Skye Ombac dreamed of finishing the IRONMAN World Championship but was daunted by the idea of training alone.
To prepare for the triathlon, the Kahakai Elementary School teacher turned to fellow teacher, and professional athlete Bree Wee, bringing the former IRONMAN division winner out of retirement and back into one of the world’s most famous endurance races.
“I knew I wasn’t going to train alone,” Ombac told Big Island Now. “I needed my tribe.”
After retiring from competitive racing seven years ago, Wee had no intention of competing in another IRONMAN.
“Somehow, that little pint-sized Hilo kid (Ombac) convinced us to do the triathlon and now, Saturdays have more bike riding than running,” Wee said.
Alongside Wee, Ombac is currently training with veteran racers Mele DeMille, 39, and Lydia Blackburn, 36, both of Waikoloa. Twenty-five-year-old Sierra Ponthier and 22-year-old Makayla Ward have also joined the three women in training for the October race.
“It’s so empowering,” Ombac said sitting at a picnic table along with her friends at OTEC on a Thursday afternoon. “I feel so much strength with all of us.”
All the younger racers said they are grateful to be training with Wee, DeMille and Blackburn.
“They come with wisdom and knowledge — they give me so much confidence,” Ombac said.
Wee, who had a regular running group with DeMille and Blackburn, convinced Ombac to join them on some trail runs around the island when the pandemic hit in March 2020.
“Our little group reached out to her, our little rookie kid sister, dragged her on some crazy-long runs, and saw that she could handle — more than handle,” Wee said.
Ombac joined their group and never looked back.
“I’ve seen parts of the Big Island I haven’t seen before,” the 25-year-old said.
Wee said the group became their COVID bubble.
“We figured if we only hang out with each other and on the trails away from people we would be fine and still have the ‘family feel’ in place that was so needed during a time when people were pulling away,” Wee said.
Ombac had her sights set on Honu, the Ironman 70.3 race, after it was canceled in 2020.
“I convinced (Ombac) to run some crazy trails with me over the year, so it was payback that I joined her about six weeks before the event,” Wee said.
Ponthier and Ward joined in training for the 70.3 race not long after Ombac made the decision to pursue the race in her journey to IRONMAN.
“It was the sum of everything we’ve been doing,” Ward said of Honu.
Ward finished third in her division and Ombac was the second Hawaii resident finisher, qualifying both young athletes for the October race.
DeMille already qualified for IRONMAN from 2020 and Blackburn qualified through Honu.
Wee was the first woman to cross the finish line, despite her seven years of retirement from IRONMAN races. But her success didn’t matter to her as much as watching her friends also cross the finish line.
“I kept thinking about my girls,” Wee said. “I realized it came full circle.”
Ponthier finished fifth in her division at Honu. She said she was looking forward to turning the corner on the course and coming in toward the finish line.
“In my head, I’d been picturing that moment,” Ponthier said.
Despite her incredible finish, Ponthier didn’t qualify for IRONMAN. However, the 25-year-old plans to continue training with her friends and take to the course the following day for an IRONMAN all her own.
In her years as a professional athlete, Wee said it has been important not to let the outcome of a race define you.
“People are still gonna love you — win or lose,” Wee said.
DeMille said IRONMAN is a celebration of the months of training they’ve worked through.
“The biggest part is just having fun,” she said.
As Ponthier, Ward and Ombac are new to the realm of IRONMAN racing, they look up to Wee, DeMille and Blackburn for their wisdom and experience. Ward said she is aware of how lucky she is to train by their sides.
“It feels like you can do anything when we have the support,” Ward said. “If we’re dying, we’re all dying together and we climb out together.”
Wee, DeMille and Blackburn are equally grateful and excited to be training with a trio of young, ambitious athletes.
“It’s a friendship more than a mentorship,” Blackburn said. “We do things that hurt, but it makes us happy. We literally challenge each other.”
“Anytime something goes wrong, we’re grateful we have each other and that we’re happy and healthy,” Ponthier added.
As a competitive athlete, Wee said the races are a payday. When she decided to get back into it, she knew she didn’t want something self-serving.
“They help me stay out of that dark place,” Wee said. “It’s been really fun pushing pride, ego, selfishness aside and finding a way to truly support each other to the point we care about each other’s goals as if they are our own.”
“Our main goal is to stay happy and healthy and crying happy tears,” Ombac added.
Ombac said if it wasn’t for this group of women, she doesn’t think she’d continue the training.
“I’ve pushed my body,” Ombac said.
Ward also never thought finishing an IRONMAN was something she’d be pursuing.
“To have this little crew, it’s been honestly the best part,” Ward said.
Despite their level of talent, none of the women seem particularly interested in going pro.
“Training allows me to live presently,” Ward said. “I don’t want to lose the love for it. This is a lifelong love.”
“I love being a teacher and would never do anything to take myself out of the classroom. I think it’s a fun lifestyle.”