Konnichiwa. Salut. Hola.
There are few settings in the world where every ten feet you move, you’re likely to hear a new language — a United Nations Summit, any large cafe in New York City and the Parade of Nations every October at the VEGA IRONMAN World Championship triathlon right here in Kailua-Kona.
More than 2,500 athletes from across the globe descend on Hawai‘i Island every year to compete in triathlon’s premier event. And every Tuesday before the Saturday race, competitors and their families group together by nation outside the King Kamehameha Hotel in a sea of color to prepare for a march down Ali‘i Drive.
Smiles, flags and national pride abound — but so does inclusiveness.
“Everywhere we go, we always wear our sports clothing from the Canadian military, and it’s got a big maple leaf,” said Helene Fortier, of Ottawa Canada, who will compete in her first World Championship event this weekend. “People stop us and say, ‘Oh, you’re from Canada!’ Either military people, or people who visited Canada, or Canadians. So we attract a lot of people.”
Fortier said wearing the maple leaf around town, and during the Parade of Nations, is special to her as the first female member of the Canadian Army to race in the world championship event. She qualified as part of the military division via a race in California.
“I’m really proud to be here, to represent the women in the Canadian Army because I’m the only one and the first one to do it,” she said. “It’s going to help me get through it.”
Chris Fuerleger, a 34-year-old German national, has never competed in the VEGA IRONMAN World Championship but is nevertheless in Kailua-Kona for the 12th straight year.
Fuerleger, who finished an IRONMAN event in Wisconsin more than a decade ago, marched with the German contingent Tuesday. His tour company transports more than 500 European athletes to the competition annually, and he said the sport continues to gain popularity in his home country.
“It’s getting bigger and bigger every year,” Fuerleger said. “Ten years ago, everybody wanted to do a once in a lifetime marathon. Now, they want to do once in a lifetime IRONMAN.”
Kean Mihata, of Ashland, Oregon, has completed eight IRONMAN triathlons in his lifetime. Saturday will be his ninth, though his first in Kailua-Kona.
He said representing the United States isn’t something he actively thinks about, but the international flavor of the World Championship stirs up more of that sort of consideration.
“It’s nothing that’s really in the forefront of my mind,” Mihata said. “Races like this, where there are different languages being spoken all over the place, it does give you a little more of a sense of national pride. And it brings us a little bit closer as far as a pretty diverse triathlon group. We usually train by ourselves, but coming together as one for your nation during this time is kind of fun.”
“I think once you get in this group, you do end up making a few more connections with folks because the long-distance triathlon community isn’t very big,” he continued. “So once you get near people who like things that you like to do … you make some friendships.”