This is Lee's award-winning piece about his wife, Cherie, one the most honored amateur IRONMAN triathletes in the world. It was originally printed in Inside Triathlon Magazine and won "Article of the Year" from the Triathlon Business Association. (Cherie's website is here, Exceeding Expectations here.)
There’s a piece of art hanging on my living room wall. It’s called "179" and there’s a story behind the number partially hidden in plain sight amidst a swirl of color.Up until the spring of 2005 things were going really well for a guy named Jon Blais. Massachusetts-born, he’d moved to San Diego in order to pursue his passion for triathlon and the multisport lifestyle.
It was all going so well. Right up until May 2, 2005.
I have written on this site before about a cruel reality of IRONMAN: We don’t always get a fairy tale ending.
IRONMAN is not hopscotch and Kona, where its world championship takes place every October, isn’t Disneyland. This reality makes it all the more exhilarating when a single athlete experiences both the heartbreaking lows and dizzying triumphs this sport is capable of dishing out.
When Apolo Anton Ohno entered the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center in 1996 to train full-time for short track speed skating, he was 13, making him the youngest skater ever admitted. He went on to become the first American to win the overall World Cup title, which he did three times, then he won the overall World Championship title, followed by eight Olympic medals, and too many other major events to count.
But here's the thing: String all of his race times together since he was 13 and they wouldn’t add up to a single IRONMAN race. I'm not sure they'd even add up to the run. So you have to wonder: Why is this skating superstar determined to pour more energy into a single-day triathlon than he's expended over 20 years' worth of short track speed skating?
At the very first IRONMAN in 1978, "Medical Support" consisted of an index card listing the closest emergency rooms. At this year’s event there will be 350 medical volunteers in a well-equipped, 6,000 sq. ft. tent at the pier, including 150 of the best endurance sports physicians on the planet. How that came to be was no accident or inevitable evolutionary crawl. It was the result of a focused, decades-long effort led by one man who saw an unprecedented opportunity to learn while serving, and excelled at both.
Of all the people whose names are writ large across the IRONMAN story, it’s hard to think of anyone who has done more in and for the sport than Bob Babbitt. ABC’s Wide World of Sports might have put IRONMAN on the map, but it was Hall-of-Famer Babbitt who kept it there, in the pages of his Competitor magazine and a handful of books, and in his tireless, passionate boosterism spanning three decades.
Remember when you were a kid and you and some friends made solemn vows to become astronauts or Olympians or millionaires or maybe just go to the same college?
Need I ask how the follow-through went?
In 2011, four guys named Lawaetz (pronounced "Levitz") agreed that they would all qualify for the GoPro IRONMAN World Championship in two years. That would be a pretty bold aspiration for anybody. For four brothers, it was ridiculous, one of those silly goals usually forgotten by dinner time.
Twenty years ago I looked out at the corner of Ali’i and Palani and saw a sleepy street casually idling next to the ocean, minding its own business. The next time I saw it that same corner looked as though it was ready to host the final leg of the Tour de France, complete with bleachers, a finishing arch, barrier fences, a media grandstand, massage and medical tents, and enough food, water and ice to service an invasion force. What makes this interesting is that the time between my first and second looks was less than 36 hours.
A veteran triathlete who lost a foot several years ago, Karen Aydelott handed me one of the best lines I’ve heard in a long time: When I asked her why she was racing in an able-bodied division at Kona, she replied, "Because it was too hard to qualify as physically challenged." I spent some time talking to Karen to try to get answers to the seventeen questions spawned by that one answer.
About fourteen years ago, me bride Cherie was swimming laps in a pool in Rialto, California, minding her own business, when she was suddenly struck by a torpedo. She turned around and was only able to glimpse the offending bit of waterborne ordnance long enough for it to pop its little head up and mumble "Sorry!" before it shot off toward the far wall.
But as she watched the missile fly by on its return path, she noticed that it was all bow and no stern, its propulsive power deriving exclusively from a set of churning arms with no secondary wake where the legs should have been.
