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Recalled: The Start of America’s Paradise Triathlon

With winter looming large throughout most of the northern hemisphere, it’s fun to fantasize about traveling to warm islands for a race (or, for any occasion, really). This week, we take you to the U.S. Virgin Islands, for a look back at the splashy start of one of the longest-running triathlons around.

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Renny Roker had an idea.  

A St. Croix native and entrepreneur who had departed the island for Hollywood to dabble in acting and music promotion, Roker picked up on the booming popularity of triathlon and saw a business opportunity. It was 1988, after all, and triathlon was as hot as ever. If people were traveling all the way to Hawaii to race, who wouldn’t want to head to his pristine island, less than a three-hour flight from Miami, to swim, bike, and run? So Roker (who happens to be a relative of Al Roker of Today Show fame) linked up with Jim Curl, the co-founder of the legendary United States Triathlon Series, and America’s Paradise Triathlon was born. 

Despite the placid title and idyllic setting of the event, portions of the race course itself were their own mini versions of hell. “We originally sub-titled it Beauty and the Beast, because it was scheduled to be done on St. John – a ‘beast’ of a place to try to do a tri,” wrote Curl in a retrospective of the sport. “Ultimately, when we moved it to St. Croix, we wanted to keep the nice printed collateral, so I found a steep hill on the north-western coast and called it: ‘The Beast.’”

And that, it was. 1988’s version of The Beast was a windy, 600-foot climb on a stretch of highway covering about a kilometer. (Average grade? 14%.) All but the top athletes struggled to summit it. “Many were forced to weave back and forth, get out of the saddle and gasp for air, some age groupers chose to dismount,” wrote an NBC reporter who covered the event. “The pros trained for it, everyone else walked it.” The rest of the 95K ride, as well as the 3K swim route (a choppy stretch from a sandy islet, around a harbor, and back to St. Croix’s wharf area ), and the rolling 20K run were no walks in the park, either. 

But that didn’t stop 345 athletes from 38 states and eight countries—including some of the world’s best triathletes—from booking their tickets to paradise. The $110,000 prize purse, one of the largest in the sport at the time, didn’t hurt, either. Ever the impresario, Roker used his show business razzle dazzle to pull out all of the stops for the inaugural race: He lined up Dionne Warwick (at a time when her hit single “That’s What Friends Are For” was still in heavy rotation on the radio) to sing an a capella version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” NBC Sports came in to film it all, with the coverage eventually airing as a 90-minute special.

The 1988 pro field was a veritable who’s-who of Ironman fame, with Mark Allen, Mike Pigg, Scott Tinley, Scott Molina, Dave Scott, Paula Newby-Fraser, Kirsten Hanssen, and Sylviane and Patricia Puntous toeing the line. In the end, Pigg, then just 24, beat Allen by six minutes, followed by Tinley, and Scott. In the women’s race, Kirsten Hanssen dominated, finishing a whopping 13 minutes ahead of Newby-Fraser, with the Puntous twins in third and fourth a couple of minutes back. 

RECALLED: The Puntous Twins Dominate the Early ’80s

The race only grew more robust in 1989, with both the number of participants and the prize purse increasing (to 750 athletes and $125,000, respectively). NBC Sports came back, this time to catch Allen winning over Pigg (who would return to St. Croix to win another three times, becoming a local legend on St. Croix) and Kiwi Erin Baker beating Hanssen in a rout. In subsequent years, other stars of the sport, like five-time champ Karen Smyers and three-time winner Michellie Jones had their chance to shine in the Caribbean sun. 

Despite some trouble in paradise—namely, Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which decimated parts of St. Croix and forced the cancellation of the 1990 race, plus pushback from local churches upset about traffic being tied up on a Sunday, and some back-and-forth with the event’s ownership—the race persisted. In 2001, America’s Paradise Triathlon was bought by Ironman, becoming just one of ten 70.3 events in the world at the time (and, until 2014, of the few half-Ironmans with Kona slots), drawing even more star power to St. Croix. 

Ironman kept its presence in paradise until 2017, when it discontinued the event due to dwindling numbers after losing the lure of Kona slots. A local tri club has kept the race going, pivoting to Olympic-and sprint-distance races, but holding on to the Beauty and the Beast moniker. 

And while Roker’s relationship with the race didn’t last long (he allegedly sold it to tourism company Project St. Croix for $1 in the early ’90s), his initial efforts inked his name in history as the first African-American to produce a triathlon. Today, some 33 years later after Roker had that big idea, the St. Croix triathlon remains one of the longest-running races in the sport.