The Smallest Ironman, with the Biggest Heart

Sep 29, 2012 by     2 Comments    Posted under: Olympics, Talented friends, travel essays, triathlon

Prelude:  I wrote this article back in 1994, in Hawaii, after Greg Welch became the first non-American to ever win the prestigious Hawaiian Ironman (otherwise known as the Ironman World Championships).  I recently discovered it in a box of photos and articles I’d written.  I sat with Welchy for several hours following his victory, and he openly shared his journey, and his thoughts during the race itself .  I originally wrote this for Inside Sports, the top sports magazine in Australia at the time, but it was never published.  I thought I’d publish it here, not because I think its the best thing I’ve written, but because it is about a man who is now a legend, and is one of the best in sport, and in life.  There is much more to the story of Greg Welch post 1994, but for now, this is his story of getting to the line in Hawaii, and winning.

 

“Who the hell won this race anyway?”, a few of the non-American journalists were muttering among themselves at the press conference just a few hours after the leaders had finished the Worlds’ most famous endurance event – the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.

Kona is on the island of Hawaii, the big island of the Hawaiian chain.  It has the biggest volcanoes, the biggest lava flows, and the most significant endurance event in the world.  But on 15 October 1994 the Ironman World Championships was won not by the biggest, but one of the smallest in the pro field.  But while small in stature, Greg Welch is a giant of determination, athletic talent and commitment.

Yes, 6-time winner Dave Scott had proven with his second place that, after 5 years away from the sport and at the age of 40, he was still “The Man”.  Yes, Dave had re-established the limits of physical performance for masters athletes.  Yes, Dave had defied natural boundaries to thrash men half his age.  Yes, he is a legend.  BUT, he hadn’t won.  Why were all the media questions being directed to him?

Beside triathlon Goliath Dave Scott sat the winner, a big grin on his face between bites of a hamburger and shoveling french fries into his mouth.  Aussie Greg Welch, all 5’6″ of him, waited patiently for his questions.  He did not care that the American media were concentrating on their own sentimental favorite.  He had finally achieved his ultimate goal – he WAS the Ironman World Champion.

To put his achievement in perspective, and to give an indication of why (at that time) the American journalists were more inclined to focus on Dave’s performance, Greg Welch winning the Hawaiian Ironman was triathlon’s equivalent of Australia winning the America’s Cup in yachting.  In the 17 year history of the event since 1978 only Americans had won the men’s race.  From 1980 to 1988 only 3 men won it: John Howard, Scott Tinley, and Dave Scott, the latter winning it 6 times.  In 1989 Mark Allen, who ran the lava fields of Kona like Cain from the television series ‘Kung Fu’ (quiet, spiritual and unbeatable), defeated Dave and won 5 titles through to 1993.  In 1994, with Allen sitting out to rest his body and concentrate on marathon running, it seemed the year that a new champion could emerge.

There were still plenty of U.S. athletes who could take the title: Ken Glah had won the World Ironman Series the year prior; Mike Pigg had been dominating short and medium course races all year; Scott Tinley had already won the event twice; and of course there was the return of The Man.  Even if a non-American was to win it, there was no certainty it would be the Aussie Welch.  Finland’s Pauli Kiuru almost won in 1993, slipping to 2nd with only 15km to go on the run.  Germany had a battalion of possible winners.  Wolfgang Dittrich, who for years had led the race for more time than anyone, before inevitably being passed on the run.  Jurgen Zack, who was capable of dictating race pace through sheer cycling power.  Olaf Sabatschus and Lothar Leder.  There was also Dutchman Rob Barel, who had won the testing Nice Triathlon 5 months earlier, and Hungarian Peter Kropko, who had run a blazing 2.39 marathon at the end of the German Ironman.

Welch’s job was never going to be an easy one, but then the road just to get to the starting line had been one of challenges and conquests, set backs and come backs, that had earned him the nickname “Plucky”.

Welch had a natural talent for sport.  He surfed, played rugby, and was competitive in tennis, squash and cricket.  “he was this little kid who always wanted to play footy with the big boys, and always tried so hard”, his mother Noelene said with fond memories.  It is hard now to comprehend that Welch only took up triathlon in 1985, 9 years before winning Hawaii.  He went with a couple of mates to see them race in Sydney’s Royal National Park, and the next day went out and bought a bike.  He was hit by a car 2 days later.

One of Welch’s mates at that first race was Richie Walker.  Richie would not just be the instigator of Welch’s entree into triathlon, but also his inspiration.  Richie asked Welch to train with him for the Hawaii Ironman in 1986.  A few days after the request, Richie, at only 20 years of age, died of a cardiac arrest during the swim leg of a triathlon.  Welch believes that Richie knew of his impending demise, and consciously carried on his dream.  He finished 3rd at the Forster Ironman in Australia in 1987 and qualified for Hawaii for the first time.  In 1994, as World Champion, he thanked Richie for his inspiration during his victory speech.