I'm not normally a sentimental human being, unless by "sentimental" you mean cynical, sarcastic, skeptical and curmudgeonly. When I hear the moniker "hero" conferred on a 6-year old who dialed 911 after he smelled smoke, my gag reflex kicks in. People and events worthy of our collective admiration are scarce in real life and it doesn't do us proud to keep inventing headlines out of thin air just because we're hungry for some positive news.
All of which makes me treasure those rare moments when something genuinely inspiring occurs. Such an event took place last Sunday when a man named Rudy Garcia-Tolson crossed the finish line of Ironman Arizona with over fifty minutes left on the cutoff clock.
In October of 1994, I sat across the aisle from Greg Welch on a flight from Kona to the mainland, grimacing as I watched a steady stream of well-wishers violate entire chapters of FAA safety regulations in their eagerness to unbuckle seat belts and run down the aisles to offer congratulations. With every hearty handshake and back thump I winced harder, until my wife Cherie nudged me in the ribs and said, "Go do something!"
The reason for all the wincing and grimacing was that, unbeknownst to the well-intended conga line of admirers, Greg had fallen in the shower the night before and snapped his collarbone. Every handshake, shoulder punch and back slap was sending bolts of pain shooting through his shoulder.
Joe Cook is an idiot. The reason I know this is because I’ve spoken with him. He sounded intelligent, reasonable, level-headed…but that’s all deceptive and I wasn’t fooled for a minute. He’s an idiot. The reason he’s an idiot is that he plans to do six full Ironman events and three Ironman 70.3’s in 2008.
SCREENWRITER: She qualifies in the 10K for the 1980 Olympics, but the president decides we're gonna boycott the games. She runs the trials again in 1984, this time in the marathon. Meanwhile, she breaks the U.S. record in the 30K and the world record at 20K. And oh, by the way, she's bulimic.
PRODUCER: Are you kidding me with this stuff?
"An army travels on its stomach." The general who uttered this famous observation was making an important point: Monumental heroics may have won battles at Agincourt and Normandy, but you can't mobilize an army without taking care of things like hauling and preparing food, providing toilet paper and toothbrushes, and getting the ammo to where it's supposed to be in time to be useful.
What kind of person puts himself on that risky a line for little public reward? Meet Ironman warehouse director Steve "Butter" Butterfield.
Take it from a former professional management consultant: There's all kinds of executive talent, each with its own set of skills and capabilities, but the rarest is the operations manager who can successfully coordinate a wide array of disparate functions in pursuit of a single, time-specific goal. Do it right and you get the Normandy invasion, the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, or a shuttle launch. Screw it up and you get Mobile Me, Windows Vista or the Bay of Pigs. For those of you who have marveled at how the dizzyingly complex logistics of the Ironman World Championship seem, like DNA, to self-assemble effortlessly, be assured that it all starts at the top. Meet event director Diana "Will work for ulcers" Bertsch.
Every major sporting event has its athlete heroes, but sometimes the public persona of the overall endeavor is represented by a different kind of participant. John Madden brought football alive by providing continuity and story lines across the season. For many people, baseball will forever be linked to the sound of Vin Scully's voice wafting out of radios on lazy summer nights, and for boxing fans it was Howard Cosell who anchored our perception even as champions of the ring came and went. For the Ironman World Championship, the iconic glue is Mike Reilly. It's his voice throughout the long day that pulls the pieces together, and it's his call across the finish line that stamps finality on a racer's day even more definitively than the last beep of the timing mat.
The Big Island has been an integral part of the Ironman World Championships beginning with the third running of the event, in 1979. Prior to that the race was held on Oahu, but the BIIMWC Organizing Committee put on a full court press to bring the prestigious event to the island of Hawai'i, based on the supposition that this is where God intended it to be all along and the pupus were better. The Big Island had, of course, been around well before that, and had hosted such notable events as the 1824 Holualoa Slip 'n' Slide and the 1742 beating death of Captain Cook.