The first endurance triathlon – 18 February 1978
On February 18, 1978 Honolulu residents Judy and John Collins introduced triathlon to Hawai’i by creating and staging the first endurance triathlon in the world. The Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon was a swim-bike-run course that circled the island of O’ahu. The Iron Man course linked the minimum 2.385 mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim, an estimated 112 miles of the 115 mile Round O’ahu Bike Course, and the 26 mile 385 yard Honolulu Marathon.
Two older newcomers to amateur sport – Background
John and Judy Collins decided on the format for the original Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon in quiet table talk during a Running Relays awards ceremony in 1977. It was a Monday evening, Valentine’s Day. Until five years before their physical exercise had been intermittent. The family had sailed, used bicycles for transportation, backpacked in the Sierra Nevada mountains. In 1973 they had begun an exercise routine when they had moved to Coronado, California. There they had signed up at the local pool to learn how to swim laps. They were told to run to improve their swimming. The Collins children were age-group swimmers. The parents became age-group adult swimmers with the Coronado Masters Association (CMA).
Bike-run-swim advocates – Background
On 25 September 1974 John, Judy, Kristin and Michael Collins were 4 of the 47 who were in the first modern run-bike-swim to be called a triathlon, the Mission Bay Triathlon. That San Diego Track Club (SDTC) triathlon had 10 legs that covered about 10 miles. The Collins family were ages 38, 35, 13, 12. Kristin and Michael were in the first Optimist Club of Coronado Triathlon on 27 July 1975. The Optimist Triathlon was a bike-run-swim-run for a total of 4 miles-400 yards-1 mile. The Coronado Optimist Triathlon is now the oldest annual triathlon in the world – a swim-run-bike event. A few weeks later the family moved to Hawai’i in time for the annual Waikiki Roughwater Swim on Labor Day. Judy and John became members of the Mid-Pacific Road Runners Club (M-PRRC) and the Waikiki Swim Club (WSC). In 1976 they joined the Honolulu Marathon Clinic on Sunday mornings in Kapiolani Park, Honolulu.
Fans of endurance events – 1977
The Awards Presentation for the 9th Annual O’ahu Perimeter (140 mile) Relays was held outside at Primo Village, ‘Aiea, O’ahu. John and Judy Collins were both team Captains whose 7-member teams had recently run sprints around the island. The Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard Yardbirds (PHNSY) and the Waikiki Swim Club Wahines (WSC) were fans of endurance events on the mainland.They were feeling invincible after doing best times. They were in the mood to try something new. Judy would soon swim from Lanai to Maui, a first for a woman in Hawai’i. John would soon run his first 50k. The five swimmers at the picnic table that night had met at CMA before moving to Honolulu. Now they were members of the Waikiki Swim Club (WSC). They knew about run-bike-swim events.
Triathlon for Hawai’i – 14 February 1977
The Collinses arrived at their triathlon decision from two directions and after two separate conversations. Their talks took place in the short periods of quiet between each of the 84 Relay Team awards of the evening. Judy was planning a triathlon. John was discussing aerobic sport with a run friend and a swim friend. The annual Run Club-Swim Club dual meet at the Ala Moana lagoon was 12 days away. The Collinses were in charge of that sprint event. Many runners and swimmers wished for a longer swim or run or both.
The table talk on a Monday night, Valentine’s Day – 1977
Judy and the WSC Wahines were discussing how long to make the bike leg in a new event for swimmers and runners that would include the Waikiki Roughwater Swim and the Honolulu Marathon. It would be an endurance triathlon for older non-sprinters like themselves. It would be the first triathlon in the State of Hawai’i. There were many Marathon Finishers and Roughwater Swim Finishers on the island who could also ride a bike. John spoke up to mention an article he had read about the oxygen uptake of bicyclists. Moments later their two conversations had merged.
Another around-the-island event – 1977
The Wahines’ ongoing talk of bicycle leg distances for a long distance triathlon attracted John’s interest. He joined in to suggest a simple solution. Make the bicycle leg for the triathlon go clear around the island. Too long? Judy and John talked it over. The island geography would make a scenic course. The estimated 140 miles would add up to the perimeter of O’ahu. Judy thought that was a good omen. The long bike ride would link all three of the premier events of the Swim, Run and Bike Clubs into one event. That made the planning and permits easy. Judy and John Collins and Sid and Dan Hendrickson liked the idea right away and said so. “If you do it, I’ll do it!” Friends Bill Earley, Lew Felton and Bill Larson volunteered to help make it happen.
The bike leg would start at the finish of the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, circle the island roads counter-clockwise and end at the Aloha Tower, the traditional start of the Honolulu Marathon. The key would be to maintain the slow and steady exercise pace that was called Long Slow Distance (LSD). An around-the-island triathlon would be something fun to do and fun to talk about afterwards. John said to Judy: ”Whoever finishes first, we’ll call him the Iron Man.” The Iron Man was the nickname of a Shipyard runner. Runners admired the Iron Man because he kept on going at the same pace whatever the distance.
