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9 Kona Rookies Share Their Stories

The road to Kona is different for every athlete. Nine rookies share how they got a start for triathlon’s most prestigious event.

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First-timers share their stories of the road to Kona.

The road to Kona is different for every athlete. Nine of this year’s rookies share their stories of how they got a start for triathlon’s most prestigious eventthe Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

Robin Ringenary

Elizabethtown, KY
Age: 51
Qualified at: Ironman Florida
Qualifying time: 10:22:58 (Swim cancelled due to riptides)

It has been an emotional journey to Kona. I have been in this sport for 14 years, and I used to joke that I may make it to Kona when I am 60. It really was a complete surprise for me to qualify at Florida in 2014.

Five years ago, I lost my daughter. I felt her presence during that race, and at times I felt almost like I was having an out-of-body experience. The realization that the dream had been achieved after being in the lowest point of my life helps me come to terms with my loss and grief. I’m living proof that life can continue after the most tragic situations.

Advice for Kona hopefuls: Dream big, stay focused on the prize and most of all, believe that you deserve it.

RELATED: Kona Calling

Ricardo Monroy

San Rafael, CA
Age: 45
Qualifying race: Ironman Boulder
Qualifying time: 9:40

My first Ironman was Coeur d’Alene in 2009, but my first attempt at qualifying for Kona was two years later, in 2011, at Ironman Canada. It took me seven more Ironmans before I finally qualified in Boulder.

After adding a lot of training time for my third Ironman, expecting to get a little closer to a Kona qualifying time, I was disappointed to see almost no progress from the previous years. It was then I decided to get a coach and told him that Kona was my goal. In 2012, I had a breakthrough race and just barely missed a Kona spot by 90 seconds. Kona became a realistic goal then, not just a dream. The biggest change I made before my qualifying race in Boulder was not my training plan or nutrition, but my attitude. No matter what happened that day, my goal was to have the best race I could have.

Kona excitement: After being a spectator at Kona in 2011 and experiencing the party from the sidelines, I think the last mile on Ali’i Drive is what I am looking forward to the most. I made the mistake once of sprinting at the end of an Ironman to avoid getting caught by someone that I learned later was actually one full lap behind me. I did not enjoy that moment, and it was a big mistake. I plan to take my sweet time to really savor that last mile, trying to engrave on my memory every step to the finish line, find my wife on the crowd and with a big hug share that moment for which we both have worked so much and hard.

RELATED: Getting Into The Ironman World Championship

Carolyn Rohde

San Francisco, CA
Age: 29
Ironman Lake Tahoe Lottery

Ironman Lake Tahoe 2014 was going to be my first Ironman. I was prepared to conquer the hills, altitude and aches of the day, but I was not prepared for it to be cancelled just as the starting gun was about to go off.

I crouched down on the beach, with my hands over my eyes, just trying to wrap my brain around the words the announcer had just said. I was absolutely crushed that my Ironman dreams would not come true that day and all I could do was cry. All of us had worked so hard and dedicated so much time over the last year, that a cancelled race seemed like it was all for nothing. I was with my friends and family during the announcement and we just gave each other big hugs. The news was devastating to everyone around us. I saw a lot of tears. I heard shouts of anger. I saw people jumping in the water to swim anyway. And most importantly, I saw compassion and solidarity. The triathlon community is strong, especially when we band together. Strangers or friends, we’re a family.

What wasn’t clear through my teary eyes that morning is that a canceled race was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Ironman sent an e-mail in November that said “Congratulations!” They held a lottery for the Kona spots allocated for Ironman Lake Tahoe, and I won one. I feel so incredibly lucky, grateful, and excited to share the same race course as my triathlon idols on October 10 and to close this chapter in my Ironman Lake Tahoe journey.

Kona Excitement: I did my first triathlon on the Big Island in March 2013, at the Lavaman Waikoloa Olympic Triathlon. This is where my passion for triathlon began, so returning to Kona definitely feels like I’m coming full circle in my triathlon journey.

RELATED – Long-Course For Life: Finding Longevity In Ironman

Kelly Stokes

Bishops Waltham, England
Age: 33
Qualifying race: Ironman Copenhagen
Qualifying time: 10:41

I only “discovered” triathlon 4 years ago while lying in a hospital bed recovering from my 8th knee operation. Ironman Wales came on the television, and I decided then and there I wanted to do an Ironman.

I had no idea what I was doing, and just tried to go a bit further every week, training on my very basic mountain bike as I was too scared to use a road bike. Despite this, in August 2012, I finished my first Iron-distance triathlon, Challenge Copenhagen, and I was hooked!

Fast forward to the start of 2015: I ended up having a 9th knee operation, requiring three months without training to recover. I figured the Kona dream was over for the year, but entered Ironman Copenhagen for a late-season challenge to build back my fitness.

