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.


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.

History of Triathlon: 1998

1998 was a memorable year for the sport of triathlon, specifically for the Hawaii Ironman World Championships. The race was attended by Ironman’s original creators. Astounding race records were also made that year.

Ironman’s royal couple returns to the race

Commander John Collins and wife Judy have always wanted to stay close to Ironman but were unable to. But 1998 was a special year as it was Ironman’s 20th anniversary. They accepted Valerie Silk’s invitation and the Collins devised a triathlon in Portobelo in Panama in 1997 to prepare for the race. And in 1998, Ironman’s royal couple as well as their son Michael participated in the race.

First ever European woman takes home the gold

1998 was the year Natascha Badmann won her first ever gold in the Hawaii Ironman. Representing her native Switzerland, she waved and smiled to spectators throughout the race thus becoming an instant crowd favorite for her positive attitude and friendly demeanor.

Natascha Badmann crossing the finish line (image via sportsillustrated.cnn.com)

Chris Legh races again

Australian elite triathlete Chris Legh has been participating in triathlon races since 1989. In the mid to the late 90s, Legh was among the well renowned Australian professional triathletes and held the championship title for the country’s long- and Ironman-distance triathlon for five years.

Legh’s participation in the Ironman of the prior year was quite memorable though. Minutes to the finish line, Legh lost consciousness due to bowel collapse caused by severe dehydration. He had to undergo emergency surgery shortly after the race to take out a part of his large intestine that had turned gangrenous.

Fortunately, Legh recovered and again took to the Hawaii Ironman race in 1998. Despite some bike mechanical problems he encountered, Legh remarkably finished 6th overall with a time of 8 hours, 40 minutes, and 45 seconds.

Youngest Hawaii Ironman competitor

Hawaii Ironman has long attracted athletes of all ages. For instance, the 1992 Hawaii Ironman saw Charlie Futrell successfully complete the demanding endurance race in 15 hours, 35 minutes, and 23 seconds, placing him 1st in the US and 3rd overall in the 70-75 age group category.

1998, meanwhile, was when Joseph Zemaitis signed up for the race. Zemaitis, then 18 years old, was the captain for the Lake Forest College’s varsity swim and cross country teams. Zemaikis, at 12 years old, set a goal to conquer Hawaii Ironman, which he successfully did in 1998.

He was the youngest competitor to ever join the race, completing the course in 9 hours, 57 minutes, and 10 seconds. This garnered him the honor of being the second-best American finisher, and placed him 8th overall for the 18-24 age group category.


An Officer and a Gentleman – John Collins

Natascha Badmann

Sports Illustrated – Faces In The Crowd

Chris Legh’s Story: Injury Lessons That Apply To Every Triathlete

Kona Ironman Triathlon World Championships – 1998

Mechanical Problem on Alii Drive, Part 20

Joe Zemaitis

History of Triathlon: 1978

John Collins’ concept for a grueling endurance competition all started from a discussion over which athlete was fittest – a swimmer, a runner, or a cyclist. The Commander’s idea of merging the disciplines swimming, running, and cycling in one continuous race was not easily accepted in the beginning.

The Collins family’s turn

The year was 1978 in Hawaii. It wasn’t uncommon for families of U.S. military forces stationed in the state to take charge of organizing local athletic events in the area as well as participate in the races themselves. During this time, it was the Collins family’s turn to stage a competition.

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

A date is finally set

Military and local athletes would often ask Commander Collins about when they’d finally do the “three-part thing”. Continued urging from colleague Dan Hendrickson, so that one of their distance runner friends scheduled to leave the state can join, was ever present too. Also, the fact that it was his family’s turn to organize an athletic event further convinced Commander Collins to finally stage Ironman in Hawaii. It was to be on February 18, 1978, to be held on the third largest island of Oahu.


Commander Collins, together with his wife Judy, and children Michael and Kristin who were only 13 and 12 then, started the groundwork for the event. Race supplies and materials were procured. Commander Collins also designed his very own trophy for the winners which the entire family helped assemble from scratch.

Participants were asked to prepare their own bicycle helmets for the competition. They were asked to provide their own t-shirts for the race as well. Days before the event, the shirts were collected and brought to the Collins residence for printing. There they stamped the logo and other details of the competition on the shirts using the silk screen that Commander Collins made himself. Of course, “Finisher” wasn’t yet printed on as this was to be added post-race.

The race

On the eve of the event, the Collins family distributed electrolyte powder to the athletes. On race morning, 18 folks showed up at the designated starting area in the beach. The participants were each given a three-page handwritten briefing detailing competition rules and race course. On the last page was slogan “Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life”.

Of the 18 that were drawn to the race, three decided not to pursue, according to Commander Collins. Of the 15, three failed to finish the race. The official results of the Hawaii Ironman, as the event is known today, records 12 finishers, with Gordon Haller, a Communications Specialist of the U.S. Navy, declared as the first ever Ironman in history.


An Officer and a Gentleman – John Collins

Ironman Triathlon