“One year from now” – 1977
The month for the first triathlon in Hawai’i was set that night. It would be after the next year’s O’ahu Perimeter Relays. The surprise announcement would be made in the Fall at the Waikiki Swim Club Annual Banquet. On 10 November 1977 Judy introduced John and John described the new event. At the time the working name was the around-the-island triathlon or the Waikiki Swim Club triathlon. On that night many of the swimmers laughed when they heard the length of the triathlon course.
The First Annual Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon was designed as a low budget, low profile event to be added to the annual calendar of the Waikiki Swim Club. John and Judy Collins planned to run it and be in it from that year forward. The Collinses decided to apply to the Coast Guard for a permit for a Marine Event. That was to increase swimmer safety on the Roughwater Swim Course. The formality of a permit elevated their triathlon from a swim club activity to an event with a name and some special features.
An open date during rainy season – 1978
It was unfortunate that the only open dates on the calendar were in the rainy season. Each entrant would have to find a bike and hard helmet, a personal paddler for the swim and a support vehicle driver who would stay on duty from the bike start to the run finish. The driver must have dimes to call in the athlete’s position from pay phones on the course. The entry fee of $5 was to cover the cost of the silk-screen supplies for the tee-shirts, the trophy materials and the three $1 packets of electrolyte powder, E.R.G. (Electrolyte Replacement with Glucose). The powder was to be made into Gookinade drink to hydrate the athletes.
Identical Finisher Awards – 1978
Each Triathlon Finisher would receive the same trophy designed and made by John. “Every Finisher is a Winner” was a philosophy promoted at the Honolulu Marathon Clinic. The trophy would be a small man soldered together from copper pipe with a nut for the head. Judy and John screen-printed their Triathlon logo on teeshirts that competitors brought to their house. The finishers would have the word “Finisher” added to their shirts7 when they received their finisher trophies.
The Race headquarters on Pi’ikea Street – 1978
At a pre-race meeting in the Collins’ living room each athlete received three sheets of paper listing a few rules and a course description. Handwritten on the last page were 4 inviting lines: “Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26. miles! Brag the rest of your life!” Judy and John included the brag line as an inside joke among run friends. Talking about an event was part of the fun of doing it. Pre-race radio and press publicity in Honolulu had helped to spread the word. There would be race-day coverage of the Inaugural Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon in the Honolulu Advertiser.
Pacers and racers – 1978
Fifteen men started the swim at Waikiki on the morning on February 18, 1978. The two women who had made the triathlon pledge in 1977 did not start (DNS) after all. Sid Hendrickson was talked into driving for Dan. Judy Collins had “hit the wall” after a year of best times. Twelve completed the race including John Collins and Dan Hendrickson. Gordon Haller was the first to finish with a time of 11:46:58. Haller had been sponsored by Nautilus Fitness Centers. Haller and runner-up John Dunbar had raced each other all day. Dunbar had a 20 minute lead over Haller after the swim. Their gap narrowed on the bike course. Then Haller passed Dunbar on the run and had a strong finish.
A ringer from San Diego – 14 January 1979
About 50 athletes asked for entry forms in 1979. Several flew in from the mainland. Thirty-eight showed up on Saturday to hear that the race was postponed a day because of unsafe weather conditions. Some of those athletes then dropped out because they planned to tour the neighbor islands the next day. Some Saturday volunteers said they could not help on Sunday. On the morning of 14 January the fifteen competitors who began the swim included 16 year old Michael Collins, the son of the Founders. Once again, twelve finished the event. San Diego’s Tom Warren won in 11:15:56. Lyn Lemaire, a champion cyclist from Boston, finished fifth overall in 12:55:38, the first woman to complete the Iron Man.
A Made in Hawai’i connection – 1979
For the Second Annual Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon the Collinses’ Hawaiian Iron Man logo was printed on teeshirts that had been donated by Haller’s sponsor – Nautilus. John Collins made the Iron Man trophies, again, for each Finisher. The awards were presented at Honolulu Harbor. The ceremony was on the dock next to the historic Made in Hawai’i reproduction of the Polynesian voyaging canoe, Hokūlēa. Nautilus donated a trophy for the first man and woman to finish.
Off-island publicity – 1979
The off-island publicity began after the 1979 Iron Man. Tom Warren appeared as a guest on the late-night television Johnny Carson Show soon after his win. When he showed Carson his Iron Man Finisher trophy the nut-for-a-head fell off on camera. Swim-Swim Magazine Reporter Ramon Martinez covered the Second Annual Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon in the April-May 1979 issue. Sports Illustrated (SI) journalist Barry McDermott had been on O’ahu to cover a golf tournament. McDermott wrote a colorful ten-page account of the Triathlon in the SI issue of May 14, 1979. The Collins family thought it was a good read but for the inaccurate reason given for the last-place finish for Michael Collins. During the swim Collins’ support driver had picked up the wrong event bike for Mike. Later his friend lost him for a couple of hours. The young, fast swimmer followed the rules and stayed in place by the road to await his support vehicle. He was unable to repair a flat tire until he was found.
