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IM Tallinn Race Director Survives Shipwreck, Hosts Historic Ironman Event 26 Years Later

No stranger to impossible odds, Ain-Alar Juhanson lived through one of the worst maritime disasters in history in 1994; last weekend, he put on the first Ironman during the pandemic.

When the organizers of Ironman Tallinn in Estonia confirmed both the full and 70.3 races were going ahead after being postponed, the tri world was both surprised and slightly skeptical. The thought of putting together a full- and a half-distance event on the same day during a global pandemic felt like a distant dream, not a real possibility.

But that’s on par for Ain-Alar Juhanson, the race director of both events—a man who has beat insane odds before.

Juhanson is 43 years old and 6 feet 5 inches tall—an imposing figure, but not an intimidating one. He’s soft-spoken and has a calm and welcoming personality. Yet this is a man who can deal with a huge amount of stress and still deliver. In Estonian, they would say he has “rauast närvid” — nerves made of iron. And just like iron, those nerves have been forged in the most extreme conditions.

Early Life

Juhanson was born in 1976 in Paide, 56 miles south of Tallinn. His first love was cross-country skiing, and when he was 12, he joined a sports school in Otepää to pursue that path. Though at that point, he had already raced in a triathlon the previous summer.

“My brother Indrek participated in a triathlon and won it,” Juhanson said. “I was very happy for him and wanted to try that event as well.”

The first time he took part in the small local triathlon, he came first. And just a few months later, he won the national championships too. “From that moment, triathlon became my summer preparation for ski races, but when I finished school in 1994, triathlon became my main discipline and XC skiing my winter training,” he says.

When he was 17, he was invited to Tallinn to live and train with two professionals. “I stayed for three months, and I had everything: an apartment, food, and I only needed to focus on training. It was the first introduction to being a professional athlete,” Juhanson said. As a result of that situation, he became fitter than ever—that year he entered Estonia’s duathlon national championships and won it.

He raced as a professional from 1994 to 2008 and even found time to organize small events in 2004. And yet, one of the most significant moments in his life didn’t occur in a race. Juhanson is one of the survivors of the MS Estonia disaster—the second deadliest peacetime shipwreck of a European ship in the 20th century (second only to the Titanic).

“I’ve been through the worst, and I know things can go really bad,” he said. “In a way, it helps me not to freak out in other circumstances.”

The Estonia Disaster

In September of 1994, together with four other Estonians, Juhanson decided to travel to Germany for a World Cup event. They decided to take a ferry to Stockholm and then drive through Denmark. On Sept. 24, they embarked aboard the MS Estonia.

“We were the second to last car allowed on the ship,” he remembers. “Our team leader, Jaan Pehk, was obsessed with his equipment and decided to sleep in the car to protect his gear.”

That would be the last place they saw him.

Juhanson and his friends (Kristjan Raiend, Anti Arak, and Ülle Karu) moved up to the deck and tried to find a cabin. They went to bed at 11:30 p.m. It was a very windy day, and the sea was rough, and around 1:15 a.m. the door of the bow that allowed cars in the ferry broke wide open.

“When I woke up, the ferry was already tilted,” Juhanson says. “When I opened the door, I saw the water already running through the corridors.”

He woke up his friends, and they started to make their way up to the higher decks. The ferry was tilting quickly, and going up the stairs was a challenge. “People were reacting very differently. Some were passive, some in panic. We understood that that was not normal, and we agreed we had to get off the ship,” he said. “Kristjan and Ülle decided to look for safety vests. That was the last time Anti and I saw them.”

Juhanson and Arak kept climbing their way out by using the handrails on the walls. Just when they reached the upper deck, they were able to put their safety vests on. They spotted other ships and thought help was coming, but they had no idea that rescue from their ferry was impossible under the conditions.

“Anti helped me to climb the fence to get on the side of the ship [which was already tilted by 90 degrees]. We were walking on the side of the ship barefoot and saw people trying to cut the safety boats’ ropes to get [the boats] in the water. Other people were falling because it was so slippery.”

