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.
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
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.