A call from ABC’s Wide World of Sports – 1979
After the popular SI article in May ABC Wide World of Sports called to ask for permission to film the Third Annual Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon on 12 January 1980. Their equipment would be in town earlier to cover the Hula Bowl. The Collinses gave their permission. In the Rough Water Swims Newsletter of 1979, by Betty Talbot, Los Angeles, California: the “2nd Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon (a Triathlon to end all Triathlons)” was listed on 13 January. “…plan to enter …next year.” Later that year Hawai’i native Phillip (Moki) Martin was inspired to put on the first half-distance Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon in Coronado, California. He called it The SUPERFROG. The word was out. Athletes from all over were interested in long distance triathlon.
A change in plans – Summer 1979
The Collins family received scores of inquiries from the mainland and beyond, by letter and by phone. Nautilus Fitness Center received Iron Man mail too. Callers and correspondents wanted to learn more about the next Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon. All was well until a work reassignment to the East Coast uprooted the Collins family. Who would take charge of the 1980 Hawaiian Iron Man?
The Iron Man in a box – Fall 1979
Fifteen October 1979 was the make-or-break moment for the 1980 Iron Man on O’ahu. The movers would pack up the Collinses’ possessions the next morning. “What can I do to help?” asked John. “Get rid of the Iron Man,” said Judy. “Ask Nautilus again.” The Collinses’ ongoing search for a Race Director had been unsuccessful. Judy suggested that John tell Nautilus that things had changed for the better. Waikiki Swim Club swimmers had volunteered to provide race-day help if someone in or out of the WSC would agree to take charge of the event. John put the box of Iron Man paperwork on his motorcycle and headed to downtown Honolulu.
The path to the future Ironman – < 1980
Hank Grundman at Nautilus had turned them down earlier. Grundman was co-owner with Valerie Silk of the Nautilus Fitness Centers. This time Grundman said yes. “What do you want for this?” asked Hank. “Nothing,” said John. On his way out John turned back to say, “No, wait. In case it becomes big I want my family and myself always to be able to get in. And I want there always to be a place for the ordinary athlete.” What a relief it was to Judy and John that Nautilus was now in charge. Hank Grundman would be the Race Director in 1980. There would be a third Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon after all.
A good turnout plus television – 12 January 1980
Swim Champion Diana Nyad was there to provide commentary for ABC when they filmed The Nautilus Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon. On Saturday 12 January 1980 one hundred eleven started the swim including three women. Ninety four finished, including the first Iron Man woman from Hawai’i, Eve Anderson. Dave Scott was the First Man to Finish with a time of 9:24:33. Robin Beck was the First Woman with a time of 11:21:24. Grundman had observed the stormy weather and changed the swim location for safety reasons. The course was moved from outside the reef at Waikiki to the shallow, sheltered lagoon at Ala Moana Beach Park. Nyad’s words about the swim course were quoted in a Honolulu newspaper the next day, “The whole nature of the swim is a roughwater event…I think the water is too flat.”
Home on the Big Island – 14 February 1981
Valerie Silk was the Triathlon Race Director the next year. Silk moved the 1981 competition to the uncrowded landscape of the island of Hawai’i. ABC was there on February 14 to film the The 4th Annual International Triathlon for a later broadcast. Twenty three women entered. Of the 324 starters, 300 finished. First place Man was Champion Bicyclist John Howard, in 9:38:29. First place Woman was Linda Sweeney, in 12:00:32. The Big Island terrain made the course more difficult than the one on O’ahu.
Kailua-Kona Hawai’i – February 1982 and October 1982
Valerie Silk made the decision that took the Ironman out of the Hawai’i rainy season. The 5th and 6th Ironman triathlons were held in February and October 1982. The Ironman Triathlon has been held in October ever since.
The move from Honolulu to Kailua-Kona changed the sport of endurance triathlon forever. The low-budget around-the-island triathlon designed for amateur athletes on O’ahu became, over time, a popular activity and a brand name known around the world. Silk shaped and nurtured the growing sport in her ten years of leadership. What remained the same on both islands was that the Ironman relied on volunteers.
The lure of Kailua-Kona – then and Now
Silk inspired hundreds, then thousands, of volunteers to help her to put on the race. Together they brought the Hawaiian spirit of Aloha to every detail of the Ironman Triathlon experience. 1980’s triathletes recall that Silk placed a flower lei around the neck of the athletes who crossed the finish line. Year after year the Hawaiian traditions continue to be a part of what attracts Ironman triathletes to the Big Island of Hawai’i. In the world of sport the Ironman World Championship at Kailua-Kona is to triathletes as the Boston Marathon is to marathoners.
Making a living as a triathlete
The Ironman Triathlon began as a local amateur event in the years of sports regulation by the Amateur Athletic Union (A.A.U.). Ironman Triathlon was a new sport that was able to grow into a profitable sports business that holds races around the world. Television spurred the growth of Ironman. Many who saw the Ironman Triathlon or heard about it wanted to give it a try. On 23 June 1972 in the U.S. Title IX federal funding legislation had opened the door for girls to participate in sports, often for the first time. Soon more and more women became Ironman triathletes. The Ironman, triathlons and endurance sport continue to attract participants. The remarkable achievements of the professional triathletes have drawn others to the sport. It is nice to witness what has happened to many of the men and women who have crossed the finish line. They have gone on to make a living at the sport after they retired from competition. Endurance triathlon was a sport whose time had come.