Welch’s first result in Hawaii was 45th.  He returned in 1988 to move up to 19th.  In 1989 he finished an incredible 3rd, and the media began to take notice of him.  The American triathlon community in general couldn’t get enough of his outgoing personality and outrageous antics; but he was seen more as a talented jester than a future King.

Greg Welch, 1989

In 1990 he stopped working full time as a builder, and became a professional athlete.  That year he finished 5th in Hawaii, but also won the Olympic Distance (1.5km swim, 40km bike and 10km run) World Championships in Orlando, Florida.  Over the next 2 years he had a streak of 55 top 4 placings.

In 1991 he was fulfilling the predictions of his talent, and he finished 2nd in Hawaii to Allen.  Then his run of bad luck started.  Everyone thought that 1992 would be his year, but unknown to anyone (including his parents) he arrived in Kona against his doctor’s advice.  Just 12 days earlier he had been in hospital undergoing stomach surgery to correct damage caused by severe dehydration suffered while training.  He also had some hemorrhoids (the bane of many cyclists) removed.  The prospect of spending almost 5 hours sitting on a hard bike saddle would have sent many others off whimpering to find a soft couch, but Welch competed.  Despite vomiting blood and walking for much of the marathon leg, and to the dismay of medical officials, he finished 6th.  But he wasn’t happy: “I felt like I was going one step backwards”.

1993 was no cake walk either.  Leading up to the Ironman Welch was in the best form of his life.  He had trained all year specifically with the goal of winning in Hawaii, and had enlisted the help of Dave Scott.  Just for a short hit-out he traveled to Dallas 2 weeks before Hawaii for the World Duathlon (run, bike, run) Championships.  He smashed a quality field that included then current Olympic distance World Triathlon Champion Spencer Smith, becoming [and still is] the only male athlete in history to hold both the triathlon and duathlon world titles (the great Erin Baker did it ’89/’91 on the woman’s side).

Welch returned to San Diego to pack for Hawaii, but a day before he was due to leave was out cycling.  An errant motorist smashed into him.  The result: a bike in 2 pieces, a torn medial ligament, and a stretched posterior cruciate ligament.  In other words, a serious knee injury.  Clearly Welch was devastated, but ever the gracious sportsman he attended the race in Hawaii, on crutches.  In typical Welch style he refused to wallow in his misfortune.   Instead, he watched the race carefully, saw how the drama unfolded, watched who performed (Allen won it for his 6th and last time), and filed the information away for later use.

One of the few highlights came in December 1993 when Welch married fellow pro triathlete Sian Williams.  Sian was vivacious, beautiful, funny, talented, and one of Welch’s few equals when it came to post-race partying.  Some might have expected that together they would push each other to new heights of crazy behavior, but Sian was an incredibly positive influence on Welch, and in retrospect likely one of his keys to future success.  As a qualified exercise physiologist Sian was able to help with his rehabilitation and motivation.  She set new nutrition guidelines.  In 1994 they took less trips to the ice cream shop, and became big fans of Oprah’s low fat cook book.  The stars were beginning to align.

1994 was to be the year that Welch attained his ultimate ironman goal, but once again there was drama.  In the Australian summer a new, high profile, short course series was launched, with Welch as one of the figureheads and drawcard athletes.  It was fast, unusual in format, televised live, and made household names out of triathletes who beforehand mainstream Australia had never heard of.  [It also spawned the careers of many current stars, and gave them a level of competitive racing that arguably still benefits them today].  For the first time triathletes were provided with travel, fantastic accommodation, national media exposure, and fans were treated to exciting, close racing [this was years before the ITU moved to draft legal racing which was the precursor to Olympic inclusion] and insight into the characters of the sport.  As expected, Welch became one of the nation’s favorite characters, and Brad Beven emerged as the Series’ most dominant athlete.

Beven and Welch went head to head, but those in the know realized that he wasn’t running as fast as he could – his knee was bothering him.  In fact he had only started running again 2 weeks before the Tooheys Blue started in January of ’94, and was only about 60% healed.  Running the tight sprint courses irritated the knee, and doctors advised Welch that in 2 years he likely wouldn’t be able to run at all.  Welch confirmed that it was frustrating: “I went through the Series in a great deal of pain.  But if you get on the start line don’t complain.  I will express the point that it hurts, but I won’t complain about it because I made the decision to put myself there!”.

