30 Triathlon Moments That Mattered

  • By Holly Bennett, Aaron Hersh and Bob Babbitt
  • Published Jun 7, 2013
  • Updated Jun 30, 2015 at 12:05 PM UTC
Dave Scott and Mark Allen at the 1989 Ironman World Championship. Photo: Lois Schwartz

 At 5:45 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 1974, the first triathlon was held on Mission Bay’s Fiesta Island in San Diego. Forty-six athletes dared to toe the line for this wacky new run-bike-swim-run sporting adventure, including Navy Commander John Collins—who would go on to found something called the Ironman four years later. Those pioneering participants ponied up $1 apiece for entry, and many of them finished after dark with car headlights illuminating their way.

Our sport has come a long way, and Triathlete has existed to document and celebrate this evolution ever since the magazine launched in May 1983. There are easily thousands of significant moments that we could call out in celebration of our magazine’s 30-year anniversary—performance breakthroughs, tech innovations, event milestones, greater media coverage and awareness—but we’ve culled it to a collection of our favorites.

1978 John Collins creates the Ironman on Oahu to settle a debate about who’s fittest: swimmers, cyclists or runners. Gordon Haller, a naval communications specialist, beats out 14 other competitors to earn the inaugural Ironman title in 11:46:58. The following year Lyn Lemaire becomes the first woman to compete and win, finishing fifth overall in 12:55:38.

1981 Race director Valerie Silk moves the Ironman to Kona on Hawaii’s Big Island, allowing for growth, improved athlete safety and the allure of the lava fields. Important changes are also instituted: Personal support crews are replaced by aid stations and roads are no longer open to traffic.

1982 Front-runner Julie Moss crumbles and crawls while Kathleen McCartney cruises past, clinching Kona victory. ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” coverage of Moss’ remarkable bonk puts the little-known Ironman on the public map. (Thirty years later, Moss and McCartney celebrate the anniversary of their moment by racing Kona 2012.)

1983 Noting a lack of triathlon training resources, Sally Edwards writes the first book on the sport: Triathlon: A Triple Fitness Sport. Edwards’ own training for her 1981 Hawaii Ironman debut includes swimming 2.4 miles, resting two days, cycling 112 miles, resting two days, then running a marathon—all within a few weeks of the race. She finishes second.

1983 Jim Curl and Carl Thomas create the first big-city triathlon, the U.S. Triathlon Series (USTS) in Chicago, despite lacking permits three weeks from race day and nearly canceling the event. Sponsored for many years by Mrs. T’s Pierogies (and significantly increasing public awareness of those tasty little carb pockets), the race evolves to today’s Life Time Tri Chicago.

1984 Jim Curl and Carl Thomas introduce wave starts at the USTS season opener event in Tampa, Fla., facilitating larger age-group fields and increased athlete safety. At the same race they formalize the distance now known as “Olympic”: 1.5K swim, 40K bike and 10K run.

1985 Richard Byrne invents the first triathlon bike, the Sceptor, notable for its steep seat tube angle to facilitate an aero position. Nineteen years after the Sceptor’s appearance, the Cervélo P3 Carbon becomes the blueprint on which nearly every tri bike is now based.

1986 Prize money is introduced in Kona, driven by Dave Scott and Mark Allen’s boycott of the 1985 race. Steve Drogan, a financier from San Diego, anonymously posts a $100,000 prize purse, an important step toward helping pro triathletes earn a living from the sport. Scott and Allen return, finishing first and second.

1987 Dan Empfield invents the Quintana Roo wetsuit, the first wetsuit specifically designed for swimming. Empfield’s revelation is that swimming in a neoprene suit is not just warmer, but also faster than without one. Newbies and open-water-phobic triathletes rejoice.

1988 SRM invents the first power meter. While still a niche product category today, the power meter gains popularity and acceptance each year, enabling triathletes to obsess more than ever about their performance milestones.

1988 Paula Newby-Fraser clocks 9:01:01 in Kona, knocking 35 minutes off the previous course record and finishing 11th overall—the highest placing for a woman since the event grew to more than a few hundred participants. No woman has finished higher since.

1989 Dave Scott and Mark Allen race shoulder to shoulder for eight hours in Kona in what is now revered as “Iron War.” Both men ultimately finish their pro careers with six Ironman World Championship wins each; the 1989 race is Allen’s first Kona win, and he beats his nemesis by 58 seconds on Scott’s best ever day on the Big Island.

1989 Below-the-knee amputee Jim MacLaren runs a 3:16 marathon to finish Kona in 10:42. Four years later MacLaren is hit by a van while cycling during a race, becoming a quadriplegic. A fundraising event to help him purchase an adapted vehicle leads to the creation of the San Diego Triathlon Challenge and the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

1989 The Scott DH aerobar is popularized at the Tour de France when Greg LeMond overcomes a 50-second deficit to win the final time-trial stage and the yellow jersey. Triathletes, however—eager adopters of new technology—had been riding the bars as early as 1987.

RELATED – Iron War: Uncut Interview With Dave Scott And Mark Allen

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