Lyn Lemaire at the 1979 Iron Man

Is she in this race? Ironman Hawaii – 1979

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(This article first ran in Arkansas Outside on March 14, 2012)

“That morning 15 people, including a woman, had ignored the boundaries of sanity and started the contest.” Barry McDermott

Many amateur athletes believe that the Ironman World Championship Triathlon Hawaii is the pinnacle achievement in athleticism. It would be tough to argue with that opinion. There is a good reason that the phrase “Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life” is trademarked. Beginner Triathlete advises that to even consider training for the Ironman, your base training should already be rounding out at 8 hours a week as their recommended training program progresses to 15-18 hours a week. Modern triathlons include everything from the super sprint distance with a 400m swim, 10k bike, and 2.5k run to the Ironman distance of 3.8k swim, 180k bike, and 42k run. But in the early 1970s, triathlons were a novel idea in the outdoor sports arena.

Triathlons had been held in California, which is where Commander John Collins and his wife Judy discovered them. The first triathlon was at San Diego’s Mission Bay on September 25th, 1974, and consisted of a 5.3-mile run, a 5-mile bike, and a 600-yard swim. Individual long-distance swimming, biking, and running events were already in place on Oahu but as athletes often do, there was speculation as to which athletes were truly better conditioned. After a road run event, a squabble broke out between members of the Mid Pacific Road Running Club and the Waikiki Swim Club as to which group was fitter. A Sports Illustrated article had recently declared Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx as having the highest recorded oxygen uptake. Realizing the opportunity for a test to settle this argument Cmdr. Collins and his wife, building on their experience with the burgeoning triathlons in California, helped organize a trial of all three sports. That trial would become the Ironman.

Lyn Lemaire at the 1979 Iron Man
Lyn Lemaire at the 1979 Iron Man

The first Ironman Hawaii was held on February 18, 1978. Of 15 starters, only 12 finished. None were female. Judy Collins had planned to participate along with her husband, however, she was forced to withdraw a few days before the event.  In 1979, more competitors registered to start but due to a one-day delay caused by severe weather and dodgy conditions in the dawning hours of race day, only 15 made it to the starting line. One of those 15 was a woman named Lyn Lemaire. Lyn, born Eleanor Lynette Lemaire, was a California girl who excelled as a high school swimmer and college basketball player while she earned a degree in biochemistry from UCLA. During her senior year of college, Lyn started cycling and after graduating she moved to Boston and continued cycling. In 1976 she set the record at the US Nationals in the 25-mile time trial at 1:00:06.7. She also won the title in 1977 and came in second in 1975 and 1978. She had the experience as a swimmer and a cyclist but there is no mention of her ability as a runner.

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One of the best accounts of Lyn’s endeavor on Oahu that day is a Sports Illustrated article by Barry McDermott. While the author spends much of his page space talking about the top men in the competition, their jobs, training, and reasons for entering the race, very little of Lyn’s history is mentioned, it is what the author chooses to include about Lyn that I find significant. When she passes one of the top male competitors, he apparently asked his support crew “Is she in this race?” Lemaire smugly turned and waved. And in Mr. McDermott’s account of the race, as Lyn closed within five minutes of leader Tom Warren on the bike portion, he would ask “Where is the girl?” over and over. Lyn did not win that second Iron Man contest, nor did she come in second despite holding that spot for part of the bike section. She came in fifth overall, but will forever be known as the First Ironwoman, finishing in 12 hours 55 minutes, and 38 seconds, just an hour and 40 minutes behind the winner.

Today, many athletes know about 8-time Ironman World Champion Paula Newby-Fraser. Most have seen the video of Julie Moss collapsing within sight of the finish, crawling to the line, giving everything she had to just get across even after it was clear she would not finish first. Lyn Lemaire paved the way. Actually, she swam, biked, and ran the way.

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6 Responses

  1. Julie Moss was really the catalyst to the growth in triathlon. She inspired so many people to take up the sport! Great article

    1. I agree Jo, who can watch that video of Julie Moss and NOT feel inspired? Pertinent to Women’s History Month from our sports angled point of view, isn’t it interesting that Judy Collins is credited with helping her husband start the Ironman because she herself was also a multisport athlete. Their son Micheal competed in that 1979 event, at 16 yrs old I think. He was just beginning the marathon as the first finishers came in. He didn’t cross the finish until the following morning.

      1. In May 1982, Rick Korte led our mutual friend Mike and I on a long 2500-mile trek west – from Little Rock to Southern California, and then up the west coast – as we trained for the first U.S. Triathlon Series. It was the beginning of a journey that started change in my life. Rick has always been a leader, has donated his time throughout his life to mentor to those in need, and will always be a life-long friend to me, who helped me see the open space of the Great West – beyond the trees. I will never forget his contributions to the sports of triathlon, to cycling, and to my life. Like his Father, Rick is an innate life coach, and Bob McGowan has always been alike.

        On a funny note, I first met Julie Moss at the USTS Triathlon at Livermore Lake in 1982, when due to her swimming like a cork-screw at the time, I became frustrated because she wouldn’t let me around her – quite the competitor she was. As a result, I swam over the top of her minutes after the mass start, when she reached out, grabbed my swim-cap, and decked my with a hook to the jaw. After the triathlon was over Sally Edwards, Julie and I had a beer together and laughed about it all. Julie’s a great athlete and person, and she’s got a pretty strong right hook; you don’t ever want to get her upset.

        Anyway, Rick Korte is my Dali Lama of coaching and mentoring, and I will always call him “Oh Great One” because after a month on the bike in the western deserts of America with him and Mike, I began to see how genuine change in my life was necessary; like the followers of Moses, it was a necessary course for me. I now live about 60 miles west of where rode into Southern California desert, a constant and positive reminder of our long ride west some 30 years ago.

        Always wishing the very best to Rick, Mike, and Bob; always.

        Re-Building The Bike,

        John Rupert

  2. A huge follower back in the day. My sis Terri Schneider did Kona 10 years, could never beat Paula Newby-Frazier. Oh well, she podiumed several times. Good read and advice [Triathalon Revolution/Terri Schneider]

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