Then, in the 4th race of the Series, Welch crashed when fellow racer Andrew Noble came down on a corner of the cycle course.  He flew over his handlebars and slammed into the ground.  This time: a broken bone in his right wrist and a fractured left wrist.  The Series title went to Beven, and Welch’s disappointment was obvious.  As always, he acknowledged the positive aspects: “Brad was awesome, and you can’t take anything away from him.  He was hungry, it was a battle.  We will bang each others’ heads up and down the walls all day if we have to.  But losing has made me hungry.”

Welch was at the Series finale in Coffs Harbor on Australia’s east coast.  He couldn’t race, as he had casts on both arms, but he was still able to support his mate Beven, and hand out drinks to fellow competitors at the celebration party.

By March Welch was keeping an army of physiotherapists and doctors busy.  In April he was due to undergo surgery on his knee, but backed out the day before.  He enlisted the help of knee guru Dr Stedman, who had traveled with the US ski team and had worked on top athletes like Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova.   Welch went through an intensive, and painful, program in Colorado.

So just getting to the line in 1994 was a major achievement, and one that Welch did not take for granted.  Of course he was nervous, but less about the race and more about getting there in one piece.   “Two days before I left for Kona I was meant to go out and do my last long ride, but I couldn’t get on my bike.  I was paranoid about getting hit by a car.  So Sian told me to put my bike on the stationary trainer in our house for a few hours.  So that’s what I did”.

Welch was in Hawaii, in one piece, strong and confident.  Even so, there were the detractors, and his competitors.  “If someone pushes the pace on the bike, Greg Welch has no chance to win…it is easy to beat him if we ride hard”, Jurgen Zack said before the race.  Welchy had the last laugh on presentation night when he referred to his German friend as “Jerkin Sack”.  Others felt that Welch’s fun-loving characteristics indicated that he didn’t have the mental strength to win the race.  Even Mark Allen had previously said that he “needs to grow up” before he could win.  But in 1994, after providing a lot of guidance to Welch, Allen said: “Welchy has the physical talent beyond anybody – I’d hate to race him this year”.  Welch knew he had a win in him, and as an extra psychological boost he shaved down, totally.  “Not the scruff though – that’s the only part left”, he insisted.

Come race morning, and true to Welch’s law, he forgot his ‘special needs’ bag, which is given out to all athletes on the bike course and which contains their particular nutrition items.  His manager, Murphy Reinschreiber, rushed back to the hotel and managed to get the bag to officials, but unfortunately they weren’t able to make it to the half way point of the 180km cycle leg before Welch blew through there.  But Welch did not let this affect him.  He had been through this race thousands of times before in his head, and each time he had won!

At 7am, 15 October 1994, the starting gun sounded.

Bang, go for it!  No holds barred.  Every man for himself.  Getting worked.  Settle into a rhythm.  Stay focused, or it’ll be a long day.  INXS Shining Star is a good, positive song.  There’s photographers down on the bottom of the ocean, shooting up.  I ain’t got time to wave now – after the race.

The 2.4 mile swim leg was beset by strong currents, but Welch emerged from the warm waters a little over 50 minutes after the start, in 7th position, less than a minute behind the leader.  His plan was simple: “have fun and stay focused”.  30km into the bike leg, Welch took the lead, and he never looked behind him.  The first time he noticed where any of his competitors were was at the half way turnaround at Hawi.

There’s Dave, Glah, Zack and Kropko.  Where’s Crofty, where’s Robin Brew, where’s the rest of them?  Dave is really good at pacing.  Key off him and believe in yourself.  Jurgen will do his usual ego trip off the front – let him go.  I need to be able to run afterwards.  They’ll come back to me.

Zack did push the pace in the second half of the bike leg, and opened a lead of almost 2 minutes.  Surprisingly Glah went with him, but by doing so fell into the German’s trap of “destroying the runners’ legs”, and during the marathon slipped to 9th in obvious pain.  When the 3 chasers came into T2 after the bike leg the crowd went bezerk.  There was little Plucky, the old man Dave (“and they said he couldn’t ride”), and Kropko.  To many spectators this was a dream come true – to see Welch and Scott running shoulder to shoulder through the lava fields.  To the shock of many, Welch quickly pulled away.

This feels pretty good.  Dave’s dropped off – that’s a surprise.  He ran shoulder to shoulder with Allen in ’89 for 24 and a half miles.  He must be hurting!  That’s good to know.

Kropko, like Glah, had ridden above himself, and soon stumbled off the road, crashed into a mail box, and was bundled into a medical van.  At 15km into the run, on the crowded and cruelly steep Pay and Save hill, Welch’s form became evident.  In his fluro-orange outfit he was like a super-ball bouncing easily up the long hill.  Just behind, Glah was suffering and losing time with each step.  Scott was catching Glah, but he too was dragging his feet a little and showing the strain on his face.  At the top of the hill Sian was ecstatic: “Everything is going exactly to plan – this one is his!”, she squealed with delight.

