Watch anyone run down the red carpeted home stretch of the Ironman World Championships and you’ll probably be hard pressed to keep the tears from flowing. But some Kona finish line moments truly stand out on an emotional level, and, no matter how many years have passed, they still stuck with us today.
The Year: 2019
The Moment: Roderick Sewell becomes the first bilateral above-the-knee amputee to finish on prosthetic legs.
Born without tibias, Sewell’s legs were amputated when he was just one year old. His mother, Marian Jackson, filed for unemployment to afford his prosthetics and later became homeless during a part of Sewell’s childhood. When he was eight years old, Sewell joined the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), through which he played several sports and eventually learned to swim and handcycle. Despite last year’s world champs being Sewell’s very first Ironman race, he finished in 16 hours, 26 minutes and 59 seconds. At the finish line, an emotional Bob Babbitt–the founder of CAF–as well as Sewell’s mom, Marian Jackson, were waiting to sweep him up with hugs. “If this race doesn’t teach me anything else, it’s literally I can do anything I want,” Sewell said.
The Year: 2012
The Moment: Harriet Anderson just beats cut off to become the race’s oldest female finisher at 77.
After becoming the oldest woman to complete the Ironman World Championships at the age of 76 in 2011, Anderson returned the following year to one up her own record despite breaking her clavicle in a bike crash just a couple months before. Unsure how her body would react on reduced training, Anderson rolled the dice and decided to go for it anyway. By mile 18 of the run, she was reduced to a walk, and a race volunteer told her she was dangerously close to missing the 17-hour cut-off. By mile 24, she was told she was the last person who had a chance to finish before midnight–and that chance was dwindling. “I did not feel like running but I did not want to be like the lady the previous year who missed the midnight deadline by four seconds,” she said. With the encouragement of her family fueled by the raucous crowd on Ali’i drive revved up by race announcer Mike Reilly, Anderson found some pep in her step. She finished the race with 41 seconds to spare. “Never give up,” said Anderson, who went on to complete the race again in 2013 four minutes faster. “Miracles do happen.”
The Year: 2012
The Moment: Bonner Paddock becomes the first person with cerebral palsy to finish the Ironman
Skipping and side-shuffling towards the finish line in his red one-piece tri kit and an oversize bright blue foam cowboy hat he’d picked up en route, alternating between punching his fists in the air and slapping his knees while he skipped, Paddock could not contain his elation. “Are you happy or what?” exclaimed Reilly as Paddock crossed the line 16 hours, 38 minutes and 35 seconds after his day had begun. Indeed, Paddock had so much to celebrate: Born with a mild form of cerebral palsy, he had faced physical limitations throughout this entire life. Paddock, who has also climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and later wrote a memoir One More Step about his journey to overcome obstacles, trained for nearly two years to be able to complete the Ironman. “It’s the greatest spectacle in sports,” Paddock said of those final moments of the race. “There’s nothing that compares to it.”
The Year: 2005
The Moment: Jon Blais rolls over the finish line
After receiving a devastating ALS diagnosis at the age of 33, Blais set his sights on completing the Ironman World Championships before his body completely betrayed him. His story–and his indomitable spirit–captured the hearts of many, as did his phenomenal fortitude to compete in such a strenuous event despite lacking motor control in his hands. With his proud parents waiting on from Ali’i Drive, Blais stayed true to his plan of completing the race even if he had to be “rolled across the finish line.” Sure enough, a steely-eyed Blais barrel rolled across the 2005 finish line, and today the “Blazeman Roll” remains a familiar move among many triathletes in races; even pros like Chrissie Wellington and Leanda Cave rolled their way to her world championship wins. Blais died in 2007, but his legacy lingers in the Blazeman Foundation, a non-profit that raises funds for ALS research.
The Year: 1982
The Moment: Julie Moss famously crawls to the finish line.
Julie Moss, a freckled, blonde 22-year-old from California, aimed to complete the grueling race as part of her senior thesis on the physiological aspects of the triathlon for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. She never expected to win the race–but with just , she remained in the lead. After nibbling on oranges and bananas all day, Moss’s glycogen levels became severely depleted after nearly 11 hours of pushing her body to the limit in the heat. As a result, she had one of the most memorable meltdowns in sports. Refusing to give up even though her body had, Moss stumbled, and then crawled to the finish line–every stagger on TV for the entire world to see. Even though Moss lost the race, she earned instant fame. “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,” says Moss of the iconic footage. “Watching me struggle, and then get passed…they felt my pain. And it made people question themselves, ‘What would I do?’ It fascinated people. It inspired them.” Following the 1982 World Champs, Moss inked deals with sponsors, began racing as a pro, and continues to race as an age-grouper now in her 60s.