The good works of veteran triathletes
Veteran Ironman triathletes have spurred the participation of challenged athletes too, including those who are missing limbs or have been injured. In Florida Ironman staff spurred legislation to support challenged athlete participation in sport in public schools. In the rest of the world the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) of San Diego has supported would-be-athletes to achieve the movement function that is required to participate in sport. Humans are designed for movement and thrive on it. For many around the world triathlon is a way to tap into that human birthright.
The Portobelo Panamá Triathlon – 6 June 1998
In 1998 Judy and John started a second triathlon to their liking in the Republic of Panamá. On O’ahu and in Panamá it was Judy who wanted to stage a triathlon. Judy and John made their commitment while living on their sailboat in Caribbean Panamá. The off-road triathlon course followed the coast in Parque Nacional Portobelo. The Collinses said to each other then what they had said to each other in Honolulu. “If you do it, I’ll do it.” John was an enthusiastic promoter and participant in triathlon in both places. In Panamá the two wanted to spur the growth of triathlon in the country that was their second home. They also wanted to be in a tropical geography triathlon to train for the 20th Anniversary Ironman in Kona.
A Tropical Tune-up for Kona – then and now
Judy and John Collins described their Portobelo Panamá triathlon as a tropical tune-up for Kona. Now the Portobelo triathlon is celebrating its 20th Anniversary. Some Panamanian triathlete women and men will race in both Triathlon Anniversary events in 2018 – in Panamá and in Hawai’i.
The “Wright Brothers” of Ironman
Forty years ago there were two Founders of Ironman. Think Wright Brothers. It took the team of Judy and John Collins to get the new sport idea – “the airplane” – off the ground. Ironman origin accounts are wrong if they credit the idea to a single person, a man, an impromptu announcement, a spur of the moment idea, talk of a challenge, a debate, a dare, a beer-fueled boast, an argument, a rivalry among friends, a contest among athletes, a decision by a group, an impossible feat, untrained participants, a party setting.
Ready for triathlon, then and now
By the way, not many know that most of the 1978 Originals were strangers to Judy and John Collins and to each other. The original Iron Man athletes were out there in Honolulu ready to hear about something new to do. In 1978 the something new was to swim in tropical waters, then bike in the tradewinds (!), then run in the cool of the evening, then smile (!) the rest of your life. In 2018 it is the same. Every day, everywhere, there are those who look forward to a new adventure in exercise. Many continue to find that triathlons of any distance are fun, an experience to remember, something they want to do again.
Women and men – “Ordinary athletes” – and endurance triathlon
Back to the basics. How it all started. It is nice to know that the Ironman was the idea of a woman and a man who wanted to introduce triathlon to Hawai’i and endurance triathlon to the world. The Collins family had enjoyed run-bike-swim events in California. They knew there were people in Honolulu who were like themselves. Living in Hawai’i made it easy. It was pleasant to be outside and exercising seven days a week. They ran and swam on workdays and on weekends. The family had working bikes. They had the training base. They were looking for something new to do on the island. Their run times were faster after a swim. Their swim times were better after a bike ride. They and their friends were fans of the endurance events that were popular at the time – in Hawai’i and beyond. Judy and John were better at going far than going fast. In 1978 the time was right. Two “ordinary athletes,” Judy and John Collins, were ready to add an around-the-island triathlon to the annual run-swim calendar in Honolulu, Hawai’i.
The Saga of Inaccurate Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon History
When two Founders became one Founder
In 1980 Race Director Hank Grundman believed there was only one Founder of Ironman, a man, John Collins. John Collins had had three brief talks with Grundman in Honolulu and had once seen Valerie Silk across the room. Judy Collins did not ever meet Grundman. Judy and John met Valerie Silk for the first time in October of 1983. Grundman had told his wife, Valerie Silk, the incorrect Iron Man history that Grundman thought was true. Silk told Judy and John Collins that she included that single-founder story in a triathlon publication in the early 80’s. At that time Silk was being credited with the original Ironman idea. Silk, the Race Director of the Ironman, wanted to tell what she believed was the real story that started it all.
The beginnings of an inaccurate history
“But how did it all begin?” was the name of an article in the 1982 Kona race program. No author was listed. The page 6 account was not in the Table of Contents. Judy and John Collins found it in their files in 2018. The first line began…”The origination is attributed to John Collins, a member of the Waikiki Swim Club in Hawai’i…” The end of the “attribution” sentence and what followed was out and out wrong. The part that was right about the Waikiki Swim Club announcement was the laughter from the audience at the triathlon idea. But not the rest. The article even claimed that Nautilus Fitness Centers took over the 1979 race. Gordon Haller claimed that same thing in an ironman.com video interview on 18 February 2018. Interviewer Bob Babbitt did not catch the error. The misinformation is now enshrined on YouTube. Who had come up with these erroneous statements? Why didn’t any writer pick up the phone or send a letter to check the facts with Judy and John Collins? +
An ominous arrival in Kona – 1983
The Collins Founders of Ironman received a jolt when they landed at Kona in 1983 for the 5th Anniversary Ironman. The Free Newspaper bins were filled with hundreds of full-size photos of an Ironman Finisher Trophy from 1978. This was one of the 24 home-made Finisher Trophies that John had brazed and presented to Iron Man finishers in 1978 and 1979. An “original Iron Man” had filed a copyright for John’s “original work of art.” That athlete was now in Kona selling copies of the trophy that John had presented to him.
