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Countdown To Kona: Cool Hand Luc (1996)

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With the Ironman World Championship set to take place 13 days from today, we take a look at back at each race from the past three decades. Today, we go back to 1996 and the year Luc Van Lierde surprised many by taking the win. All of the following photos and text are taken from the book, “30 Years of The Ironman Triathlon World Championship” by Bob Babbitt.

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One king was showing. They all thought the other was face down in front of him. To call or not to call? Paul Newman as Cool Hand Luke. The other inmates in shackles and stripes argued about the merits of staying in or folding. Luke’s facial expressional never, ever changed.

“Kick a buck,” he’d counter anytime someone would doubt and his hand. “Kick a buck.”

Finally, the price got too steep. He had scared them all off one at a time. As Luke pulled the pot towards him, the others scrambled to find the other king in his hand.

They never did. Nothing matched. Luke had bluffed… and won. “You’ve got nuthin’ Luke!” they yelled. “Absolutely nuthin’!” Luke smiled that “Tell-me-something-I-don’t-know” smile and piled up the bills.

“Sometimes nuthin’ can be a real good hand.”

Flash forward 30 years. In Kona, on the Big Island, Luc Van Lierde of Belgium had nuthin’. No track record, no Ironman experience, no history, absolutely no expectations. No European had ever won the Ironman. Van Lierde had never even run a marathon before.

But Cool Hand Luke and Luc Van Lierde shared more than a name. They both sported number 37, Luke on his state-issue prison fatigues, Luc in magic-marker on every limb. And they’re both absolutely fearless.

This summer was a great one for the often-injured Belgian star. He had a win in Nice, a win in Hungary at the European Championships, a second place in Muncie at the Long Distance World Championships and another second in Cleveland at the Olympic Distance World Championships. It makes for an impressive resume, and it should have made for a lot of pre-race speculation.

But Luc had never been to the Big Dance in Hawaii before. Resumes are nice, but in Hawaii they aren’t usually worth the paper they are printed on. Tiki torch fodder. Volcano droppings. Lava slop. Speed, endurance and potential are just cards dealt from the middle of the deck. It’s what you ante up come Ironday that ultimately matters.