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Inside Heather Jackson’s Quest for the Kona Crown

Heather Jackson is one of the friendliest faces on the Ironman circuit—and one of its toughest competitors.

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Heather Jackson is one of the friendliest faces on the Ironman circuit—and one of its toughest competitors. She’s also the United States’ best chance for bringing the Kona women’s title back home.

Heather Jackson runs down Ali’i Drive in third place at the beginning of the marathon at the 2016 Ironman World Championship. Defending champion Daniela Ryf is far up the road leading the race, but Anja Beranek is fading in second and Jackson is well aware of a fast-moving Mirinda Carfrae running through the field. With 20 miles left to go in the race, Jackson is focused on form and the task ahead: getting to the finish line of one of the toughest races in the world.

With her elaborate tattoos, edgy haircut and stars-and-stripes race kit, Jackson is one of the most recognizable athletes on the course. You know she’s getting close because the spectators clad in bright green shirts stamped with “Go Heather” are going nuts. As she passes the cheers, Jackson’s eyes remain straight on the road ahead without the slightest hint of a smile to acknowledge those around her. It’s not until about two hours later when she crosses the finish line in third (after passing Beranek and being passed by Carfrae) that you get a real look at the bubbly, genuine personality that she’s known for. She throws her arms in the air, releases a beaming smile, embraces her husband, Sean “Wattie” Watkins, then stands on the podium with two future hall-of-famers and pulls out a GoPro to take a perfectly executed selfie. It’s this combination of grit and grin that has brought Jackson to this moment: becoming the first American female to make the podium in 10 years.

Photo: Jeff Nelson

The daughter of a police officer and a PE teacher, Jackson grew up in Exeter, N.H., with a brother and sister that all played “every sport you can imagine.” When it came time to go to college, she had the choice between soccer and ice hockey—ultimately choosing ice hockey for the Ivy League opportunities it provided. After four years of hockey at Princeton University, complete with a semester in Japan, Jackson moved to Thailand to teach English as part of the “Princeton in Asia” program. When that ended, Jackson accepted a job teaching ninth-grade world history at a private school in San Jose, Calif. Not her dream gig, but it was time to start paying off student loans and “get a real job.”

Jackson, who got her first taste of triathlon at a sprint race as a junior in college, kept things interesting in Northern California by diving into life as an amateur triathlete. It was through the sport that she met then-Triathlete magazine VP of sales and marketing, Sean Watkins. Friends at first, the two kept in touch as she racked up podium spots in the 18–24 age group—including a win in the category at the 2008 Ironman World Championship. It was at the 2009 Wildflower Triathlon Festival that Watkins convinced her to quit her job and move to the San Diego area to train and race as a professional triathlete.

“At the time, my parents were pretty speechless,” Jackson says of the decision. “My mom didn’t say much. Wattie flew up and helped pack my house. We drove in a U-Haul down to San Diego, and it was on the drive that I called and told her that I was moving. I didn’t even tell her about my plan to race as a pro.”

Though Jackson’s triathlon career started with a huge leap of faith, it’s only progressed and reached such heights thanks to the huge measure of patience she has with herself—something many at the top level of the sport struggle with.

It took exactly three years for Jackson to get her first win as a pro. She finished a well-rounded day with a stellar run to win the iconic Wildflower Long Course Triathlon by a margin of nearly six minutes in 2012. “That was my biggest breakthrough,” she says.

After that, the wins became more routine as she built on her strength as a cyclist—and was now able to run with the best in the world. She won Wildflower two more times, and crept up the podium at the 2012 and 2013 Ironman 70.3 World Championships with third and second place finishes, respectively. It was only then—five years into her career—that she decided to make the jump to pro-level Ironman. “That was mainly Wattie having been in the sport forever and seeing athletes completely lose their speed so young by jumping right into Ironman,” says Jackson of her decision to wait to tackle the full 140.6.

Under the direction of coach Cliff English, Jackson finished third at Ironman Arizona in her pro debut at the distance in 2014, won Ironman Coeur d’Alene in 2015 and then finished as the top American female—fifth overall—in her pro Kona debut later that year. With English accepting a job as the head coach of the brand-new Arizona State University women’s triathlon team, Jackson decided she was ready for a transition, and that’s when she found guidance in an unexpected place.

Long-time friend and fellow professional triathlete Joe Gambles was visiting Bend, Ore.—where Jackson bases her training for the majority of the year—and within a few minutes, he made a couple of key observations. “It started as we were swimming at the pool,” she says. “He made two comments on things I should be working on just from watching me swim for 10 minutes. They were things no one had ever told me and made a big difference.”

From there, Jackson started turning to Gambles for advice on her training plan before eventually asking him to take the reins on her program entirely.

“[Coaching] was my plan post-racing, but when an amazing athlete like Heather asks you to coach her, you’re not going to turn that down,” Gambles says.

The biggest change Gambles made was getting Jackson back to the über-biker status that she had used to kick off her career as a pro—something she’d backed off of, in favor of training the run. The plan worked, giving Jackson that breakthrough third-place finish on the Big Island last year.

Jackson on the cover of the October issue of Triathlete magazine.

Now with a Kona podium to her name, the expectations and hopes that Jackson can be the next American woman to win the Ironman World Championship are sky high. With that having been said, this season has been perhaps the ultimate test of her patience. After an exhilarating and exhausting qualifying victory last year at Ironman Lake Placid, she chose to make her 2017 Ironman qualification race a more low-key effort. At Ironman Boulder she admits she purposely didn’t show up in peak form so that the build-up to Kona could get her full effort.

Another tough—and Kona-centric—decision this year has been to skip Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Chattanooga, Tenn. “I love Chattanooga, I love that town,” Jackson says of the hard choice. “At the end of the day, though, I think I’d regret it. Even if I went and did well, it would let some doubt creep into my head about doing everything I possibly can for Kona.”

With all of her eggs in the Kona basket, Jackson will do her biggest eight-week IMWC training block in hot Tucson, Ariz., using it as an opportunity to simulate and visualize the strategy—and intensity—she’ll need for race day.

Though Jackson will no doubt have huge crowd support on the Kona course again this year—with thousands hoping she’ll be the next American world champ—she’s humble about her expectations, saying only that she’ll be happy to finish in the top 10 again.

“The field is wide open,” Jackson says. “I just have to go there and do my own race.”