AVIA Wildflower Triathlons Celebrates 30 Years
Posted: Wednesday, March 7, 2012
The world famous AVIA Wildflower Triathlon Festival will celebrate its 30th anniversary May 4-6 by honoring its illustrious long course champions, some of the greatest names in the sport, as well as its embodiment of what many say is “the true spirit of triathlon.”
In May of 1983, the Monterey County Parks and Recreation department had the bright idea of combining a bluegrass festival with music, arts, crafts, wildflower exhibits, a 10K run – and a 100k version of that relatively new sport of triathlon – just eight years after the sport was invented in San Diego and five years after the inaugural Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. The first Wildflower Triathlon was held on inland Monterey County parkland along the shores of Lake San Antonio. It drew just 86 triathletes, some of whom felt the event was really more about camping out, nature and flowers than sport. The weather was bad, the water was cold for the swim, and the reviews were pessimistic.
Nevertheless, that Monterey County Parks employee, Terry Davis, and a small band of cohorts that eventually grew into the modern Tri-California race organization, kept the faith and kept coming back. And what they created and nurtured evolved into a remarkable combination – one of triathlon’s greatest international events that draws the greatest elite champions, and a festival for everyone who enjoys the healthy fit lifestyle, campfire camaraderie and the joys of spring mixed with a little swim, bike and run.
“It is hard to believe that it has been 30 years since the first Wildflower Triathlon!” says Tri-California Events CEO Terry Davis. “Who could have ever imagined it would still be going strong after all these years? Not in my wildest dreams could I foresee the impact Wildflower would have in thousands of lives and on the sport. Triathlon has become a way of life and given a sense of purpose for keeping a fit mind and body. The event has changed my life and I hope that competing at Wildflower has changed many lives for the better. One rainy, cold and exciting weekend for a few dedicated triathletes has turned into an iconic event.”
Today the AVIA Wildflower Triathlons Festival is the reward of that idea and the perseverance that fueled it. For the most recent decade, Wildflower hosts 30,000 athletes, supporters, and spectators. They include sold out fields of 8,000 competitors for its three main events – a mountain bike sprint race on Saturday, Sunday’s Olympic distance challenge, and the crown jewel, Saturday’s 1.2-mile swim, 55-mile bike and 13.1-mile run – precisely half of the classic Ironman distance -- that makes up its long course race. The Saturday long course race has become legendary as one of the greatest events in the history of triathlon for the quality of its professional fields, drawn by the rugged challenge of its hilly terrain that demands mastery of all three triathlon disciplines. Likewise, because of its beauty and rugged challenge, it is a badge of honor for amateurs of any age group to finish any of the three Wildflower races. In addition, Wildflower’s sterling reputation has led USA Triathlon to make the long course race the final US qualifier for the 2011 and 2012 ITU long course World Championship. Adding to the prestige and its nationwide allure, the Wildflower races draw perhaps the largest field of triathlon clubs – roughly 1,000 competitors -- for the Olympic and long distance races. In addition, after serving from 1991 through 2001 as the USA Triathlon National Collegiate Championship, the Saturday Olympic event draws 800 competitors to the prestigious Wildflower Collegiate Championship.
Drawn by the quality of competition Wildflower attracts massive crowds who come to camp out and enjoy the natural beauty, the camaraderie, and sporting spectacle that 5-time Wildflower winner Paula Newby-Fraser memorably tabbed “The Woodstock of Triathlon.”
Part of the Wildflower magic is how the course that winds through woods, lakefront, and campgrounds invites a very active level of participation in aid station support of the athletes. Nearby Cal Poly San Luis Obispo send 1,200 student volunteers every year to hand out water and sports drinks and gels and bananas at aid stations scattered all over the 550 acres. Cheering students amp up the vibe by donning outrageous costumes, ring cowbells, play rousing music, and sprayed grateful runners with garden hoses.
As 4-time Wildflower winner Chris McCormack writes in Triathlete Magazine, “Wildflower has been here almost as long as Triathlon itself. It is amazing! Few events have the same history as The Wildflower Triathlon. It is a standalone race that is as rich in history as Ironman Hawaii, Alcatraz or the great European classic race in Roth Germany. Any triathlete who raced through the 80’s, 90’s or early this millennium will attest that this title was a crowning jewel in any triathletes racing resume. To win in Wildflower was a season success, and for many athletes they built their careers on success at this event alone,” says Chris, a two time Ironman World Champion.