They reached the bow and decided they needed to jump and swim away from the ferry.

“The water was cold, around 46 degrees F. I landed on my back, and the waves were high as mountains,” he said. “But in some way, we found ourselves on a wooden box. That’s when we saw the Estonia going down. It was the same way as with the Titanic. At one point, the ship lifted up straight, and then sank.”

That took place at 1:50 a.m., only 35 minutes after the accident. They decided that they needed to reach a safety boat. They eventually found one, but with four other people inside of the cone-shaped, closed boat, the water was up to their waists. They tried to keep the doors closed and wait for rescues. They sang songs to stay awake, and at around 6 a.m., a helicopter came to rescue them.

Of the 989 people on board, only 137 survived.

Life Post-Disaster

After the disaster, Juhanson went through a challenging period. The year after the tragedy, his mother died in a work accident, and he began to develop a drinking problem.

“I drank a lot of vodka,” he said. “I had lost my friends, and I had lost my life direction.”

To step away from that spiral, Juhanson joined the army in 1996 and remained in the program for the rest of his career. He also approached the triathlon federation for a second chance. Still, they said he was too big for triathlons (he weighed around 220 pounds).

“It just gave me more motivation. I found a coach and started to work for triathlon again,” he said.

After a year in the army, he was sober and entirely focused on sports. In 1998 he was able to get into the army’s triathlon team and landed a regular paycheck for his basic needs. After four years focusing on Olympic distance, he raced his first half-ironman in Denmark. “I knew that to be successful in triathlon, I had to look at the longer distances,” he says.

His first full iron-distance was in Florida in 2002, where he finished in ninth place in 9 hours and 53 seconds.

“I was in training camp in Claremont, Florida, and we were tight with the budget,” he said. “So I arranged a lift with a Gatorade truck to Panama City, over 200 miles away. I was actually seated in the truck, in between boxes of Gatorades, and did the whole drive like that.”

In Florida, he qualified for Kona, but he didn’t have the money to buy the slot. He packed up his stuff and hopped on the Gatorade truck again.

In 2003, he finished IM Lanzarote in fifth place, which he later won in 2005 and 2006. It was revenge to spite the people who looked at him oddly because he still weighed around 210 pounds.

“After that, I got rid of the physical and mental obsession that I needed to prove I could do it,” he said.

In 2006, he also won Ironman New Zealand, and his main focus became racing in Kona, though he traditionally struggled in hot and humid conditions. After several camps with his coach in Tucson, Arizona, he clocked a 4 hour 26 minutes bike split—the fastest of the year—and finished 13th overall in 2008.

However, due to the economic crisis, he lost his primary sponsor, and 2009 began uphill. A friend suggested crowdfunding, and after a TV appearance, he was able to involve 1,054 individuals in his project. In return, he printed out all their names on his race kit (now memorialized in the Estonian Sports Museum).

“I felt a big responsibility for this group of people, and I knew it was probably my last year as a professional,” he said.

Ain-Alar Juhanson
Ain-Alar out on course. Photo: Ain-Alar Juhanson Collection

But an ITB syndrome showed up a few weeks before his last dance on the Big Island, and despite reduced training volumes, the pain forced him to walk a big chunk of the marathon.

But not all was lost: A few months before that last race, he had visited a mental coach in Los Angeles and worked on his “whys” with him.

“The reason why I do [triathlon] is that I would like people to be happier and smile more,” he said.

That’s why his tri club is called “Trismile” and its logo is comprised of three smiling faces.

“I believe we can all make a change, and I want to organize events that make people happy,” he said.

Juhanson “is very passionate about what he is doing,” said Triin Preem, press officer for Ironman Tallinn. “He sees it as a bigger mission, and it’s very motivating to follow and be part of that journey of bringing triathlon to the masses.”

The first edition of IM Tallinn was held in 2018. Because of the recent renewal with Ironman, Juhanson and his team will make people smile for at least three more years.