The lawsuit by some “original” athletes – 1989
The trophy-seller’s next move was to talk several other “originals” into suing Val Silk and Ironman. Their timing was to block the sale of the Hawaiian Triathlon Corporation (HTC). Up to six of the “originals” sued Ironman again and again over the years. Judy Collins was asked to list every single idea and action by the Collins family that led to the Iron Man Triathlon. Then the Ironman legal staff attributed that list to John-alone because only John Collins was named in the lawsuit. That legal response by Ironman cut Co-Founder Judy Collins out of Ironman history. Judy and John Collins did what the lawyer asked because they wanted to help Val. The Founders were profoundly embarrassed six original Iron Man athletes sued Valerie Silk and HTC.
In the dark for more than two decades
By the time the Collinses first arrived in Kona in 1983 their story had already been written. They did not know that. They delighted in seeing what Silk had done with the triathlon. They could not figure out what it was that made them uncomfortable when in Kona. Their unease was even more pronounced at other Ironman locations. They remained in the dark for the next 20 years. The 1982 Kona race program article may have been the beginning of the inaccurate history of Ironman. The one part of that account that was right was later changed. That was the mention of the first official stand-in-front-of-a-crowd-and-be-heard announcement of the Collinses’ long distance triathlon. The two had made the announcement on Veterab’s Day eve, 23 October 1977 at The Ranch House, Honolulu.
Two Kona race programs that shaped triathlon history – 1982, 1983
In 1983 John Collins gave an interview off the top of his head. Some of what he said showed up in an article by Ironman triathlete and newspaper writer Carol Hogan. Hogan wrote an article for the 1983 Kona Race Program. What John recalled or what Hogan wrote after the interview was full of errors. Three who would become triathlete scribes – Scott Tinley, Bob Babbitt and Mike Plant – were listed in that Ironman Athlete Program of 1983. It is no wonder that what they later wrote about Ironman may have been based on the two faulty accounts in the two Kona race programs. The story told by Silk in 1982 and by Hogan/Collins in 1983 were influential. Who was a more trustworthy and authoritative source than Valerie Silk and her Ironman publications? Ever after that it was John who was interviewed. It is evident now that John was asked questions based on the articles in the Kona Programs.
A question for the interviewer
Judy and John were sports publicity amateurs after they turned over the Ironman to Nautilus. Their one priority was that the Ironman continue. Their peak years of regular exercise were behind them. They did not follow the sport after they moved to the East Coast. Their part of the Ironman story was soon written by others. Their every interview should have begun with a question to the the interviewer. “What do you know about the origins of Ironman?” They did not figure that out for years. Judy and John were around Ironman about every 5 years. They did not discuss Ironman with each other when away from Kona. John was lauded early on because he was a 1978 Original and he enjoyed talking about it. He warmed to the topic. It is evident from research in 2018 that as early as 1983 John had come to believe there was only one person who should be interviewed about Ironman.
For a media event, media “hype”
John told Judy that a husband and wife origins story was too dull for television. John did not seem to catch on that his solo interviews reinforced the single-founder version of Ironman. That happened even if John said otherwise. He did say there were two founders – many times in many places to many people. Year after year Judy and John told their joint founders story in print and in interviews. Almost every time their words were simply ignored. Again and again it was a single founder story that emerged after the interview. What in the world was going on? John’s standard polite response to misinformation was “That’s Not Quite Right (NQR).” Judy knew what that meant but no one else did. Judy and John finally figured it out. All the friendly conversation by an interviewer was a warm-up to get one fresh quote. That new sentence would then be inserted into an incorrect anniversary story that had been written in advance. It was the lead to the stories that was incorrect. The lead turns out to have been the Press Release from Ironman. Valerie Silk told the Collinses in 2018 that it was she whowrote all the press releases in those years.
An idea of one person?
By the time anyone might be interested in who started the Ironman it was too late to get it right. The origins of Ironman stories had become a one-man show. The published stories and audio were believed by triathletes, Kona volunteers, television writers and the writers of books, articles and websites about Ironman. Even family and friends repeated the media story. No one wanted to hear the real story. The experience took a toll on both of them. John was asked to repeat or respond to statements that involved beer and rivalries. What was that all about? The single founder story was reinforced by the media more than ever in the Anniversary years of 1988 and 1998 and in the years 2000 and 2001.
The end of the mystery
Judy and John Collins did not find out how the one-person story had happened until the early 2000’s. “Who in the world started the one-founder story?” they asked Val Silk in a phone call. Silk had not known until that moment in June 2001 that there were two founders of Iron Man. Silk had believed a single-founder story since 1980. The mystery was solved for Judy and John! What a relief. They understood then why they had felt uneasy around triathletes and Ironman volunteers for many years. There was a script out there about how Ironman had come to be. People acted uncomfortable because Judy and John were not following that script.
