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30 Triathlon Moments That Mattered

Our sport has come a long way, and Triathlete has existed to document this evolution ever since the magazine launched in May 1983.

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 At 5:45 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 1974, the first triathlon was held on Mission Bay’s Fiesta Island in San Diego. Forty-six athletes dared to toe the line for this wacky new run-bike-swim-run sporting adventure, including Navy Commander John Collins—who would go on to found something called the Ironman four years later. Those pioneering participants ponied up $1 apiece for entry, and many of them finished after dark with car headlights illuminating their way.

Our sport has come a long way, and Triathlete has existed to document and celebrate this evolution ever since the magazine launched in May 1983. There are easily thousands of significant moments that we could call out in celebration of our magazine’s 30-year anniversary—performance breakthroughs, tech innovations, event milestones, greater media coverage and awareness—but we’ve culled it to a collection of our favorites.

1978 John Collins creates the Ironman on Oahu to settle a debate about who’s fittest: swimmers, cyclists or runners. Gordon Haller, a naval communications specialist, beats out 14 other competitors to earn the inaugural Ironman title in 11:46:58. The following year Lyn Lemaire becomes the first woman to compete and win, finishing fifth overall in 12:55:38.

1981 Race director Valerie Silk moves the Ironman to Kona on Hawaii’s Big Island, allowing for growth, improved athlete safety and the allure of the lava fields. Important changes are also instituted: Personal support crews are replaced by aid stations and roads are no longer open to traffic.

1982 Front-runner Julie Moss crumbles and crawls while Kathleen McCartney cruises past, clinching Kona victory. ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” coverage of Moss’ remarkable bonk puts the little-known Ironman on the public map. (Thirty years later, Moss and McCartney celebrate the anniversary of their moment by racing Kona 2012.)

1983 Noting a lack of triathlon training resources, Sally Edwards writes the first book on the sport: Triathlon: A Triple Fitness Sport. Edwards’ own training for her 1981 Hawaii Ironman debut includes swimming 2.4 miles, resting two days, cycling 112 miles, resting two days, then running a marathon—all within a few weeks of the race. She finishes second.

1983 Jim Curl and Carl Thomas create the first big-city triathlon, the U.S. Triathlon Series (USTS) in Chicago, despite lacking permits three weeks from race day and nearly canceling the event. Sponsored for many years by Mrs. T’s Pierogies (and significantly increasing public awareness of those tasty little carb pockets), the race evolves to today’s Life Time Tri Chicago.

1984 Jim Curl and Carl Thomas introduce wave starts at the USTS season opener event in Tampa, Fla., facilitating larger age-group fields and increased athlete safety. At the same race they formalize the distance now known as “Olympic”: 1.5K swim, 40K bike and 10K run.

1985 Richard Byrne invents the first triathlon bike, the Sceptor, notable for its steep seat tube angle to facilitate an aero position. Nineteen years after the Sceptor’s appearance, the Cervélo P3 Carbon becomes the blueprint on which nearly every tri bike is now based.

1986 Prize money is introduced in Kona, driven by Dave Scott and Mark Allen’s boycott of the 1985 race. Steve Drogan, a financier from San Diego, anonymously posts a $100,000 prize purse, an important step toward helping pro triathletes earn a living from the sport. Scott and Allen return, finishing first and second.

1987 Dan Empfield invents the Quintana Roo wetsuit, the first wetsuit specifically designed for swimming. Empfield’s revelation is that swimming in a neoprene suit is not just warmer, but also faster than without one. Newbies and open-water-phobic triathletes rejoice.

1988 SRM invents the first power meter. While still a niche product category today, the power meter gains popularity and acceptance each year, enabling triathletes to obsess more than ever about their performance milestones.

1988 Paula Newby-Fraser clocks 9:01:01 in Kona, knocking 35 minutes off the previous course record and finishing 11th overall—the highest placing for a woman since the event grew to more than a few hundred participants. No woman has finished higher since.

1989 Dave Scott and Mark Allen race shoulder to shoulder for eight hours in Kona in what is now revered as “Iron War.” Both men ultimately finish their pro careers with six Ironman World Championship wins each; the 1989 race is Allen’s first Kona win, and he beats his nemesis by 58 seconds on Scott’s best ever day on the Big Island.

1989 Below-the-knee amputee Jim MacLaren runs a 3:16 marathon to finish Kona in 10:42. Four years later MacLaren is hit by a van while cycling during a race, becoming a quadriplegic. A fundraising event to help him purchase an adapted vehicle leads to the creation of the San Diego Triathlon Challenge and the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

1989 The Scott DH aerobar is popularized at the Tour de France when Greg LeMond overcomes a 50-second deficit to win the final time-trial stage and the yellow jersey. Triathletes, however—eager adopters of new technology—had been riding the bars as early as 1987.

