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In a typical April, triathletes from around the world would be descending on the tiny island of Bermuda for a World Triathlon Series (WTS) event. A highly-touted race held there since 2018, the event was canceled last April due to the pandemic. The 2021 race will take place in October this year, serving as the World Triathlon Sprint and Relay Championships, and, hopefully, a much-needed return to championship racing for both pro triathletes and age-groupers alike.
And while current stars of the sports including Bermuda’s own Flora Duffy, plus world champs like Katie Zaferes, Gustav Iden, and Javier Gomez, have shined on the island in recent years, the sport of triathlon has a much longer rich history in the country. In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Bermuda hosted ITU World Cup events (first in Southampton on the western part of the main island and then in the capital of Hamilton), drawing the top triathletes on the planet, including Australia’s Emma Carney–who won there for five straight years–with massive prize purses of up to $100,000. Back then, Boston Marathon director Dave McGillivray (who founded the Cape Cod Endurance Triathlon stateside around the same time) was brought on to help with the logistics as race director. It was during those races when a young Duffy, who would go on to win two WTS world championships, five XTERRA world champs, and compete in three Olympics, says she was first inspired to get into the sport.
Even before the ITU races took over the island each year, another big-money race drew the sport’s all-stars of the time. In 1987, the Escape to Bermuda Triathlon featured a grueling Olympic-distance course and a $100,000 prize purse–with $15,000 each going to both the men’s and women’s winners. Broadcast on live TV, the pro field included triathlon’s “big four”–Mark Allen, Dave Scott, Scott Molina, and Scott Tinley–and a host of international players. On the women’s side, Ironman champ Linda Buchanan of the U.S., plus New Zealand star Erin Baker and the French Canadian Puntous twins also toed the line.
Perhaps what is most memorable about that 1987 race (aside from Allen’s convincing win–a stop along the way to his runner-up finish at the Ironman World Championships that year, which was won by Scott) was the dynamic presence of a 15-year-old named Lance Armstrong in what was just his first season as a triathlete. Wearing a white singlet and a black Speedo, Armstrong mixed it up on the bike with pros 10 years his senior, even pedaling close to the lead at one point. While he fell back on the run to 11th place, the performance was enough for him to be convinced that he’d be the “best in the world in five years” not long after he raced there.
Armstrong never returned to a tri in Bermuda (he switched to cycling in 1989), but his name is part of a list of many superstars to swim in the island’s turquoise waters, careen around its narrow streets (and climb the famous Corkscrew Hill), and wind their way along the waterfront to the finish line. It’s the scenic draw of the island–and its enthusiastic spectators–that has made Bermuda a perennial hotspot for triathlon for years, and, hopefully, years to come.