2003 Wildflower winner Tim DeBoom, another two-time Ironman World Champion, says, “It is a classic race with roots in the heart of triathlon. It helped create the Half Ironman distance around the world. If Hawaii is the Tour de France, then Wildflower is the Tour of Flanders. Hard and relentless. I'm very proud to have won a title on that brutal course.”
And the lure and the pride of accomplishment is an equal thrill for world champions and novices alike. “I loved the idea of going out in the middle of nowhere to camp with friends who all have the same mindset you do,” said Ryan Donnelly, 16, of Los Gatos, California. “I just enjoyed the whole lifestyle that encouraged you to have good nutrition, get fit for the race, and I was a big fan of all the equipment – I became a big fan of biking. Plus everyone was so welcoming and nice and supportive of the goal to push yourself to do amazing things.”
Indeed, the roster of overall winners, all of whom have been invited (and many of whom have committed to come) to join in the 30th anniversary celebration, include virtually half of what may constitute the sport’s Hall of Fame. The roster of Wildflower winners includes Wildflower champions and Ironman World Champion winners Scott Molina, Paula Newby-Fraser, Peter Reid, Heather Fuhr, Chris Mac Cormack, Tim DeBoom, Natasha Badmann, Samantha McGlone, along with ITU World Champions like Simon Lessing, and Ironman 70.3 World Champions Terenzo Bozzone, Julie Dibens, Michael Raelert, and Leanda Cave. And we can’t forget America’s bronze medal winner at the 2004 Olympic Triathlon in Greece -- Susan Williams.
Such a roster of 13 World Champions is impressive but Wildflower’s own hall of fame includes many other worthy champions such as 4-time winner Cameron Widoff, 2004 Olympian Andy Potts, multiple Ironman winner Virginia Berasategui, multiple Ironman 70.3 winner Chris Legh, and Ironman Hawaii legend Julie Moss, whose inspiring, courageous crawl to the finish of the February 1982 Kona event lit the fire that fueled the rapid growth of the sport. All of those Wildflower winners may be fairly honored as taking “the unofficial World Championship of half Ironman distance racing,” as McCormack puts it. Early winners such as Julie Moss, Dean Harper, Jennifer Hinshaw, Ardis Bow, John Devere, and Grant Boswell were winners before most of the Championships were established. Other incredible triathletes that have been to Wildflower, but have not won Wildflower are Scott Tinley, Dave Scott, Mike Pigg, Mark Allen, Steve Larson, Greg Welch, and Jürgen Zack.
What’s in store for Wildflower’s 30th anniversary celebration May 4-6?
Terry Davis and his Tri-California organization have issued special invitations to every overall winner of the famed long course event since its modest 1983 inaugural. While many current men’s stars such as Jesse Thomas, Chris McCormack, Tim DeBoom, Terenzo Bozzone, plus women’s champs Julie Dibens, Leanda Cave, and Virginia Berasategui may choose to compete in the pro division, Tri-California has encouraged retired professionals to tee it up in a special Champions of Wildflower Legends Division for both Saturday’s long course race and Sunday’s Olympic Distance race. Those accepting a Legends Division start in the long course event will get a 2-minute handicap adjustment for every year since their last win. This would give 1983 winner Jennifer Hinshaw a 58-minute advantage and 1995-7-8-9 winner Cam Widoff, should he choose a Legends Division start, a 26-minute handicap. Legends competitors in the Olympic distance event will get a 1-minute handicap for every year since their last victory.
Tri-California will give tribute to the men and women who have helped give Wildflower its high reputation by unveiling a “Wall of Champions.” On the stairs which rise from the swim start to the transition area overlooking Lake San Antonio, each step will have a plaque engraved with the year, the names of the men’s and women’s winners, and their times. Since that is a long climb, there will be room for many future champions before the wall must be extended. We will also celebrate the four decades that Wildflower has been around with a reunion of age group triathletes who did their first race in one of the decades and they are included in the “Class of 1980’s,” “Class of 1990’s,” “Class of 2000’s,” and “Class of 2010’s,” Each athlete in the race will have their class to celebrate with.
While the Wildflower Triathlon Festival has moved away from its bluegrass bands and arts and crafts roots, in honor of the first event, Terry Davis has invited the popular regional band that performed in the early days, the Ya-Ya’sm back to perform over the weekend.
For further information, please contact Tri-California offices at Pacific Grove (831) 373-0678 and Paso Robles (805) 239-8225 www.tricalifornia.com