Recalled: Triathlon Comes to Panama

The strange origin story of how an unlikely race found an unlikely home—thanks to some of the biggest names in the sport.

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When Ironman Panama 70.3 goes off next month, it’ll mark a decade since the event first made its debut in the Central American country. The race has been a fixture on the tri scene since then, with the exception of a brief hiatus in 2015 and a cancellation in 2021 due to COVID-19. An early-season draw for pros, the race once offered a cache of coveted Kona Pro Ranking (KPR) points—which was replaced in 2017 for the current qualifying system—bringing some of the biggest names of the sport to the landbridge between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean in February. But even before 2012, triathlon has been a mainstay in certain parts of Panama (with a surprising link to Ironman). Read on for the fascinating origins of Panamanian multisport:

The story goes that John and Judy Collins—the couple credited for masterminding the very first Ironman triathlon way back on February 18, 1978—brought their passion for multisport to Panama in the late 90s, upon John’s retirement from the Navy. Calling Panama the “Hawaii you can drive to,” the Collins’ actually did load up their 1968 VW bus and covered the 4,400-mile journey from their home in Southern California to their retirement home off the coast of the Caribbean a few times—where they would wind up spending half of the year.  They also sailed there occasionally, and, upon anchoring their yacht in Bahía Linton, near Portobelo, a quaint beach village in the northern part of Panama, they met a local businessman named Allan Baitel. A cyclist and squash player, Baitel had never heard of triathlon before chatting with John and Judy, but once they shared their story of the Ironman, the seed was planted.

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“Over time, I asked John and Judy, ‘why [don’t] we make one here in Panama?’” Baitel recalled, dreaming of an event like the Hawaii Ironman that could potentially bring attention and tourism to his beloved country. It took some time, but in 1998, the Collins’ and Baitel launched Tri Xtremo Portobelo, an off-road race, set in the lush junglescape and mountains surrounding Portobelo. Featuring an 1.8K swim in the Caribbean, a gnarly 35K ride punctuated by steep climbs, sudden dips, and uneven terrain, and a gritty 10K run mostly on a jungle trail, the race was certainly, well, extreme. 

Over the years, Tri Xtremo Portobelo grew from a hyper-local event to a bucket list race for triathletes from near and far, including pro powerhouses of the early aughts, like Scott Tinley, Carol Montgomery, Jimmy Riccitello, and Jim Vance. This growth inspired another race: Tri Xtremo Coronado, set in the coastal town on the Pacific side of the country, as well as the formation of the Panama Triathlon Union, which works to foster talent and elevate the performance of elite Panamanian triathletes, as well as to promote the sport at all levels throughout the country. Led by Baitel, the Union played a key role in securing Panama City as an Ironman 70.3 venue—what was once a pie-in-the-sky plan hatched by Baitel and the Collins family several years before it came to fruition.

“I believe that with an event like the triathlon, [we] will attract world attention,” Baitel said back in 2000. “This place will be a tourist destination.”

As Baitel predicted, Ironman Panama 70.3 did become a magnet for triathletes from around the world, ultimately taking over as the main multisport event in the country and boosting tourism to Panama. But Tri Xtremo Portobelo will always remain as the race that started it all.