Linda Sweeney, the 43-year-old director of development at a San Diego, California
non-profit organization, was in Cape Canaveral, Florida watching the launch of the Space
Shuttle. Her date was a shuttle pilot. Other pilots, astronauts and assorted big-shots were
in attendance at the event. During the course of the evening, Linda's date casually mentioned
to someone that Linda had once won the Hawaii Ironman.
Story from "Competitor Magazine"
All conversation immediately stopped. Sweeney was surrounded by a crowd five deep.
"You really won the Ironman?" people gaped again and again.
Sweeney was amused. "People make a lot bigger deal over it now than they did back then,"
she says. "I am fascinated that everyone seems so fascinated." Sweeney had just graduated
from the University of Arizona when she arrived in Kona, Hawaii in February of 1981. She'd seen the Ironman on TV the previous year, and had immediately begun training in earnest.
"I wasn't just goofing off," she insists. "People would say to me, '140 miles by bike, run, and swim? I don't drive that far!'
"But once I got over the idea that it was ludicrous, I said to myself, 'I know I could do this — swim 2 miles, run 26 miles.' And I knew I could do well. But I never thought I'd win."
Sweeney was a good runner and an excellent collegiate swimmer in the 500 meters (one-third of a mile) and the 1500 meters. Her weak link was biking. Her superstar boyfriend Tom Hunt, at that time the U.S. record holder in the 10K and the high school indoor mile (4:02, a mark just broken this year) bought her a new bike for Christmas to race on in Kona, a $350 Centurion.
"I barely knew how to shift gears," she admits.
It barely mattered. Although she used only "two or three gears" and found the course hillier, windier and hotter than expected, Sweeney was only one of three women to break seven hours on the bike. Her secret? A red Cannondale handlebar touring bag filled with a water bottle, a tape player and cassettes of The Who and The Tubes.
Pacing herself, Sweeney passed the leader on the back half of the bike course, which was a shock.
"I sure didn't expect this," she says. "I wasn't gleeful that I was in the lead. I still had six hours to go. I never felt like I had it won until the run, with only five miles left and a 30-minute lead."
Sweeney finished in the dark with a time of 12:00:32 (62:07 swim, 6:53 bike, 4:04:57 run), which put the lights out on 19 other women. The victory gained her a big wooden trophy and little else. No money. No video exposure on ABC, which ran the only clip of her under the credits at the end of the show.
In 1982, Sweeney moved with Hunt to Eugene, Oregon, the home of the top U.S. running club,
Athletics West, and never thought about triathlon again. The couple married, settled down to
a life of full-bore competitive running, then moved to San Diego a few years later. Sweeney
has worked as a personal trainer at the San Diego Athletic Club ("Ironman helped sell me to
clients," she admits) and a writer for the Coronado Eagle newspaper before settling into her
current job as director of development.
Today, Sweeney is a super-fit indoor athlete who swims, spins, lifts weights, does yoga and works out on elliptical machines. Everyone tells her that she doesn't look 43 — her body looks about 20. She says she'd probably have done the 20th anniversary of Ironman back in 1998 — on the same old Centurion, rusty and cobwebbed from years of sitting in her garage — if the organizers had invited her sooner than a week before the race.
"I'm grateful to have won when I did," Sweeney insists. "It was pure sport then. I did not do it for money or fame or even to beat someone — but only because I loved the challenge."
Sweeney's life — and the sport of triathlon — might have been dramatically altered had she not suffered a stress fracture in early 1982, before she moved to Oregon. At the time, she was training for her second Ironman. That race turned out to be the media sensation in which an out-of-control Julie Moss agonizingly crawled across the finish line, vaulting triathlon and all its champions — present and past, celebrated and obscure — into the record books forever.
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