Sunday | January 22, 2017
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Big Island’s Best

<p>Triathletes from the Big Island participating in this year’s Ironman World Championship include (from left to right): Front row: Keoni Smith, Linda Hallinger, Dan Gampon, Jason Heady, Kristin Drost, Dene Sturm, Rachel Gillis, Stephen Cosgrove; Second row: Kristina Sawaya, Laurie Beers, Jeni Winegarner, Keish Doi, Chitwin San Tun, Mike Drutar, Rick Rubio and Norm Goody; Back row: Sam Brown, Jim Moore, John Miller, Jon Jokiel, Net Payne, Kevin Prater, Dene Decker and Brian Collins. (Laura Shimabuku/Special to West Hawaii Today)</p>

The finish line Saturday at the Ironman World Championship is just the starting line for 18-year-olds Keoni Smith and Dan Gampon.

Less than six months ago, Gampon and Smith were outfitted in their caps and gowns on Kealakehe’s Field of Dreams, accepting their high school diplomas.

Saturday, Smith and Gampon will be competing in Ironman with the full support of the community fueling them.

“We get recognized around town by people who saw us on TV or read about us and they will wish us luck,” Gampon said. “It’s a great feeling.”

Smith echoed Gampon’s feeling of being motivated by a community that has embraced their goals.

“We have worked all this time for one day, I don’t want it to go to waste,” said Smith. “If I stopped and quit I would find that more painful than to keep pushing past the barriers, especially with the support we have received from the community.”

In June, the teens were among more than two dozen athletes selected in the Big Island local Ironman lottery.

Gampon’s name was called first, then Smith’s, and as fate would have it, the final selection of the lottery was Kristin Drost, the teens’ mentor and Waverider Triathlon Club adviser.

“It’s a dream situation,” Drost said. “These kids ran their first marathon in November. It hasn’t even been a full year that they have been involved in the sport. We are all so proud of them”

The Waverider Triathlon Club — now in its second year — has made an impact on its members and the group has embraced the “go big, or go home” mantra.

In August, fellow club member Leahi Camacho became the youngest ever to cross the Kaiwi Channel. Now, Gampon and Smith hope to conquer what is widely accepted to be the pinnacle of endurance sports — the Ironman’s grueling 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run course.

Naturally, competing in such an event does not come without sacrifices and a series of mountain-size hurdles.

“When I started this I had to go through my mom,” Gampon said. “At first she did not accept me training every day. She wanted me to be at home and get a job to help out financially after I graduated from high school.”

Gampon said his mother has always been an inspiration for him, doing whatever is necessary to make ends meet for her children.

“My mom saw that this is my passion and what I love doing,” Gampon said. “I feel bad sometimes being out most of the day training and it is hard to see her needing help — I know her and my sister are sacrificing a lot, too, for my dream to come true. Saturday I know it will all be worth it. They’re really the greatest.”

For Drost, seeing her pupils achieve their dreams is where the idea for the club originated.

“Kids in this community are capable of so much and we just have to present them with opportunities and give them the tools to reach their goals,” Drost said. “These guys have put in a lot of hard work and made sacrifices. Those lessons will translate to future goals. They know time management and perseverance to reach their goals not just in the sport, but in life.”

Running for a cause

Until two years ago, Myanmar — also known as Burma — was governed by the longest-running military dictatorship in the world, and while the country has begun to open up in recent years, and give citizens greater opportunities, there is still a lot to be done.

Chitwin San Tun, a native of the country, was a 20-year-old student at the time of the infamous 8888 pro-democracy demonstrations.

Thousands were killed — many close friends and colleagues of San Tun — in an attempt to quash the demonstrations.

San Tun fled to Thailand and eventually to the U.S., where he met his wife and graduated from University of California Davis. San Tun is now a father of two young children, Kailua-Kona resident and triathlete.

“When I moved here three years ago, I did not know how to swim,” San Tun said. “I started at the Kona pool and have improved every week. Now, I feel very ready for the Ironman swim.”

Steve Borowski, San Tun’s swimming coach with the Kona Masters program, agrees that he is prepared for the event.

“We have talked about racing smart and sticking to a plan,” Borowski said. “Chit has come a long way and should make the swim well under two hours.”

San Tun has dedicated his race to “Peace in Burma” and will run in the Ironman carrying three messages.

“My first message is of victory and unity for the 2015 election in Burma,” San Tun said. “My second message is for the past, for all the people who have given their lives to stand against oppression and justice. The third message I carry is to the rest of my friends who have fled the country after 1988, that anything is possible and that no matter where you are you can continue doing sports and staying in shape.”

Representing the Clydesdales

Jason Heady is no stranger to triathlons. He has been running in them for nearly a decade. However, this year was the first time Heady managed to meet the qualifying time for the Ironman lottery at the Ironman 70.3 Hawaii, also known as the Honu.

Heady shaved nearly an hour off his previous Honu time and heard his name among the 24 athletes chosen in the lottery.

“I had a coach for the first time and it really made a difference,” Heady said. “Rather than just following an online program, he knew exactly what I needed to do to get me ready.”

A large part of Heady’s success came with dropping nearly 35 pounds between the New Year and the Honu.

He has continued to shed weight as the biggest race of his life approaches.

Heady, now running at a healthy 265 pounds, refers to himself as a Clydesdale.

“My belly is smaller, but I still represent all the Clydesdales — the guys over 200 pounds running marathons,” Heady said. “But I also represent the big guys who can set a goal and pursue it.”

Heady is shooting for a time between 15 and 17 hours, and hopes to cross the finish line just in time for the festivities.

“I plan to come in between 10 p.m. and midnight — the real party hours,” Heady said laughing. “I’m looking forward to seeing all the people I know and knowing that I have a lot of people behind me cheering me on will push me in the final miles.

“I’ve been emotional about some other races, but I’m not even going to try to hold back the tears on this one. This is the biggest race of my life.”