Ironman “Kona Inspired” athlete Kelly Miyahara has learned through both extraordinary triumphs and devastating tragedy that anything is possible. Kelly felt like “the luckiest girl in the world” when, in 2005, she was given her dream job: Jeopardy! Clue Crew member, allowing her to travel the world for a living.
After the tragic loss of her fellow Ironman teammate and friend, Marisela (Mari) Echeverria, Kelly set out to prove, once again, that anything is possible. This past month, she competed in honor of Mari in the Ironman Word Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
We caught up with Kelly recently and found out what makes her such an inspiring athlete.
Traveling Type: What made you decide you wanted to compete in Ironman?
Kelly Miyahara: The Ironman World Championship is a very special event. Think, the Super Bowl or World Cup of triathlons. It’s where the world’s best triathletes compete. Normally, the way to earn a slot there is to qualify by winning your age group at a “qualifying” Ironman event, win a lottery slot, or be invited as a special guest. My very special journey was as a Kona Inspired Contest Winner. I was 1 of 7 slot winners in an international contest that asked entrants to share inspiring stories following the Ironman mantra, “Anything is possible.”
What does it mean to be a “Kona Inspired” in Ironman?
Kona Inspired entrants submitted 90-second videos telling their stories fitting the mantra, “Anything is Possible.” My story is heartbreaking, yet it fits the mantra perfectly. On the very day of the Ironman World Championship last year, October 13, 2012, my friend and teammate, Marisela Echeverria, was struck and killed by a bus on the California coast while training for her first Ironman. We had shared the last 2 years of our lives as part of TEAM in Training (LA’s IronTEAM) while training and fundraising for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The night before our big day at Ironman Canada in 2012, Mari received a devastating phone call. Her father had passed away. Needless to say, she left to be with her family and didn’t race her first Ironman with the team. Not giving up, Mari got back out there a few weeks later after securing a charity slot into Ironman Arizona in November. Just 4 weeks before the race was when tragedy struck again. The unthinkable happened, and it was with Mari’s loss that I learned that anything really is possible.
At the beginning of the training season, in late 2011, Mari and I made a deal while watching the NBC broadcast of the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. If either of us ever had the chance to race in Kona, we’d go … together. I assumed it to be a complete joke, as I never thought it could be a reality … nor did I ever dream of the journey I’d begin just a year later. After Mari’s death, I realized that I wanted to make good on our deal, honor her memory, and complete an Ironman for her, as she never got to cross that finish line. The Kona Inspired Contest became my path. With over 32,000 views of my video and overwhelming support from all over the globe, I became one of the 7 winners for a slot to race in Kona … for Mari. The team became a winner — I am simply a representative of TEAM MARI.
This year’s race day marked the 365th day without Mari, and it just so happened that I crossed the finish line at 9 pm Hawaii time, which made it midnight PST in Los Angeles on October 13 – the 1-year anniversary of Mari’s passing.
What were you most dreading about the race? What were you most excited about for the race?
Most people are afraid of the mass swim starts at Ironman races. Imagine 2,000 people starting to swim at the same time! It’s sheer madness! Swimming is my strongest sport, however, so normally my nervousness would be laced with confidence and excitement. This time was a bit different, as I knew my competitors were all top athletes who were as fast, or mostly even faster than me. For this reason, I was nervous having read many horror stories of the mayhem. When I got out there, I simply reminded myself what race day was all about. Celebrating Mari’s memory, and representing an army of supporters, TEAM Mari! I hung back at the start, and enjoyed the gorgeous sights of coral and colorful fish along the way. Ultimately, I finished 27th in my age group … not bad for competing with the best of ‘em!
My bike is always the tough one for me. So, it’s always a bit scary. After surviving a pretty bad crash at Mile 36, I realized how lucky I was, not only to be out there at all, but that both me and my bike were OK to continue! It helped set the tone for my ride, and I felt pretty good.
The BEST part about race day, in addition to this incredible honor, was seeing the most incredible groups of people, including friends, teammates, my parents and my boyfriend … almost 40 people! Also, to know that so many were watching, tracking and cheering from afar. What an incredible feeling to be on the receiving end of such love and support. Astounding!
Have you been to Hawaii before? What about the location makes it special for you?
Hawaii is one of my very favorite places in the world. I travel a ton for my job as part of the Jeopardy! Clue Crew, however Hawaii holds a special place in my heart. I feel as if I belong there whenever I visit. I love the food, I love the culture, I love the water and the beautiful creatures it’s home to. I usually visit the islands at least 1-2 times per year for my dose of paradise. Thanks to Ironman, I now have a real connection to the Big Island. I even have plans to return to be in Kona for the Ironman World Championship every year. It will be a very special time to remember my friend and this journey that has changed my life for the better.
Also, I’d like to thank my many generous donors who have helped me raise more than $18,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I have won a $10,000 match donation by the Ironman Foundation for being the highest fundraiser of the Kona Inspired athletes! This will bring us close to $30,000 raised in just a few short months and bring me to a grand total of $60,000 raised in my 3 years fundraising for Team in Training. I’m eternally grateful for the overwhelming support and generosity of those who have been touched by Mari’s story. It has been the greatest honor to share it while fulfilling my ultimate goal of keeping her memory alive, fulfilling our deal and honoring her on the world’s biggest Ironman stage. Anything truly is possible!
For more of Kelly’s inspiring journey to Kona, check out her Postcard From Ironman World Championship.
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