The marathon leg at the Hawaii Ironman is absolute torture.  The heat reflects off the desolate, black lava fields, and temperatures soar over 100F/40C. There is nobody out there to give a psychological boost by cheering, other than volunteers working the drink stations.  It is hot, brutal, and at the front of the race lonely despite the surrounding media vehicles and fiercely chasing pursuers.  It is a test of every competitor’s resolve just to finish.  Welch had all the resolve he needed.  Again, he didn’t look back until the next turnaround at the road to the Natural Energy Lab.

Where’s Glah?  There’s Dave.  OK, a lead of 25 seconds – he doesn’t look all that good.  Pretend Mark Allen is 10 steps behind and catching: you’ve got to lift your game otherwise you won’t win this race.

Dave Scott actually got to within 8 seconds of Welch on that road, at the particular portion of the race his fans were most concerned about.  Even though Welch had won Ironman races before, he had always walked at some portion of the run leg, and to do that with Dave behind would guarantee a loss.  Dave was actually counting on it.  “The gap between us stayed pretty constant between 12 and 20 seconds”, said Dave later.  “I kept thinking ‘Greg, isn’t there a little psychological trauma you are feeling right now?’.  But it became obvious he wasn’t going to slow down.  I decided to make a move, and I cut it down to 10 seconds, but that hurt something terrible.  Coming out of the road Greg went to grab a sponge at an aid station and missed it, and he turned around and went back to get it – now that’s confidence!”.

Having got through the “Bermuda Triangle” portion of the marathon, Welch put the hammer down for the last 10km.  After swimming for 3.8km, cycling for 180km, and running for 32km, he ripped through the last 10km in a blazing 37 minutes.  For the majority of the worlds’ population running 10km completely fresh in under 40 minutes is a big achievement.  Welch did faster after nearly 8 hours of constant racing.

Welch ran down Alii Drive to the tumultuous applause of thousands of spectators, taking victory in 8 hours, 20 minutes and 27 seconds.

This is the best thing in the world.  Aussie flag in hand.  People screaming.  It’s electrifying.  Deja vu – I’ve thought about this so many times.  So noisy!  Give them what they want – arms in the air, wave the flag, lap it up.  Jump across the finish line.  Look back at the clock – number 1!”.

4 minutes later Dave Scott crossed the line.  One of the greatest Ironman performances of all time, at age 40.  But not good enough to stop that plucky little Aussie.

Welch’s victory ended years of hope and personal frustration.  It proved he was the most versatile triathlete in history to date.  The first non-American male ever to win, the significance of which didn’t escape Welch.  “I know I’ve brought something home only a few others have done.  I have sailed with Damien Fewster a few times, and he was the first guy across the line when Australia II won the Americas Cup [in 1983], because he was the bowman.  He always told me ‘when you win Ironman mate you’ll be able to boast that you took something special away from the Yanks’.  Damien and I now both share something very special”.

Welch’s thrill at winning Hawaii was obvious, as it would be for anyone who has experienced being the very best at something in the world.  Tens of thousands of people have put their hearts, souls and mostly their bodies on the line for Ironman.  To be the best at torturing your body to push beyond normal human limits for over 8 hours in one hit is an incredible feat.  To have done this, and won, with years of challenges, and to have persevered, is the mark of a true champion.  In 1994, on October 15, even the vehemently patriotic American press had to admit, Welch was the new King.

 

Postscript:  Since Welch blazed the trail, some 8 other non-Americans have won the race.  More significantly, only 2 American men have won since – Mark Allen in his return in 1995, and Tim deBoom in 2001 and 2002.  The last 5 years have been dominated by Aussies Chris “Macca” McCormack and Craig “Crowie” Alexander, both who grew up with Welch as their hero and raced the Tooheys Blue/F1 series with him.  Both Macca and Crowie will be on the start line this year.  The 2012 Ironman World Championships takes place at Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on Saturday 13 October.  Greg Welch ironically was forced to retire from competing due to a heart condition, just before the first Olympic triathlon, but his fans now get his expert opinion as the lead host for the live webcast at www.ironman.com.  He is still a champion.

 

 

 

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  • WOW…what a true champion! My saying is Focus, Work Hard & Don’t Give Up, I say it all the time…I think he felt the same way!

  • Thanks Luke. I know Welchy would be impressed with what you are doing with your life as well. Maybe I encourage him to support http://www.lukes5line.com next year too!!!

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