Culture

Recalled: Julie Moss Gives Triathlon Its Breakthrough Moment

Julie Moss wasn't supposed to win the race—she entered as part of her senior thesis on the physiological aspects of the triathlon.

With the racing world on pause as the planet continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, Triathlete will dip back into the archives and revisit some of the biggest and most inspiring moments in triathlon. Today, we’re winding back to Julie Moss’s unforgettable crawl to the finish line of the 1982 Ironman World Championships, which immortalized her as a legend in the sport.   

You could say Julie Moss entered the triathlon scene at just the right time. With the running boom at its peak and marathons becoming more popular than ever, endurance events like the Ironman were just starting to emerge from the shadows of obscurity. In February of 1982, the Ironman World Championships, in its fourth year, had enough buzz surrounding it to garner the attention of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, which sent a camera crew to film the race. 

As it turns out, that camera crew wound up capturing one of the most memorable meltdowns in sports. The footage, displaying Moss collapsing and then making an unforgettable crawl to the Ironman finish line, would soon be broadcast across the planet, eventually catapulting the 23-year-old California native to the forefront of the burgeoning sport. 

“That finish was so drawn out and so graphic, and I think it connected and resonated in a way that people felt like they were on this journey with me,” recalled Moss nearly two decades after that fateful night. “They felt my pain. And it made people question themselves, ‘What would I do?’ It fascinated people. It inspired them.” 

Before the race, Moss was a relative unknown in the sport. In fact, she entered the world champs as part of her senior thesis on the physiological aspects of the triathlon for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Back then, Moss had to spell out triathlon to her professors because they’d never heard the word. Although she hadn’t raced a triathlon yet, she grew up swimming in the choppy waters of the Pacific Ocean. She had two marathons under her belt, and she had been logging miles on a $400 10-speed bike while wearing a bulky skateboarding helmet.  

Still, Moss wasn’t supposed to be a contender for the win. “All I knew is that I had to finish the race to complete my thesis,” Moss recalled. “I just wanted a date with the finish line.”

Until the race’s final moments, the day had gone rather flawlessly for Moss, aside from the fact that the Snickers bar she planned to eat on the bike had melted in her cycling jersey, leaving her with a sticky, gooey inedible mess. Though she had taken in orange slices, a few bananas, and some sips of Coke along the way, by 11 hours of racing, her glycogen levels were depleted. And while her 20-minute lead over Kathleen McCartney appeared to be rock-solid at the start of the run, Moss soon began feeling the effects of that depletion. 

“The pressure to defend this leading position forced me to push harder than I would have on my own,” she said. “I couldn’t sustain it. I was breaking down, hard.” 

As darkness descended over Kona and Moss made her way down Ali’i Drive, her gait grew more and more stunted until she slowed to a walk. Her legs buckled beneath her and she dropped to the ground several times before standing back up and pressing on. Eventually, McCartney caught up, steaming by Moss in the very final stretch of the race. While McCartney celebrated her surprise win, Moss, on her hands and knees, willed herself to move forward just 15 more feet to the line. 

Moss may have finished second that day, but the sports and entertainment world bolstered her like a champion. From Kona, ABC flew her to New York City for an interview to accompany the broadcast of the race, which they would later re-air due to its through-the-roof ratings. She would appear on TV shows like “Survival of the Fittest” and “Battle of the Superstars.” She even served as Penny Marshall’s stunt double in Challenge of a Lifetime, a 1985 made-for-TV movie about a chain-smoking, single mom who successfully sets out to finish a triathlon. 

As a triathlete, Moss inked deals with sponsors and enjoyed a solid pro career before retiring and having a son in 1993. In her late 50s, she returned to the sport as an age-grouper, racking up several podium finishes, including one in Kona in 2018 and an age-group win at the Memorial Hermann Ironman North American Championship Texas in 10:46:51, faster than her Kona time in 1982. In 2019, Moss focused on the 70.3 distance and picked up hardware in Oceanside, Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Boulder.

As Moss continues to inspire in her 60s, she will forever be linked to that fateful evening in 1982, which lifted the sport into the mainstream and inspired a new generation of triathletes. 

“What I did that day wasn’t pretty to see,” she told Sports Illustrated in 2007. “What shined through was the humanness of my struggle. That determination is inside everybody.”

Read more about the 1982 Ironman World Championships in our July/August 2020 issue, on newsstands now.