I knew I wouldn’t be getting to Kona at that race, so I set out to do something I’d not yet achieved in an Ironman, and that was to not walk during the marathon. I managed to do this, in part because I didn’t think I’d be anywhere near a Kona qualifying time. It was only a few hours after finishing I had managed to finish just ahead of a stack of girls in my age group coming in minutes behind me. The next day, I got a slot for Kona.

Advice for Kona hopefuls: A quote I heard during race week has stuck with me: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re always right.”

RELATED – How I Qualified: An Age Grouper Shares His Story

Seth Graham

Del Mar, CA
Age: 37
Legacy Program Qualifier

I have been racing Ironman since 2004, but have never had a realistic chance at qualifying for Kona. Instead, I have been rolling the dice with the lottery every year since 2003. When the Legacy program was first announced, I was 2 finishes away from the program’s 12-race minimum and decided to pursue that route.

I secured my 12th finish in 2013, but was not picked for a Legacy spot at the 2014 World Championships. About a week after the 2014 Legacy winners were announced, I received an email stating that if I finished a race in 2014 and signed up for a race in 2015, I would be in Kona for the 2015 event. It was great as far as planning and training to know almost a year and a half before that it was actually going to happen.

Kona excitement: I’m most excited to just enjoy the experience. It’s not a PR course and everyone there is faster than me, so the pressure is off! In a way it feels like a first race, becauseat least for meto finish is to win!

Jessica Force Ponzo

Chandler, AZ
Age: 25
Qualifying race: Ironman Arizona
Qualifying time: 12:23

While training for Ironman Arizona, I was a full-time graduate student at Arizona State University and working a full-time internship at a hospital. My training consisted of riding my bike to work 20-30 miles per day, swimming on my lunch breaks, and running before or after work. I also raced hard and often. Whether it be a sprint triathlon, a half marathon, or a half Ironman, I found myself racing almost every other weekend. I incorporated races into long training weekends, which significantly helped improve my speed and endurance.

Kona excitement: It’s going to be great having my family there to watch. My boyfriend is also racing in Konato know my family is on the sidelines cheering and my boyfriend is out there on the course makes it 100 times easier to push through!

RELATED – Kona 2014: Faces Of The Finish Line

Derek Fitzgerald

Harleysville, PA
Age: 42
Charity Spot – Team in Training

I was overweight and hadn’t been active since high school. At age 30, I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Chemotherapy saved my life, but damaged my heart, leaving me with debilitating heart failure for the following seven years. In January 2011, I received a heart transplant. I knew I had to find a way to give back.

Ten months after my heart transplant, I ran my first half marathon with Team in Training. Shortly thereafter, I competed in my first triathlonalso with Team in Training. In July of 2013, I went to Lake Placid and became the first cancer-surviving heart transplant recipient to ever complete a full Ironman triathlon, something I repeated four months later in Ironman Arizona. This year, I completed a coast-to-coast bike ride just three weeks prior to finishing Ironman Mont-Tremblant, and now, less than two months later, I’ll be competing in the Ironman World Championship.

Kona excitement: Competing in Kona is a dream come true. To be at the biggest triathlon in the world while representing Team in Training, the group that taught me triathlon, is an honor that manages to excite, humble, and terrify me all at the same time.

Denise Hiller

Tabernacle, New Jersey
Age: 44
Qualifying race: Ironman Maryland
Qualifying time: 10:23

I’ve been trying to qualify for Kona every year since 2010. I had one near-miss at Ironman Arizona, finishing 4th in my age group and missing a slot by 90 seconds. After that race, I was so disappointed in myself for letting that opportunity slip away.

Going into the 2014 season, I promised myself no more near-misses. I made it my goal to win my age group at Ironman Louisville. I showed up to the race fitter than I’d ever beenand was forced to DNF at mile 26 of the bike leg due to a mechanical. Saying I was devastated is an understatement and yes, I threw my broken bike.

The following day, I decided to register for Ironman Maryland, four weeks away. That day, I raced my heart and soul out. Controlled, channeled anger and frustration can be a great motivator. I raced like my arse was on fire, and caught the girl leading my age group in the finisher chute. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Advice for Kona hopefuls: Set your goals high and don’t stop until you get there. Never give up.

Cheryl Miller

Phoenix, AZ
Age: 59
Legacy Program Qualifier

I did my first Ironman in Coeur d’Alene in 2004. I’ve done at least one Ironman every year since then. The closest I’ve come to qualifying is 4th place at Ironman Texas in 2012, but it wasn’t good enough to secure a Kona spot.

I’m still in shock that I’m getting the opportunity to race in Kona through the Legacy program. I’m so grateful there is a program that will allow any athlete who puts in the time to come and experience the World Championships. I’ve gone to Kona to watch the athletes race every year, and every time I’m there, I’ve dreamed and wished I was racing. It’s surreal that this year, I get to be on the course!

Kona excitement: I can’t wait to be on the course on the biggest day of the year for triathlon, to be a part of the story of the 2015 World Championships, and finally realizing my dream of crossing that finish line!