September 4, 2015 – With the 2015 Ironman Triathlon World Championship a mere 36 days away, we thought it would be fun to countdown to race day with a look back at the 36 athletes who have won the most important race in endurance sports through radio conversations, Breakfast with Bob interviews, plus stories and photography from my 30 Years of the Ironman Triathlon World Championship coffee table book. Check back each day as we countdown to Kona!
We start with the first ever Ironman champion, Gordon Haller, the taxi driver who won the first ever Ironman Triathlon World Championship way back in 1978, when there were 15 starters and 12 finishers.
Check out Gordon’s training log from the month leading up to Ironman. Yes, those are multiple runs during the day. Gordon ran between fares.
When Lyn Lemaire became the first woman to start and then finish the Ironman in 1979, she proved that a woman could not only finish the toughest day in sport, but that she could hold her own with the boys, a pattern that would be repeated throughout the history of the event. Lyn Lemaire was fifth overall out of 12 finishers with a 12:55:38, and her 6:30 bike split was second to only the men’s champion, Tom Warren, who went 6:19.
Tom Warren, who owned a tavern called Tug’s Tavern in San Diego, won the 1979 Ironman on Oahu and was immortalized when Sports Illustrated did an eight page feature on the event and on Warren.
Tom ended up on Johnny Carson and, when Johnny asked what his prize was for winning, Tommy handed him the hole-in-the-head trophy every finisher received. Johnny turned the trophy over and laughed:
“Hey Tom,” he said. “Did you notice there’s a screw missing.”
The audience roared and the Ironman was on its way.
Not the greatest quality, but the interview with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show is pretty classic!
The 1980 women’s champion, Robin Beck bettered Lyn Lemaire’s time from the previous year by over an hour and a half, finishing in 11:21:24 – with a 1:20 swim, 6:05 bike, and 3:56:24 run.
“The Man” Dave Scott won his first Ironman Triathlon World Championship in 1980. He would go on to win five more times in ’82, ’83, ’84, ’86, and ’87. But one of his greatest Ironman performances may have been his 2nd place finish in 1994 at the age of 40. And of course, Dave’s best-known race was the historic IronWar with Mark Allen in 1989.
Dave spent his career pushing the envelope in Kona and was the first person to go sub-9:30, sub-9:00, and sub-8:30 in Kona, and the first person to go sub-3:00, sub-2:55, and sub-2:50 for the Ironman Triathlon World Championship marathon.
Listen to a Q&A with Dave Scott at the Tri Club of San Diego on Babbittville Radio
Read about Dave in this classic editorial from 1994: The Scar.
In 1981, the race moved from Oahu to The Big Island of Hawaii and on February 14th, 22-year-old Linda Sweeney became the first woman’s champion to run down Ali’i Drive. Sweeney was a good runner and swimmer who couldn’t shift gears, rode a bike with a side-view mirror, a pack on the front with her water bottle, a towel, and a tape player and cassettes inside. “I distinctly remember flying through mile 90 blasting White Punks on Dope,” recalls Linda.
Read One and Done, a piece on Linda Sweeney from the Triathlete Magazine archives.
Listen to the Babbittville Radio Classics interview with Linda Sweeney
John Howard, a three-time Olympic cyclist, was the first big star to come to the Ironman, finishing third on Oahu in 1980. Totally committed to this new sport, Howard spent the year working on his swim and run, and returned in 1981 on a mission. The training paid off, and Howard took the win, bettering his swim from the year before by 40 minutes, and his run by 50 minutes. Following his 1:11:12 swim, Howard rode 5:03:29 and ran 3:23:48, for a winning time of 9:38:29, beating 1979 champion Tom Warren, and 3rd place finisher Scott Tinley.
It was February of 1982. Julie Moss was leading the fifth-ever Ironman Triathlon World Championship with the ABC Wide World of Sports cameras documenting her every move. She turned right onto Ali’i Drive and headed for glory. Little did she or her pursuer, Kathleen McCartney, know that those last few yards, that those next few minutes, would change the future of a sport and the Ironman – and their lives – forever.
“None of us who took that first trip to Oahu, or were there in the streets of Kona for the last mile of Julie Moss’ ordeal, would ever forget triathlon’s beginning – and the drama of watching something lift off and take flight right before our very eyes.”
-Jim Lampley, commentator, ABC’s Wide World of Sports
Thirty years later, Kathleen and Julie returned to Kona and completed the Ironman Triathlon World Championship.
Today, the former competitors are now collaborators, and speak around the world as The Iron Icons.
Because of the amazing growth of the event and the increasing demand from all over the world, in 1982 a second Ironman was added in October to give athletes from colder climates an opportunity to participate. From 1982 on, the Ironman would be held in October.
Winner Julie Leach led defending champion Kathleen McCartney in the marathon, but struggled:
“It was miserable. You count every mile and every aid station. You think ‘When is this going to end?'”
It ended with a victory for Julie in 10:54:08, with a 1:04:57 swim, 5:50:36 bike, and 3:58:35 run.
One of the most colorful personalities in the sport, Scott Tinley created a clothing line, won over 100 races in his Hall of Fame career, and had two huge wins at the Ironman Triathlon World Championship. His first win in Kona in February of 1982 was overshadowed after Kathleen McCartney came from way off the pace during the marathon to pass a crawling Julie Moss within spitting distance of the finish.
When the man nicknamed ST won his second title in 1985, he ushered in the aerodynamic age by riding state of the art handlebars along with covers for his bike shoes. Ironically, when Tinley went to pick up his bike the day after the race, the experimental handlebars were broken.
1985 was also the last year the Ironman Triathlon World Championship was held without a prize purse and, not surprisingly, neither four-time champion Dave Scott or Mark Allen toed the line. The following year, an anonymous donor put up $100,000 for the pros to go after and everyone was there.
Read Simpler Times at the Hawaii Ironman, a reflection on Tinely’s win and the 1985 race from the Triathlete Magazine archives.
Scott Tinley appeared on the cover of Competitor Magazine numerous times throughout his career. Here in March of ’95 with fellow “Ironman” Cal Ripken, Jr. from the Baltimore Orioles.
Two fierce competitors who never quit, Ripken had at the time played in over 2000 consecutive games, and Tinley had just become the first Ironman to go over 2,000 miles on the Kona Coast. In the cover article profiling the two men, Tinley’s training partner Todd Jacobs encapsulated what makes Tinley such a fierce competitor. In discussing Tinley’s performance on the run in Kona in 1990 when he ran a 2:53:30 to move from 12th off the bike to 2nd overall, Jacobs observed: “The rest of us can race under tough conditions, Tinley can race in Hell.”
Canadian Sylviane Puntous and her twin sister Patricia often raced side by side in Kona, but only one could win, and it was Sylviane, in 1983 and 1984, with Patricia taking second both years as well.
“The first time I enjoyed it. When I ran, I looked at everybody. I recognized other people. People talked to me, smiled. But it was not like that this year. Nobody talked to me. It was pain, and pain all the time.”
-Sylviane Puntous after winning the 1984 Ironman, her second win in a row.
Joanne Ernst moved up from fourth in 1984 to win in 1985, going 1:01:42 in the swim, 5:39:13 for the bike, and running 3:44:26, finishing in 10:25:22.
Six minutes back, in third place, a young triathlete making her debut at Ironman: Paula Newby-Fraser.