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: 1987

Triathlon Federation USA was still in the process of polishing the many policies, procedures, competitive rules, as well as the measures to further increase membership. In the mean time, race records as well as entry of novice triathletes who will later become big names in the sporting arena, occurred in 1987.


In keeping with Tri-Fed’s efforts to make technical and training information as well as teach race directors the methods for improving race management, the Mid Atlantic Triathlon Workshop was conducted. This was done on January 24 and was headed by J.R. Davison.


The month of March witnessed policies concerning Special Events being passed. Fees on Special Events will now vary according to the number of competitors. It was also decided that sanctioned events must now bear the federation’s banner.

During the first quarter of the year, the long discussed plan for collecting annual membership fees from folks who will compete in Tri-Fed-sanctioned events was finally enacted.


At the federation’s yearly meeting, the Board of Directors announced that it will adopt a handful of policies and competitive rules that have been drafted and polished since 1985. Of the numerous articles, drafting received the most attention. Guidelines as to what constitutes drafting have now been made clear as well as the corresponding penalties for said offense.

Another crucial policy with regards judgment calls was enacted during the meeting as well. According to the new rules, judgment calls can not be appealed. Guidelines on wearing wetsuits during the swim leg, as well as detailing the definition of a bicycle such as approved height, length, and accessories, were accomplished as well.

Around the same time, R.E. Jimison, an age-group triathlete who had vast experience officiating sports competitions, got elected as the first ever Commissioner of Officials of Tri-Fed. Numerous training clinics for race officials were held during the year, with 111 race officials getting certified by Jimison himself.

Notable Triathletes

While Tri-Fed was busy refining its function as the sport’s governing body, milestones were being made in the various triathlon circuits in 1987.

1. Lance Armstrong

1987 wasn’t Armstrong’s first taste of the endurance sport. In fact, he was already competing in triathlons as early as 11 years old, winning first prize in IronKids events in 1983 and 1985. 1987 though was memorable as it was the year Armstrong competed in the very same triathlon event which was participated in by some of the sport’s legends Dave Scott, Mark Allen and Andrew MacNaughton.

Mark Allen and Lance Armstrong in the bike leg of a 1987 triathlon competition

2. Dave Scott

Scott, a veteran of the sport, wins his 6th and last gold in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.

3. Erin Baker

Baker has been running competitively since she was 15 and had been aiming to compete in the Ironman early on. However, she had trouble getting into the United States after having been convicted for heaving explosive devices while protesting the visit of South Africa’s rugby team in New Zealand in 1981. But as soon as her travel restrictions were lifted, Baker pursued her Ironman goal and won her first ever gold in the 1987 Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.


Triathlon Federation History: 1982-1987

USA Triathlon History of Competitive Rules

The Triathlon Officials Program: 1983-1998

Dave Scott

Ironman Life: Andrew MacNaughton

Ironman World Championship

Erin Baker

1981 South Africa rugby union tour of New Zealand