Why can’t Americans win at Kona anymore? Two-time Ironman world champion Tim DeBoom, the most recent American winner, shares his thoughts about what it takes to win, and which Americans might have it.
This article was originally published in the March/April 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
America is in a drought, and it is reaching biblical proportions. This may seem like an unnecessarily dramatic statement concerning a sporting event, but it’s true in its own context. The country that invented the Ironman, the United States, has become an afterthought on the results pages. It has been 10 years since America had a men’s champion in Kona and an eternal 17 on the women’s side. With such a rich history at the Ironman, it’s hard to imagine what happened. Why has the U.S. become a second-rate power on the lava fields, and what needs to change for us to become relevant again on the biggest stage in the sport of triathlon?
This is an opinion piece, and I am in a unique position to speak on this subject, as I ended the last five-year drought for the U.S. men, winning Ironman Hawaii in 2001 and again in 2002. My opinion alone, however, is not worthy of the final word on this topic. I sought the perspective from two of the greatest Ironman champions of all time, Dave Scott and Mark Allen, the two Americans who dominated the event from 1980 to 1995. They are both still involved in the sport and have unique outlooks on what they feel is hampering the U.S. in its quest for another champion.
While it may come down to the fact that today’s American athletes just don’t have the talent it takes to win, three other key factors that may also play a role in this drought are worth examining.
First, over the past 10 years, there have been changes in the endurance world that have affected the actual Ironman event, and the triathlon landscape in general. Second, athletes must make many decisions that can either help or hinder their success in Kona. Finally, there are “intangibles,” things out of an athlete’s control that most winners have. These things are not trained or learned, but they are incredibly important to their success.
Let’s start by examining the race itself. The Ironman World Championship is still on the Big Island of Hawaii. The distances are still 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling, and 26.2 miles of running. It is still held in October in extremely hot and usually windy conditions. But this is where the consistencies end. Since its inception in 1978, the race has gone through massive changes. Ironman has become a global brand with an international race series, and the race in Kona is now a true world championship. Along with the growth of the Ironman brand has come an increase in international competition, specifically from countries that take endurance sports very seriously from a very young age.
The American men dominated the Ironman during the first 15 years, winning every year from 1978 till 1993. After Australian Greg Welch broke the American stranglehold in 1994, the U.S. men have only added three more victories (in 1995, 2001 and 2002). The American women saw some early success but were always overshadowed by the men’s dominance, and have not had a winner since Karen Smyers in 1995.
The winner of the past six men’s titles are all from Australia, a country that practically mandates that kids participate in triathlon. Not just an endurance sport like swimming or running, but triathlon. The U.S. has the Ironkids series and excellent national swimming and running programs, but they are an afterthought in a population focused on the “big three” ball sports.
This lack of development at an early age is something that Mark, Dave and I all agree is a huge hindrance to up-and-coming athletes with the potential to eventually win Kona. Our athletes often begin their triathlon careers in their 20s with a single-sport background (usually swimming or running), while athletes from Australia and Great Britain begin triathlon at age 13 or 14 and become complete “triple threat” athletes by the time they turn professional. Dave thinks this early development is a huge factor in building the resilience needed to excel at Ironman racing. It takes years of training to handle the workload needed to win in Hawaii. After my swimming career, I spent almost 10 years developing my run just to handle the workouts necessary to win. “It’s very hard to make up for those differences when you should already be on the world stage,” Mark says.
Our drought goes beyond Ironman too. There have been four Olympic triathlons and only one U.S. medal. Compare that to our dominance in other Olympic sports, and you will begin to see the potential advantage of starting our athletes at an earlier age.
Another big change is that the qualifying procedures for professionals have changed dramatically. The so-called “points system,” the Kona Pro Rankings, used to qualify athletes for Ironman’s championship races, is downright reckless and will definitely shorten the careers of some athletes. The amount of races athletes must do just to qualify for Kona almost ensures that they cannot be at their best on the Big Island. Those who raced well in Kona the previous year have a clear advantage because they don’t have to chase as many points in their buildup to October. With no American men in the top 10 in 2010 and 2011, and just a couple of U.S. women barely making the top 10, most of the top American contenders had to exhaust themselves just to toe the starting line these past two years. Multiple Americans once again finished in the top 10 in 2012, so at least a few of our athletes will be a little fresher next year.
Finally, I have to wonder if Ironman Hawaii has lost some of its significance among the professional ranks. When I started racing professionally in 1995, Kona was the only option for glory. Now that the Olympics include triathlon, an Olympic medal (or even just making the team) can be as illustrious as winning Hawaii for many young athletes.