The benefit of publicity whether right or wrong
John had told Judy in 1978 that incorrect publicity was better than no publicity at all. In 2018 John read the interview of him by Carol Hogan in the 1983 Race Program. There was a lot of misinformation in the article. John recalls praising Hogan and Plant on getting the history right in what they wrote in 1983 and 1988. John must have scanned those articles in the 1980’s in order to say that. What had happened?
Race-week events first, triathlon articles later
In both of those years Judy and John did not take the time to read triathlon coverage carefully until they had left the island. In 1988 Kristin Collins Galbreaith was the first in the family to be a finisher in Kona. That was the number one interest of the family that year. The Collinses Kona race program routine was to highlight many athlete names. They could then identify and cheer for the triathletes on race day and at the Awards Banquet. They saved the other reading until later. At the time Judy told John that the Hogan and Plant articles were inaccurate and misleading. He should tell the writers that. John told Judy the stories were better than most. John continued to tell Judy that the ‘hype” – the exaggeration – was harmless. It was good for Ironman. Hype was to be expected for a sport that was made popular by television.
When the Co-Founders arrived in Kona
Judy and John remember telling their story beginning in 1983 when Silk invited them to Kona. John wanted to be the contact person from the very beginning. John had been a college debater who excelled at extemporaneous speaking on a surprise topic. Judy had excelled at news writing where the facts told the story. John told Judy that her version of How Ironman Happened was not colorful enough for the publicity audience. Plus, John’s default pronoun had always been “I.” Judy had been taught to use the editorial “We.” “I” won.
The story of the 1978 Finisher
In the 1980’s the Collinses assumed that the interviews selectively quoted John because John had been a Finisher in 1978. John enjoyed the interviews even though he had very few memories of how the triathlon idea had come up in early 1977. John warmed to the topic when asked about it. He answered questions with humor, off the top of his head, on the spot. His answers were often based on some real events and favorite phrases but they omitted a lot. They were NQR – not quite right. Often those misleading answers came up in the next interview. John did not want to hear that what he said was NQR. He believed that publicity was helping Ironman to grow. He could help publicity by giving a quotable interview.
The “funny story” of an unheard announcement
What became most quotable was a story that came out of nowhere. One year John came up with something new about O’ahu and the triathlon. He mentioned that athletes had heard him make an announcement about triathlon at a running relays awards ceremony. That was news to Judy and the other athletes who had been at those awards that night. What was John talking about? The only person who was heard that night was the emcee who was giving out the 88 team awards. John had no idea that no one at the Relay Awards had heard him make an announcement. The topic did not come up until the 1980’s. That was long after the Collinses had left Hawai’i. It would be a funny story now but for how it shaped Ironman history.
The birth of the legend
John Collins said in 2018, “How ‘when I made an announcement’ became an Ironman legend.” Someone in some year had asked John a question. When did you first think of the name Iron Man for the triathlon?” Instead of answering, “January 1978,” John answered…”February 1977.” And he tagged on to the answer…”when I made an announcement.” He was asked to recall what he had said. John’s answer was transformed into the Founding Legend of Ironman. John did not learn for years that no one had heard him speak in public that night, including Judy. First – he did not want to hear it. He made that clear. Second – he did not want to believe it. He was embarrassed. Third – he decided that it did not matter.
Three good lines
John had told Judy the exact words of what he said when he returned to their table that night. He cupped his hand over her ear and said, “The gun will go off at 7 am…” Judy remembered the three good lines because it was a good summary of their triathlon idea. Judy knew that night that the noise level at the intermission was so high that no words could be heard by the crowd. During the break it was too loud for table conversation, too. Over the years John was asked to repeat the ”summary” sentences many times and he did. John’s last words to Judy that night were an inside comment about a local runner who was admired for his steady pace …”who ever finishes first we’ll call him the ’Iron Man.’ ” Kona race announcer Mike Reilly later created an Ironman tradition that may have been based on what John had said to Judy. Reilly has greeted thousand of Ironman finishers with the words, “You are an Ironman!” Every time the line was repeated by John the legend was reinforced. The “announcement that was never heard” became a popular line about Ironman Origins in Anniversary stories. It may well be the lead in John’s obituary.
Ironman Revisited (IR) – 2002
Judy was not a Finisher on the original O’ahu Iron Man course until 2003. That event was Ironman Revisited (IR). 1980 Iron Man Finishers Bob Babbitt and Koz Kozlowsky had organized IR to raise money for the Challenged Athlete’s Foundation (C.A.F.). When Michael Collins entered IR in 2002 his parents began their 1970’s research.
Twenty years afloat – 1987 – 2007
For the twenty years from 1987 until 2007 the Collinses lived aboard their sailboat, “Primo.” The two had sailed from California to Panamá and beyond before cruising back to Panamá to anchor their sailboat on the Atlantic side of the country. They were not students of the growth of triathlon or the Ironman. They had no TV, no triathlon publications, no triathlon books, just occasional visits to Kona. The two checked their email in Internet cafes. They never talked about Ironman origins with each other. Each thought they knew the other’s story! They had a storage shed and a permanent address in California. In 2002 the research for the IR was a reason to open their boxes from 1970’s Honolulu. They had not seen most of that material since October 1979. The certificates, photos, newsletters, clippings, correspondence, trophies and teeshirts they found revealed the details of How Ironman had Happened. They knew far more about their Iron Man in 2003 than they had been able to recall off-the-cuff between 1983 and 2002.
