KAILUA-KONA — I wasn’t with Bob Babbitt more than a minute before a fan approached him with a photo opportunity.
“Would you mind,” the passerby asked, holding up their phone.
“Of course,” Babbitt responded with no hesitation. It was like he was running into an old friend, even helping set up the proper lighting.
It happened again just minutes later — his response, the same.
Babbitt is an A-list celebrity on Ironman week in Kona, and rightly so. His contributions in the sport have made him a USA Triathlon and the Ironman Hall of Famer, while also helping push the popularity of the daunting endurance event to new heights.
As Lee Gruenfeld said of Babbitt in 2013: “ABC’s Wide World of Sports might have put Ironman on the map, but it was Hall-of-Famer Babbitt who kept it there.”
And he hasn’t slowed down over the years. Not one bit.
Despite not racing in the Ironman World Championship on Saturday, Babbitt’s week is a journey in itself that deserves a medal.
Babbitt hosts “Breakfast with Bob” daily from Huggo’s on the Rocks, a show that features the top names in triathlon and draws millions of viewers from around the world.
Current Ironman stars like Daniela Ryf, Jan Frodeno and Patrick Lange all join Babbitt on the mic, and legendary names from the past like Dave Scott and Mark Allen make it a point to pass through.
The rest of his time is filled with various speaking engagements, press conferences and, of course, racking up the selfies with anyone who asks.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
Babbitt also co-founded the Challenged Athletes Foundation. CAF provides opportunities and support to people with physical challenges, so they can pursue active lifestyles through physical fitness and competitive athletics.
Babbitt took some time out of his hectic schedule to talk about the evolution of the sport, his role in its history and race day predictions.
Bob on: Race week
It’s a combination of a family reunion and fitness convention.
There has been a sort of metamorphosis on the island accepting this event and seeing it become the center of the triathlon universe. Everything revolves around Kona in this sport. This week, everybody is watching.
Bob on: The early days
When I first did this race, I had a $75 police auction bicycle with flat-proof tires and packed my sleeping bag and tent. It’s not like you could go online and find out information. I had no idea you did the thing in one day.
When I came across the finish line, I felt like it changed me. I did something I never thought in my wildest dreams I could accomplish — swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles in one day.
Bob on: What makes the race special
What other event on the planet can the very best line up treading water with a guy like me or some 70-year-old.
We are playing golf at the Masters; playing Wimbledon with the best. When Jan Frodeno is having a beer after the race, he can talk with some age-group guy about the wind in Kawaihae. It’s not like he’s talking to a reporter. He’s sharing something with a kindred spirit. That’s special.
Bob on: The pros
Our pros don’t follow the same path as professional athletes in the four major sports.
Most of our pros fell into the sport when they were in their 20s and found out they had an aptitude for it. They started as an age-grouper on a borrowed bike, so when you interview them, it doesn’t feel like you are interviewing LeBron James or Barry Bonds. They are happy to chat about their journey and a lot of time it relates to someone watching at home.
The sport is what I call an equal opportunity abuser. It doesn’t care if you are big or small, short or fat. It doesn’t care if you are in a wheelchair or missing a leg. It’s 2.4, 112, 26.2. Make the cutoff times and you are an Ironman.
It’s about as pure as it gets.
Bob on: His show, Breakfast with Bob
We started the show nine years ago, mainly because I just love talking to the athletes.
When we started it, we found we were reaching not only people here, but also people in Europe and Asia. They were sending photos in of themselves eating dinner watching “Breakfast with Bob” in Hawaii.
We had 3.3 million views of my show from last year over seven days of interviews. Everybody is hanging on every word from these athletes who are competing in the world’s greatest triathlon.
Bob on: Bob’s
I have a blueberry muffin every morning. My wife makes these muffins with almond flour and flax seed.
So I have that and a banana, maybe a hard boiled egg and I’m good to go.
Bob on: Memorable interviews
There have been lots. I mean, watching a guy like Lionel Sanders has been incredible.
He was a drug and alcohol abuser and his parents are saints for not giving up on him. He was in detox and rehab and standing on a bamboo chair with a rope on his neck ready to commit suicide. And his early interviews were pretty raw.
He talked about the fact that his parents believed in him despite all those times he disappointed them. When he said he wanted to do Ironman Louisville, his parents paid his entry fee, drove him there, got him a bike. Now, he’s become one of the best in the world.
It’s journeys like that — seeing people who didn’t know they could do this and watching where it takes them.
Bob on: Must-dos
I really don’t have time to do anything. It’s a nutty week.
My most relaxing day is race day. I get to sleep in.
Bob on: What he wants to be
If I have a legacy at all, I think the most important thing is the Challenged Athletes Foundation. And that is connected to Ironman.
A guy named Jim MacLaren, who was an amputee, did this race in 10 hours and 42 minutes back in the early 90s. When he did that, it changed perceptions. Before that, no one thought an amputee could compete in the sport.
In 1993 he was injured again when he got hit by a van on his bike and became a quadriplegic after already being an amputee. So three of us got together to put on a triathlon as a fundraiser for Jimmy. We put on a race and the goal was to raise $25,000. We ended up raising $49,000 and bought him a van to give him independence.
We thought our job was done, but after the race, three other friends of Jimmy who were amputees told us that if you get injured, health insurance covers a walking around leg and an everyday wheelchair, but anything to do with sports is considered a luxury item and not covered.
And you and I both know, sports are not a luxury item. So at that point we got our 501(c)(3) and decided if someone needed a piece of equipment for sport, CAF would be there.
Now, 25 years later, we just got a proclamation from the City of San Diego because we have sent out 23,000 grants and raised over $100 million dollars. That all originated from this little sport of triathlon.
I think Daniela Ryf is in a different league on the women’s side.
With Jan Frodeno out of the race, it will be interesting. He was my overwhelming favorite. I think Patrick Lange, Lionel Sanders, Sebastian Kienle all have a shot.
I think there are 10 guys with a legitimate chance to win and around 25 with a chance to get on the podium. The field is that deep.