Reflections on four memorable Ironman athletes

  • Professional triathlete Matt Russell's amazing Ironman comeback in 2018. (Rani Henderson/Hawaii Sport Events)

  • Former Big Island mayor Billy Kenoi. (Rani Henderson/Hawaii Sport Events)

  • Bree Wee (Brown) crosses the finish line at the 2014 Memorial Hermann Ironman Texas North American Championships. (Nick Morales/Courtesy Photo)

  • Bob Babbitt. (Robert Klingensmith/Courtesy Photo)

For the past seven years, the Friday before the Hawaii Ironman World Championship held here in beautiful Kailua-Kona meant writing a feature column on local athletes who made it to the start line.

From rookies to elite athletes, to those hoping to PR and others who just wanted to cross the finish line in one piece, it was always a time to celebrate a huge accomplishment and recognize each athlete’s journey along with their thoughts on competing in the Grand Daddy of all triathlons — “Kona.”

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However, with the cancellation of this year’s world championships due to COVID-19, my feature column on local athletes will need to wait until next year. So instead, I decided to reflect upon four of my most memorable Ironman interviews, in no particular order.

• Professional triathlete Matt Russell’s amazing comeback in 2018

It was a finish line victory that no one could have predicted for a man who nearly lost his life during the 2017 Ironman World Championships.

Matt Russell was at mile 75 of the bike segment and heading back toward town at a speed of 35 miles per hour, when a motor vehicle — attempting to cross the highway from Waikoloa Road — pulled in front of him during the race that caused him to slam headfirst into the vehicle’s side window.

While he wore a helmet, the horrific accident left him with severe trauma to his head, face and neck — all while bleeding and unconscious — and with an uncertainty if he would be able to survive. Miraculously, he did.

A year later, at the 2018 Ironman World Championships, Russell returned to the start line —and finished. Although he wasn’t the first to break the tape, Russell’s awe-inspiring 6th place result — among a stacked men’s professional field on one of the toughest courses in the Ironman circuit — was a victory in more ways than one could possibly imagine.

“Just crossing the finish line was going to be a huge victory no matter what the place,” said the 35-year old professional triathlete from Sarasota, Florida. “And to finish sixth place — that was definitely the icing on the cake. I was really happy with my performance, and as soon as I crossed the finish line, the emotions really came out. I never felt so alive and for so many reasons.”

• ‘Breakfast with Bob Babbitt’

While Bob Babbitt and I may not have been sitting oceanfront listening to local musician, Poncho Man, strumming his ukulele and singing a tune with stunning views of Kailua Bay as the backdrop — one of the famous sites for his popular show during Ironman week — I was honored to have my own version of, “Breakfast with Bob.”

The San Diego native is the co-founder of the Challenge Athletes Foundation and Competitor Magazine, the creator of the Muddy Buddy Ride & Run Series, Inductee to both the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame and Ironman Hall of Fame, and the host of his own popular show “Breakfast with Bob.”

Yet on this beautiful Sunday in 2016, the triathlon legend known affectionately in the multisport world as Funky Dude Bob Babbitt, found himself on the flip side of the interview. We chatted on many topics, one being where his passion for the multisport event comes from.

“I first came over to do Ironman in 1980,” Babbitt said. “We first read about it in Sport Illustrated and weren’t really sure how long it was but my roommate, Ned Overend, and I decided to come to Oahu to do it. I was a school teacher in PE and read about this thing called the Ironman. But I had no idea that you were supposed to complete the entire thing in one day. We didn’t know what it was about, we really didn’t have a clue. And none of us did.

“From Dave Scott, to myself, to everyone else who was on the starting line in 1980 it was; “Could we do this? Could we finish this?” It wasn’t about the time, it wasn’t about the results, it wasn’t about calories or wattage, it was about adventure. Which leads me back to why I love Ultraman, it’s an adventure. There’s no prize money, you are out here because you want to test yourself.”

• Billy Kenoi becomes the first mayor to compete and finish the Ironman World Championships

At age 39, Billy Kenoi became the youngest mayor in Big Island history in 2008. Then in 2014, Kenoi at the age of 45 became the first mayor of Hawaii to be an Ironman World Championship finisher.

I remember being nervous as heck for our interview and wondering how in the world I would be able to get through all of the red tape and his busy schedule just to talk to him. However, Kenoi put me at ease texting, “Here is my cell number and just tell me what time works best for you.” Our interview flowed flawlessly as Kenoi humbly shared how afraid he felt to take on the 140.6-mile distance.

“I’m terrified,” admitted Kenoi with a laugh. “I know I didn’t put in the time that I needed to, but I feel good. Every step has been great and a fun experience. You meet the nicest people whether they are athletes, volunteers, or just people out there to support you. I truly feel humbled.”

“It’s a realization of a dream. I will have been able to walk in the steps of thousands who have done it before me. I will be humbled and will probably break down to cry. Crossing the finish line will be for everyone on the Big Island and show everyone you can accomplish anything that you set your mind to.”

Kenoi finished that year’s race in a time of 16 hours, 54 minutes and 13 seconds.

• Bree Wee says ‘goodbye’ to professional triathlon racing

I remember doing this interview like it was yesterday. Hawaii’s most decorated female professional triathlete had announced her retirement after eight years in the sport of triathlon.

The two-time Ironman Champion, Bree Wee (now Bree Brown), who began her professional triathlon career after shattering the age-group women’s record at the 2007 Hawaii Ironman World Championships, wrote a very heartfelt blog post in 2016 that the time had come to return to teaching first grade at Kahakai Elementary School on a full-time basis.

“How do I write this? Where does one even attempt beginning to write eight years of her sporting life into a single blog post? It’s not a beginning or an end, just a change.”

At that time, the then 36-year old said she had been called everything from a quitter to an inspiration. We all know she was anything but a quitter.

Brown continues to be the greatest female triathlete to rise from the Aloha State. During her eight-year career, she fearlessly traveled the globe to challenge the best of the best, year after year, on a world stage as grand as the Hawaii Ironman World Championships. She topped all local swim-bike-run events and cemented her status as the “Queen of Lavaman” with a record total of eight wins — the most by any male of female — and holds the current women’s course record of 2 hours, 2 minutes and 47 seconds.

As we sat to sip smoothies and chat about her decision to retire, Brown reflected upon some of her best memories in the sport.

“The people,” she said. “That’s the part of racing I know I will miss. I’m not afraid to miss the finish lines or the awards or getting on podiums. But I’ve met some really cool people — people I would’ve never come to know if it weren’t for sport.

And Kainoa — even if I sometimes felt that it was a burden to drag him to some of the races, there were so many times I’d find him on the sidelines screaming and cheering which made me realize how much he loved it. And he’s so proud of me and I think I’ll miss that. He felt that sense of pride that his mommy was a “racer.”

Brown also offered some sound advice to many of Hawaii’s youth who look up to her as a role model.

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“You really have to have more to life than just sport. I understand that there are people winning gold medals because they have dedicated their life to that but they are just the 1-percent. If you are absolutely not that 1-percent then you won’t have anything to fall back on, and with sport being your body, you will not last forever. You don’t want to be that 80-year old person that has no family, friends, or other passions because you gave it all for your sport. So, I think you need to have more to life than just sport.”

Rani Henserson writes “Runnin’ with Rani” for West Hawaii Today

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