby securing second place for himself.

Race day of the 1979 Hawaii Ironman

Dunbar was livid for losing the first place to Haller in 1978. So the following year in 1979, he would sign up for the race once more. But he vowed to himself that this would be his last Ironman and so prepared furiously for it.

Race day would be postponed the following day Sunday because of extremely stormy weather. But fans and competitors all the same gathered that Saturday. Dunbar, who is friends with Haller, also a retired Navy, challenged Haller to do the course, just the two of them, one on one.

That Sunday morning, the storm had not completely subsided yet. With the announcement that the race will proceed anyway, Dunbar would gather his swimming trunks from his van with blaring music to change from his Superman costume. The swim leg was particularly perilous, with competitors slicing through six feet high waves. Dunbar would finish third during this leg.

At the bike leg, Dunbar would chase Tom Warren furiously but he’d be overtaken by the only woman competitor that day, Lyn Lemaire. Warren would subsequently finish first in the bike, followed by Lemaire.

At the marathon, Dunbar would chase Warren at high speed. But the older Warren would prevail and Dunbar would complete the course almost 50 minutes after Warren crossed the finish line.

Dunbar, much like Haller and all the other folks who joined the first two Ironman competitions, would remain largely in the background. But Dunbar would continue to be active in the triathlon arena long after even though he vowed that the 1979 race would be his last.

Sources:

Ironman

Famous Triathletes: Lyn Lemaire

The sport of triathlon, specifically the Ironman, has always been dominated by men. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the unlikely concept originated from a close circle of friends and colleagues, led by then-Commander John Collins, a group composed mostly of men. But while this was the case, there are actually a handful of women whose contributions cannot be discounted.

There’s Judy Collins, John’s wife, who assisted the Commander in organizing the first Hawaii Ironman competitions in 1978 and 1979. There’s Valerie Silk as well, who handled the Hawaii Ironman race from 1980 to 1990 and is partly responsible for making the event the most popular triathlon competition in the world.

Female triathletes too have made significant contributions to the sport.

Who is Lyn Lemaire?

Lyn Lemaire, a native of Santa Monica, California, has always been into sports since she was a little kid. In high school, she took interest in swimming. She excelled in the sport and took part in four US national championships while still in high school.

In college, she attended UCLA and took up biochemistry. She took to the sport of basketball this time. Again, she did extremely well in this discipline that she actually played various positions at collegiate games.

In her senior year, she took her bike and did a 1,500-mile cycling trip from Vancouver, Canada all the way to Los Angeles, California. She loved the experience so much that she did the cycling trip again, only this time, she traveled around England and northern Europe. Though she covered a lot of miles on her bike, she did not really consider competing in the sport at first. For one, she thought the sport was “silly” for those who raced needed to train really hard. For another, she did not know of any women who actually did competitive cycling back then.

Then in 1975, Lemaire entered the US National Time Trial Championships and consequently placed second at the 25-mile individual cycling event. The year after, she again qualified for said competition. This time, she placed first and simultaneously set a new record for finishing in an astounding time of 1:00:06.7. The same year in 1976, she qualified for the US National Track Championships and placed third overall for the 3,000-meter track event.

She defended her title in the US National Time Trial Championships the following year in 1977. In 1978, she again took part in said event as well as the US National Track Championships, placing second and third, respectively.

First female to complete an Ironman

Being active in the sporting arena, it did not take long for Lemaire to get wind of the Ironman triathlon held in the island of Oahu. Excelling in all three disciplines included in the Ironman, she was confident that she can conquer this competition as well. So she flew to Hawaii and enlisted for the 1979 Hawaii Ironman race.

1979 Hawaii Ironman

1979 Hawaii Ironman
(image via running.competitor.com)

The race was moved from January 13 to January 14 due to stormy weather. Originally, 28 folks signed up. But thirteen dropped out, one of them a woman, because the bad weather that Sunday morning still hadn’t subsided. This left Lemaire as the only female competitor that day and the first ever since Ironman’s inception a year prior.

Race day at the swim leg, Ian Emberson emerged first. Tom Warren soon splashed out of the water, followed by John Dunbar, Mike Collins, and finally, Lyn Lemaire. Gordon Haller, 1978’s winner, was still left zigzagging in the swells of the ocean for his navigator had to be rescued out of the water.

At the bike leg, Warren was leading the race and he was closely followed by Dunbar. But Lemaire soon gained in on Dunbar. Lemaire managed to maintain top speed at the bike, and was just ten minutes behind Warren. However, she had to stop eight times at the last ten miles due to leg cramps, causing her to finish second in this race.

Though Lemaire had a twenty one minute lead over Dunbar, he soon ran past her at the marathon portion. At 23 miles into the run, she hit the wall from exhaustion. Though it crossed her mind to drop out, she did not. She continued to slog through, eventually finishing the run in 5 hours and 10 minutes, subsequently securing the fifth place finish for herself.

Sources:

Lyn Lemaire

Ironman

The Fifth Best Iron Man Is a Woman, Versatile Lyn Lemaire

US National Time Trial Championships 1975-1981

US National Track Championships