The Drought: Why Can’t Americans Win In Kona Anymore?

  • By Tim DeBoom
  • Published May 15, 2013
  • Updated Jun 17, 2015 at 5:06 PM UTC
Jordan Rapp. Photo: Aaron Hersh

Don’t Tread on Me

For all its faults, the current American system has produced a handful of athletes with the potential to podium or possibly win Ironman Hawaii. These are the select few who may be able to break through on the Big Island, and here’s what they need to do to make the leap.

Andy Potts (seventh place and first American in 2012)

The Goods: Andy Potts has one of the best pedigrees of anyone racing Ironman. He was an All-American swimmer at the University of Michigan. He placed fourth, in arguably the hardest event, the 400 meter I.M., at the 1996 U.S. Olympic swim trials. He was a 2004 Olympian in triathlon, an ITU World Cup winner, a 70.3 world champion, and has several top-10 finishes in Kona. The pieces seem to be in place.

I would never say that Andy will not win Kona. He was the top American in 2012 and is too good of an athlete to dismiss. At 36 years old, however, he needs to make some changes, and they need to come now if he ever wants to truly contend.

Next Level: Andy needs to get out of his basement, literally and figuratively. He does much of his training indoors, and he needs to battle the elements, build some strength mentally and physically, and put in some big days outside that will mimic the race. Then, he needs to go race another Ironman with real contenders on their turf outside of his comfort zone in the U.S.

He also needs to forget about swim primes and instead gear his race strategy around the race as a whole. He could cruise the swim with a 110 heart rate and still come out with the leaders, saving more energy to ride up front the whole way and then run even faster than his 2:53 marathon split from 2012. Patience wins in Kona.

Lastly, Andy needs to commit to Kona like he did this year, but follow through all the way to race day. I was disappointed to see him throw a “panic” 70.3 race into his schedule three weeks before Kona. Who knows if it hurt him, but I know that when my training was great, I needed three to four weeks to wind things down for the big day.

Mary Beth Ellis (fifth place and first American in 2012)

The Goods: Watching the bike, I thought Mary Beth Ellis was going to steal the victory in Kona last year. After she dismounted, I saw her first few steps and knew it would not be her day.

Mary Beth is a pitbull, a scrapper. Leanda Cave is a thoroughbred with short-course, 70.3 and now Ironman world titles. The American was in the hunt and just could not close the deal this time.

Did she push the bike too hard? Are the four women ahead of her just better, or did she leave a Kona victory at one of her other tough races or notoriously hard workouts throughout the year?

Mary Beth is under the guidance of coach Brett Sutton, and he is getting the absolute most out of her talent and potential. He has been very successful with female athletes, and Mary Beth can be counted among them since jumping to the Ironman distance, having earned blazing victories everywhere but in Kona.

Next Level: With Ironman Hawaii at the end of the season, she will need to save one of those big performances for October. This may not fit into Sutton’s plan, but, with both Mary Beth and teammate Caroline Steffen (the runner-up in Kona) coming up short, maybe he will think twice about how many tough events his female athletes can absorb in a year.

Mary Beth will also have to be careful of Sutton’s history of burning his athletes out. Most don’t last more than a couple of years, and Mary Beth is on that precipice. With Chrissie Wellington’s retirement, Mary Beth’s odds of winning just increased.

Tim O’Donnell (eighth place in 2012)

The Goods: Before Tim O’Donnell stepped up to the Ironman distance, I favored him as the next American with a chance of victory in Kona. He has the speed of a short-course athlete, some blazing times over the 70.3 distance, and an ITU Long Distance world title to his credit. Most importantly, he is a solid swimmer, cyclist and runner. No weaknesses.

His debut Ironman at Texas in 2011 (second-place finish in 8:11) went well and showed the potential I expected. Tim is 32 years old and in his prime to put everything into a shot at winning in Kona. And that is what it will take for Tim: 100 percent commitment to that race. Everything he does has to be geared toward winning in October.

Next Level: After a DNF in his first Kona, he rebounded in 2012 with a solid eighth place. I hope he is not too satisfied with that finish, however. Quite simply, Tim needs to get stronger. Kona is a race about strength. He needs longer, tougher workouts and then a longer taper before hitting that starting line. He needs to be strong enough on the bike to get off with the leaders and run faster than 2:50.

I live in Boulder, so I have a pulse on what athletes are doing here, including Tim. To step up, I think he needs to analyze everything around him: coach, sponsors, training partners and races. Does his coach have the experience and ability to get the job done? Does he have the best equipment? Are his training buddies helping or hurting him? What races can he do that will give him the experience needed in October? It’s time to commit.

Jordan Rapp (13th place in 2012)

The Goods: Jordan Rapp has an incredible story. A successful professional athlete gets hit by a car while training, almost dies and then comes back even better to the sport he loves. The question now is if he can turn this great story into a true fairy tale by winning the Ironman World Championship.

Jordan came to the pro ranks without the short-course speed or swimming background of many other top athletes. He honed his endurance chops in the world of rowing and built his ability to suffer there. He has several pre- and post-accident Ironman wins and an ITU Long Distance world title too.

Next Level: He has the engine, but his swim is holding him back. Maybe he had an off-day last October, but giving up nine minutes in Kona will never get the job done. He has to make some huge gains there, and it may not be possible for him to ever make that lead pack in the swim, which is almost a requirement these days.

Jordan is also a technology geek. He will use every bit of technology and information to gain any advantage he can. Nothing will slip through the cracks, and you can be sure that he knows exactly how many watts he can push for 112 miles and still run under 2:50. This is a huge advantage, but there will be a point during the day when he will have to decide to follow his watts or go with the race.

Besides his bad swim, he raced too many ultra-distance races this year. The key will be to race the big boys on their turf, get his points early, and then focus on Kona instead of the minor Ironman events throughout the year. He treated this year as a learning experience, but at 32, he needs to act now to move up to the podium.

RELATED: Mary Beth Ellis’ Top-Five Finish

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