Back home in Honolulu in 2002 and 2003
In Honolulu for the IR (Ironman Revisited) they met with swim and run friends and some Ironman Originals. They were back on the ground where they had swum and run and bicycled and talked and worked and played. It had taken the two of them to pull off the Iron Man from 1977 on. They did not expect the visit to bring back so many memories of what had happened to them in Honolulu. They remembered the words on the teeshirts they had worn in the 1970’s – “Swim Hawai’i,” “Lucky we run Hawai’i,” and the Honolulu Marathon motto – “In the footsteps of the King’s Runners.”
Saving the day in 1979
The first memory to come back was about the second Iron Man. In 2002 Judy Collins sat on the sandy wall at Sans Souci beach near the natatorium at Waikiki. That was the swim start location in the 1970’s and for Ironman Revisited. What Judy remembered was that she and swimmer Ian Emberson and the Outrigger Canoe Club (OCC) had saved the day for Iron Man at that same location in 1979. Michael Collins was entered in that Triathlon. Judy and John had left Michael at home on Sunday, 14 January because they intended to cancel the Triathlon again. Some Saturday volunteers had said no to Sunday. The swim course support boat skippers had called to say on Sunday what they had said on Saturday. They could not get their craft to the start. The winds were too strong. The Collinses drove to Kapiolani Park to give that unwelcome news to the athletes. No boats, no swim, no triathlon.
The Outrigger Canoe Club motorboat – 14 January 1979
Things changed when 1978 Finisher Ian Emberson spoke to Judy after John had talked to the athletes. Emberson suggested she contact the Outrigger Canoe Club (OCC). “Ask for the use of the their motorboat and driver.” Judy told John to hold-off the cancellation of the triathlon while she ran down to the Outrigger Clubhouse and back. She arranged for the boat. Then she called home from the phone on the club wall at the OCC. Judy told Michael of the change in plans. The swim would now start at 0800 to give Michael time to get down to Kapiolani Park. Judy ran back to Sans Souci Beach to give the news and the start time to John. Then it was back to the Outrigger with the other Lifeguard from the Waikiki Swim Club. The two Iron Man Swim Course Swim Directors boarded the OCC motorboat and headed to the channel that cut through the reef. The race was on after all.
Meanwhile, back at the start, and more – 2002 and 2003
That boat memory was what came back to Judy in 2002. John had separate vivid memories of that morning at Waikiki. John was dealing with the triathlon crowd while Judy was trying to get the boat. There had been a threat from an athlete’s lawyer about the unsafe conditions. John had handed back an entry fee. Some wanted to start on their own without a safety boat on the course. The Collins family and the athletes had been keyed up and ready to go since Saturday morning. The scene was tense until the race was a go. Then Judy and John and a few volunteers worked the event until Michael came across the Finish line on Monday morning. On another day on Oa’hu in 2002 Judy and John measured the “estimated 112-mile” bicycle course for the first time ever. They used the odometer on their rental car. That brought back memories of how they had come up with that number for the bike distance. A talk with John’s paddler from 1978 triggered some more anecdotes that had been long forgotten. It was good to be back.
Unwelcome new information
In the Ironman Anniversary year interviews in 2003 Judy and John gave the details they had discovered about the beginnings of Ironman. Few wanted to hear what they had to say. They were not believed. Friendly interviewers would listen then write the same old story. It was weird. The story of How Ironman Happened had already been written. The incorrect story was in books, on Wikipedia and on the Ironman website. Some years before Ironman had even filed a copyright on a sentence and credited it to John without checking the facts with Judy and John. Until about 2008 both of the popular websites had welcomed corrections. Then both sites reverted to various versions of popular media accounts. Wikipedia blocked access to contributors on the topics of Ironman and triathlon. In 2018 most early Ironman history accounts remain incorrect. Books and publications and internet articles often mirror each other and the misinformation on Wikipedia. Some writers now take a retroactive view that the Ironman distances seemed impossibly difficult in 1978. Not so. Read on.
The two endurance triathlons that were “Made in Hawai’i” were based on the geography of the islands. On both islands there were athletes about who wanted to give the new events a try. The swim-bike-run distances of the original Ironman added up to the runner’s perimeter of O’ahu – 140 miles. In 1983 another triathlon began on the Big Island that made the Ironman Triathlon seem short. Race Director Curtis Tyler was in charge then. Jane Bockus has been in charge of the Ultraman Triathlons since 1992. The Ultraman is a 3-day event. In Hawai’i the Ultraman is now held on Thanksgiving Weekend. As with the Ironman Triathlon in October, the athletes start and finish in Kailua-Kona. The swim-bike-run distances add up to the triathlete’s perimeter of the Big Island – 320 miles.
The human capacity for endurance activity
The human capacity for endurance has not changed. Athletes who had the training base and the desire to do it could do long distance triathlon in 1978. The same was true for those who entered the 3-day Ultraman triathlon on Hawai’i in 1983. Those are the same two requirements for success at endurance triathlon in 2018. As always there is anticipation and uncertainty – “Can I do it?” That is part of the lure of the sport.
