Earlier this week, Ironman announced the 2020 World Championships are canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Kona race had originally been rescheduled to February—meaning next year the Big Island would have hosted two World Championship races in February and then in October. This is a look back at the last time there were two World Championship races in the same year.
Valerie Silk had never been an athlete and, even though her husband Hank had decided to have their Nautilus Fitness Centers sponsor the 1980 Ironman Triathlon, she really didn’t get it. “Only 12 people had finished in both 1978 and 1979,” she recalled. “To be honest, I didn’t really see the point.”
Original Ironman co-creator Commander John Collins was being transferred to Washington, D.C., though, and he asked if Val and Hank wanted to take over after the 1980 race. “I said no and he said yes,” Silk said. “I was overruled!”
Fortunately, she changed her mind. “I wanted to do something that might have an impact on people and to create a really big party. The Ironman gave me the perfect opportunity.”
Step number one was to get off of the island of Oahu—the original home of Ironman—since there was no way you could block off the roads there. “The only island that could work for the Ironman was the Big Island,” she said. “With ABC’s Wide World of Sports paying us rights fees, I wanted to take the cyclists out toward the volcano because that would be scenic,” she continued. “Little did I know that the course would be treacherous. Fortunately, smarter people intervened, and we ended up heading through the lava fields, which I thought would be too dull for TV.”
By February of 1982, there were 580 athletes who wanted to start the race—and among the 49 women were two college students named Kathleen McCartney and Julie Moss.
Moss was staying 35 miles from the pier and didn’t have a car, so she would ride 70 miles every day into town and back. To do a 112-mile time trial two weeks before race day, she rode 35 miles just to get to the start and then did the time trial.
On the big day, Moss swam 1:11 and got out of the water with a 21-minute lead on McCartney. McCartney made up a mere two minutes during the bike, as übercyclist Pat Hines led both of them into the run. Moss passed Hines at about 10 miles into the marathon, and the rest is history.
Moss’ 19-minute lead was beginning to dwindle and Jim Lampley, the commentator for ABC’s Wide World of Sports, was getting the reports. “Over the walkie-talkie we heard that the leader was in distress,” Lampley recalled.
It wasn’t just distress, though. Julie Moss was coming apart at the seams.
She struggled. Her legs gave way for the first time just before the final right turn onto Ali’i Drive. “At that point it was all about survival,” Moss said. She collapsed three times and, while on the ground just a few yards from the finish, she watched McCartney run by for the win.
The ABC cameras first captured the winner’s jubilation. Then they zoomed in on Moss, now unable to stand, as she crawled toward the finish while the whole world watched.
“It is certainly in the top five all-time Wide World of Sports moments,” Lampley said. “It was drama like you very seldom see.”
Julie Moss crawled across the finish line, collapsed, and was carried off on a stretcher as Wide World of Sports cut quickly to another sport. For the people at home, watching this young woman in a trucker hat touched a nerve. She could have been their daughter, their sister or someone babysitting their kids.
So where was race director Valerie Silk while all of this was going on? She was in the ABC trailer being screamed at by producer Brice Weisman. Even though she had signed over exclusive rights to ABC, she had also given permission to another production company to be on the course. ”To be honest, all of this was pretty new to me,” she admitted. “I messed up big time.”
Weisman told her that she had violated the agreement and that ABC would not be covering the Ironman again.
During his tirade, a production assistant came into the trailer three times to let Weisman know something amazing was happening just a few feet away.
“When I left the trailer, I sat down in the shadow of the finish line,” Silk said, after having missed the entire spectacle. “I knew it was all over, that I’d have to provide refunds to ABC and our sponsors. I went over to see Julie in the medical tent and she said, ‘Val, is second place good enough to be invited back next year?’ I told her it was, while deep down I knew there would not be a next year.”
One of the cameramen called the head of ABC Sports and told him how extraordinary the footage was. The airdate was moved up, and the Ironman would never be the same. “Julie Moss definitely pulled me out of the fire,” Silk joked.
Sure, Dave Scott had won in 1980 and John Howard had won in 1981, but they were athletes who seemed invincible, and the viewers at home really couldn’t relate to them. But they could identify with Julie Moss, and they wondered what was it about that finish line that drove this woman to crawl across it? And, more importantly, how do I get some of that in my life?
After Moss was last seen being carried off in a stretcher, the phone lines lit up at Wide World of Sports. Was she alive? The week after it aired, both Moss and McCartney were flown to New York City to go on air and assure the American public that Ironman does not kill people.
For Valerie Silk, who had been dealing with predictably unpredictable weather every February in Hawaii, the excitement generated after the famous finish allowed her to move the event to October. The numbers in October 1982, just months later, jumped to 758 starters, and by October of 1983 there were over 1,000 people registered for the race—including athletes from 27 countries.
Most triathletes, when they hear the name Julie Moss, even though she didn’t win, can tell you that her crawl to the finish of the February 1982 Ironman was the moment they decided to become a triathlete. It was her moment, the last time there was a February race on the Big Island, that became our moment and changed our sport forever.