5 Heart-Warming Triathlon Moments to Come Out of 2020

In a year that included so little triathlon action, there were still several stories that left us inspired.

Photo: Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images for Ironman

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Each year at this time we usually hand out awards that recognize the biggest moments, movements, and people of the prior 12 months. But with so few races taking place in 2020, we’ve taken a different angle. Here, each of our editors shares their favorite feel-good story and—because everyone initially chose the same one—we conclude with a collective team pick that left everyone teary-eyed and inspired.

RELATED: 15 Photos That Sum Up the 2020 Year in Triathlon

Ötillö Swimrun Engadin

– Chris Foster, senior editor

Athletes compete at Ötillö Swimrun Engadin. Photo: Ötillö

At a time when almost no multisport events were taking place during our deep pandemic summer, one small swimrun race gave us a glimpse of hope. Hosted in the relatively protected eastern Swiss Alps region in Engadin, Switzlerand, on July 26, race organizers had to completely rewrite their pre-COVID gameplan to make the event even happen. Due to Switzerland’s relatively low case numbers, relaxed regulations, and a monumental effort on the part of the race organizers, nearly 400 racers from 24 countries were able to safely swim and run (and swim and run some more) during race weekend. 

“We had a lucky break with Ötillö Swimrun Engadin where there was a window of opportunity that we took at the price of having four of us in the production team take 10 days in quarantine in Switzerland to be able to put on the race,” said Ötillö founder Michael Lemmel who was forced to bunker down in Engadin valley as a quarantine requirement for entering Switzerland from Sweden in what he dubbed his “gilded cell”. 

It was this first bright spot in an otherwise dimly lit 2020, and it helped get the ball rolling for other multisport events to creatively eek by—including other Ötillö events in Üto and Cannes. “In essence [we] fight for every way forward and learn from the losses,” Lemmel said of the unprecedentedly challenging  2020 season. “[But] a river always finds its way to the sea.”

Hawaii From Home Challenge

– Emma-Kate Lidbury, managing editor

When the news broke that Kona was going to be canceled for the first time in its history, it hit the Triathlete team pretty hard—as it did, of course, with all athletes, coaches, industry insiders and fans of the sport. We immediately knew that we wanted to do something to try to honor the greatest event of the season—but what and how? Unsurprisingly (by 2020 standards), we all jumped on a Zoom call and (eventually) brainstormed it out. The result? A virtual challenge that would see participants cover the total distance of an Ironman over the course of what would have been Kona race week (Oct. 4-11). It would require no qualification and you could break up the distances however you wished or do them in a relay. We sourced top coaches to write workouts in the lead-up to race week, had about a dozen pros join the challenge and, ultimately, more than 1,000 people signed up. The weekend that would have been race weekend—Oct. 10-11—was probably one of my favorite and most heart-warming weekends of the year as we started to see more and more people—from all over the globe—post on social media telling us about how much they had enjoyed the challenge, how much it had motivated them to get training again, and how much it had helped to bring their tri communities back together (virtually, of course). It was truly inspiring to see and proved that, despite race cancellations and continued frustrations, the resilience and spirit of our sport knows no bounds.

Jan Frodeno Completes the Iron Distance at Home for a Good Cause

Liz Hichens, senior digital editor

Jan Frodeno on his at-home bike setup.

About one month into the pandemic, three-time Ironman world champion Jan Frodeno completed the iron-distance within the confines of his home in tightly locked-down Girona, Spain. Because of the timing of the announcement, a lot of us initially took it to be an April Fool’s prank but it turned out to be no joke. On April 11, he used a counter-current system in his home pool to swim 2.4 miles before hopping on a trainer for 112 miles and then a treadmill for a marathon. He came up with the plan and then his sponsors quickly jumped on board to support him and the cause. He ultimately raised more than 200,000 Euros for several charities, including coronavirus relief efforts in Girona.

“Quiet achievement,” Frodeno wrote on Instagram. “No world records were broken. I probably won’t repeat. Let alone three-repeat. But nothing can put into words what unfolded today. And all in the ‘comfort’ of my own home. Thank you everyone who made this happen.”

I love this moment not only for its charitable aspects but also because it came at a time when so many triathletes were looking for a source of inspiration with races quickly disappearing from the calendar. Sure, most of us don’t have as luxurious of a setup as Frodeno, but the idea that you can create your own adventures was inspiring and set an example for how to be a triathlete with no triathlons. If you’re looking for some company on the trainer or treadmill, the livestreams of his at-home race are still up on his Facebook page.

Paula Findlay’s Win at Daytona

– Kelly O’mara, editor-in-chief

Paula Findlay celebrates her victory. Photo: Tommy Zaferes/PTO

When Paula Findlay won the biggest race of the year in December, the PTO Championships at Challenge Daytona, I wasn’t just rooting for her because she had totally been my pick beforehand. I was also rooting for her because of how much she’s been through and how she’s managed to come out on top. Lots of people know her story now: A young Canadian up-and-comer, who was a favorite going into the 2012 Olympics, and ended up last at the Games, injured, crying, and mouthing “I’m sorry” to her country on national TV. She shouldn’t have had to go through that; the system failed her and it could have broken her for good. But she didn’t let it. If anything, she’s thriving more than ever now. In a year when so many of us struggled to stay motivated, Findlay and her boyfriend, pro Eric Lagerstrom, showed off their love of the sport and found a growing audience for their weekly Youtube show. If you haven’t picked up some of their That Triathlon Life merch, well, it’s a hot commodity now—as it should be. There’s a reason so many of the other pro women were rooting for Findlay. She’s shown all of us how you keep at it through years of setbacks and what’s possible if you don’t give up.

RELATED: 5 Things We Learned About Triathlon Training in 2020

Chris Nikic Becomes the First Person With Down Syndrome to Complete an Ironman

– the Triathlete Team

Chris Nikic finishes Ironman Florida. Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images for Ironman

Chris Nikic’s battle to cross that Ironman Florida finish line back in November resonated far outside of our sport. The New York Times called him “remarkable,” ESPN fans followed his race on social media, our friends and family texted asking if he’d make it in time, and now he’ll get his own NBC “Anything is Possible” special this Sunday, Jan. 3. All around the country people rooted for the 21-year-old to do something that had never been done before. It was the story we all needed this year. Yes, he fell during the race and got a little bloody. Yes, it was hard training through a pandemic. Yes, it would have been easy to quit. But he didn’t, making the cutoff with 14 minutes to spare. Next goal? Kona, he said.

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