RELATED – Iron War: Uncut Interview With Dave Scott And Mark Allen

1990 The Danskin Women’s Only Triathlon Series launches in three cities (Long Beach, San Jose and New York), spurring a groundswell of women’s participation in the sport. Greg Rorke, then-president of Danskin, says he sought to target “what women were doing in the late ’80s—more active pursuits like running, climbing and triathlon.”

1990 NBC takes over the telecast of Ironman from ABC. Director/producer Lisa Lax works to create Emmy Award-winning coverage, showcasing not only the pros but also the age-grouper stories of human courage and perseverance that define the sport. The show becomes an annual must-watch for triathletes and non-triathletes alike. “I’ve covered Olympics, Super Bowls, etc., and nothing compares,” says Lax.

1991 Mike Reilly first utters the phrase, “You are an Ironman!” It’s merely an inspired shout-out to an acquaintance who doubted he would finish, yet the crowd reaction and subsequent finishers’ emotional faces demand that Reilly continues the “Ironman” call—an honor he’s since bestowed on an estimated 250,000 athletes worldwide.

1994 Greg Welch becomes the first non-American male to win Kona—the same year that Dave Scott notably scores second at the age of 40. In 2000, Welch is forced into sudden retirement due to heart health issues (and faces more than 60 hours of surgery).

1996 The XTERRA series (then known as Aquaterra) debuts, taking triathlon off-road. The fun and funky first-year event—full of big-name triathlon and mountain bike pros, and even more memorable for post-race naked touch football and late-night bar-top dancing—grows into a lifestyle sport with more than 300 events in 18 countries.

1996 Belgian Luc Van Lierde, competing in his first Ironman and running his first ever marathon, breaks the Kona course record in 8:04:08 (including a three-minute penalty pit stop). The next year he also breaks the iron-distance world record, going 7:50:27 at Challenge Roth.

1997 John MacLean becomes the first wheelchair athlete to finish Kona within all the “able-bodied” cutoff times. MacLean goes on to swim the English Channel, complete the Molokai Ocean Challenge, compete in the Olympics (2000) and Paralympics (2000 and 2008, winning silver in adaptive rowing) and create the John MacLean Foundation, helping Australia’s wheelchair-bound youth.

RELATED: Chris McCormack’s First Alcatraz Win

2000 Triathlon’s Olympic coming-out party at the 2000 Sydney Summer Games gets rave reviews. Simon Whitfield scores the men’s gold for Canada, while Switzerland’s Brigitte McMahon pips Australia’s sweetheart Michellie Jones at the line and the pair of women finish first and second.

2001 The Challenge Family event series is born when Herbert Walchshöfer takes the helm of Ironman Europe. Walchshöfer terminates his contract with the World Triathlon Corporation, instead re-creating the race as Challenge Roth, where iron-distance world records are made.

2005 Sarah Reinertsen becomes the first female above-the-knee amputee to complete Kona in 15:05:12, after a failed attempt in 2004 when she missed the bike cutoff by merely 15 minutes. Her determination to complete her “unfinished business” and her bright and bubbly spirit make her an icon of sporting inspiration.

2005 Stricken by Lou Gehrig’s disease, Jon Blais fulfills a lifelong dream and finishes Kona in 16:28:56. His accomplishment leads to the creation of the Blazeman Foundation for ALS and the immortalization of his finish-line log roll, practiced by countless age-group athletes as well as pros like Ironman world champions Chrissie Wellington and Leanda Cave.

2005 Robert McKeague becomes the first octogenarian to finish Kona, going 16:21:55 and sprinting the final stretch to the finish, proving that triathlon truly is a sport for all ages. Lew Hollander later beats 80-year-old McKeague’s record as the oldest male finisher, crossing the line in Kona in 16:45:52 in 2012 at age 82.

2007 The Newton Distancia shoe debuts at Ironman 70.3 California, providing a seminal moment in the shift from the block-heeled running shoes of the ’90s to the trend in “natural running” footwear. Newton’s front-lug design aims to keep forefoot strikers on their toes.

2009 Chrissie Wellington slashes Paula Newby-Fraser’s 17-year-old Kona course record, winning her third Ironman world title in 8:54:02.

2011 Australian Craig Alexander becomes the first man to claim both Ironman and Ironman 70.3 World Championship titles in the same year, crushing his competitors on the new Ironman 70.3 championship course in Las Vegas and then successfully vying for his third Kona victory. Brit Leanda Cave follows suit on the women’s side in 2012.

2012 Sister Madonna Buder, a Roman Catholic nun from Seattle, becomes the oldest woman to finish an Ironman at age 82, crossing the line at Ironman Canada in 16:32:00. Buder’s triathlon career, which began at age 52 and blossomed to Ironman when she turned 55, includes more than 35 Ironman finishes, many in Hawaii.

RELATED – Commemorating Chrissie: Wellington’s 13 Iron-Distance Victories

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