A rewrite of sports history
In 2018 writers for the Ironman website and a retired Ironman Pro were two who looked back on 40 years of Ironman. The writers were not there in 1978. Yet, for some reason, they added lines to say that the 1978 triathlon seemed impossible at the time. Of all the people who look back on the early days of the sport retired professional triathletes and ironman.com should know better. The Anything is Possible motto of Ironman is a fine incentive to train for an Ironman Triathlon. It does not make sense to reverse that phrase. It is misleading to suggest that long-distance triathlon was thought to be impossible in 1978. It was simply something new to do for those who enjoyed long distance events.
New information for triathlon historians and fans of triathlon
The Collinses spoke up in 2002 about their additional information about Iron Man beginnings. They did the same in 2014 to a USA Triathlon audience in Chicago. They had been asked to tell their story so they did. Their findings were not welcomed by some in the sport and in the triathlete press. When Judy and John gave the history they did not mean it to be a criticism of what had been said and written by others. In fact Judy and John had not read most of what had been printed about triathlon. They thought that most of the triathlon crowd knew that many publications, Wikipedia, the internet and others did not have it right. They and the triathlon experts were all in the same boat. All had told the Ironman story “to the best of their knowledge,” “in good faith.” Over the years people wrote and said what they believed to be true at the time.
Triathlon history and open minds
It is often the newcomers to the sport who are accurate about early Ironman and triathlon history. It has been BBC radio, a German travel blogger, a sports writer in California, a reporter for West Hawai’i today, a radio freelancer in Kona, a radio host in Panamá, a writer for a magazine from Spain who got it right. Most of those interviewers had open minds because they had not written about Ironman history. What those writers learned for the first time could not conflict with what they had said in the past. In fact it was easier for newcomers to write on the topic than for Judy and John to talk about triathlon.
A Collins website?
The Collinses wanted to write a book or tell their story on a website. There were some obstacles. For example, how could they describe the misinformation about Ironman history when they did not know how the misinformation had happened? How could they write their personal part of the early triathlon story without sounding critical of those leaders in the sport who told a different history? How could they write about the details of their triathlon experience when it was hard to talk to each other about it?
A sore topic – 1983
Triathlon history had become an increasingly sore topic for the two of them since October 1983 in Kona. Judy and John chose to stay together despite that tension. Not talking about triathlon helped. Later they both liked living aboard a boat. Judy still wanted to swim, run and bike. John still liked to run, bike and fly airplanes. In fact John had built a 36 foot wingspan foot-launched glider in the carport in Honolulu where he had brazed up the triathlon Finisher trophies. One year the Collinses started a website to tell their story. A radio interviewer told them their website site was unhelpful to him. From others there was no feedback at all. Was that because it did not match what was said on Wikipedia, on ironman.com, in books, on YouTube, on the internet? Then they found some date errors in their content. It was a clumsy website. It was hard to make corrections. They left it dormant. They would simply continue to do what they had always done. They would tell their story in interviews and in personal encounters and hope for the best.
The impact of an influential writer – 2003
And then, a breakthrough. Around 2003 an Ironman Revisited Founder, an articulate Ironman Competitor, an influential writer, began to believe the real story – there were two Founders of Ironman. That changed some minds. Some history accounts were still repeating incorrect lines from earlier interviews and from articles and scripts the Collinses had never seen. There continued to be Ironman fans who made it clear they did not want to hear triathlon history information that was new to them. John occasionally lapsed into an automatic response when questioned about the 1970’s. Judy and John might scan en email from a writer and not catch an error in it. Or make errors on their own. John still had the habit of saying on microphone whatever Ironman or media asked him to say. When asked, he might repeat the announcement that had never been heard. Or he repeated a phrase on the entry form as if it had been his idea alone. Even if it gave a false impression of Ironman history. The marvelous change in 2003 was that the opening line about Ironman was now often correct.
Two Founders once more – 1978
How Ironman Happened is a simple story. The Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon was the idea of a woman and a man who liked to bike, run and swim and do long-distance events. Judy and John Collins decided to introduce long-distance triathlon to Hawai’i on 14 February 1977. “If you do it, I’ll do it.” They announced their around-the-island-triathlon on 23 October 1977. Because the Banquet was on Veteran’s Day Eve, they had said for years that their announcement was on 10 November. It turns out that Veteran’s Day has been on 11 November since 1978.(!) They launched The First Annual Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon on 18 February 1978. Forty years later they are relaunching the website that tells that story: <www.ThisWasTriathlon.org>
This Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon History started out as a rewrite to the inaccurate and incomplete information that has been on Wikipedia for many years. Michael Collins took the time to make corrections to the Wikipedia site in the years before Iron Man and Triathlon became an edited site on Wikipedia. After that, the public, including the Collins family, were barred from making corrections. By 2018 many of the links on the Wikipedia site were either broken or inaccurate. Ironman.com accounts often used phrasing that was on Wikipedia, or vice versa. Judy and John Collins began this summary of early Iron Man history by making corrections to the Wikipedia site for their own records. They abandoned that format. In 2018 their Wikipedia History rewrite became the “Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon History” article above.