After our nation was so brutally and senselessly attacked in September, the triathlon community responded, in its way, not unlike many other communities that were affected. To a degree triathlon was a reflection of the nation as a whole, a microcosm of our country.
At first we began to find out about the triathletes who were lost. A New York triathlon website reported that two triathletes worked for the devested Cantor Fitzgerald brokerage. Don Spampinato and Timothy Coughlin both left a wife and three boys behind. Stories of the life of masters swimmer and triathlete Doug Irgang were told. One of the firefighters who died was a triathlete. We were counting our dead.
Then the messages of sorrow and condolence began pouring in from other countries’ triathlon federations and athletes over the newsgroups on the web. Foreign athletes and officials sent letters of dismay and disbelief that such a thing could happen. Les McDonald, president of the International Triathlon Union, not generally known as a warm and caring individual, sent a letter to Steve Locke and Mike Highfield of USAT that they posted to Triathlon Digest:
Dear Mike – Dear Steve,
Please convey to the athletes, the officials, race organizers, sponsors and volunteers in our family of Triathlon, Duathlon and its related multi-sports, the heartfelt sadness and sympathy of the Triathlon community and family world-wide.
“As great an act of treachery as was ever perpetrated”- Robert Burns 1780
Yours very sincerely,
Les McDonald, President,
International Triathlon Union (ITU)
In the beginning, some races were cancelled. The Dannon Duathlon in Naperville, Illinois, scheduled for ESPN broadcast, was cancelled. Danskin Orlando was cancelled. Triathlons in New York and New Jersey were cancelled. But then some race directors began to heed the calls to return to normal life, to go on with our activities and not let these terrorists change our world so much.
Triathletes are known for their individuality, their fierce independence, and even defiance. In a sense, the idealistic vision of triathlon closely resembles the romanticized concept of the “American way.” Because of this, the initial reaction that spread through the sport was met with strength rather than retreat. When the attack happened, most of the Team USA duathletes were assembled in Europe for the World Championships in Venray and Rimini under the direction of the ever-steady Tim Yount. Nerves were on edge in official circles. The U.S. Olympic Committee and the ITU did not want the athletes to travel or even race in their U.S.A. uniforms, fearing for their safety. The athletes would have none of that. They instead wore their uniforms proudly and wore black arm bands of mourning, and marked their arms with black marker rings in the race. Canada, Great Britain, and Australia joined them in this.
USAT sent a disaster relief fund donation. Six thousand dollars were sent in memory of the, at least, three triathletes who were lost. Power Bar sent 20,000 bars for the rescue workers. Expressions of grief were being transformed into those of pulling together and going on.
Then thoughts turned to the upcoming IRONMAN. The World Triathlon Corporation decided that the race would be held. A memorial ceremony would be held before the race. It would be the first international sporting event held in the United States after the attacks.
For a couple of years now there has been so much talk of when an American would finally win the IRONMAN again. An American had not won since Mark Allen in 1995, and folks wondered who could be up to the task. Triathlete magazine’s recent cover shot of Tim DeBoom was emblazoned with the words, “Can an American Win Hawaii?” This was published before September.
There were at least a dozen reasons why Tim was a favorite this year. His experience, talent, and perseverance had been leading him there for a long time. But in the days following 9/11 I began thinking about how fitting it would be for an American to win this year especially. At first I held my tongue. I did not want to seem somehow callous during such a time of national loss. But the last day Tim was in the office before he headed out to Kona I finally spoke up.
“There’s now another reason why you’re going to win this year,” I said.
And in a way so typical of him, very measured and often understated, he simply said, “I know.”