Daniel Piccuta has traveled the world as a U.S. diplomat. He’s fluent in three languages and has studied four others. He’s worked with Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell and served under the president of the United States.
But it’s his spot in the Ironman World Championship, which will be held along the Kona Coast on Oct. 11, that makes him feel like a big shot.
“In Kona, having a Big Island slot is your 15 minutes (of fame),” he said with a smile after a recent swim at Kona Community Aquatic Center. “Whether it’s talking to a waiter in a restaurant or a bartender or anybody on the street, anybody hears you’re an Ironman, they just open up. Everybody knows someone who has done it. They all want to encourage you.”
Piccuta, a 59-year-old Pennsylvania native, has immersed himself in Kona’s triathlon culture. That’s an ironic twist, considering that despite a passion for competing in triathlons he didn’t even make the Ironman connection when his wife said that she wanted to retired to Kona.
His love for the sport started a decade ago, when Piccuta was working in Luxembourg, and his passion for fitness began in 2000. As he tells, his sedentary lifestyle had him overweight and in poor health.
“I was smoking, drinking coffee and eating pastry for breakfast,” Piccuta recalled of his time in Milan, Italy, just before leaving for Luxembourg. “I knew I’d die young if I kept that up, sitting at a desk all day.”
So, the motivated diplomat started exercising and being more health-conscious. Over the next two years he dropped 50 pounds, but he realized that he needed to find new motivation for his fitness regimen. When a young Marine that he had been working with signed up for a triathlon there, which was open to the public and served as the Olympic qualifier, Piccuta decided to join as well.
After doing that sprint triathlon, Piccuta opted to compete alongside the Olympic hopefuls in the longer distance the following year. By then, the triathlon bug had bitten him.
“It’s just so much fun that I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said.
Piccuta continued to train over the next decade, even after he returned to China, where he served as the top U.S. representative for six months. He oversaw 2,000 employees in five different embassies and consulates, but still found time to work out, even though riding a bicycle in Beijing has its challenges.
When he moved here five years ago, he loved what he found. With Team Mango, Peaman and Lavaman events on the calendar, he started competing more often.
“The community of athletes is terrific, not just the generous, serious athletes, who are happy to help you, but regular people who also are quite good at swimming, biking, running,” he said. “So, I fell into this wonderful routine.”
The Honu challenge
He decided to try the next challenge: Honu – the Big Island’s 70.3-mile Ironman.
“I remember thinking that people who did Ironman were kind of out of their minds. After a couple or three half-Ironmans, I realized the Ironman was in reach for me,” Piccuta said.
He reached the qualifying time to be entered in the Big Island lottery for a slot in the world championship.
The October race will be his first full Ironman — a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run, which Piccuta admits is a bit intimidating.
“Many people say that Kona is not the ideal first (140.6) triathlon,” he said. “Part of the reason it’s the world championship and the unique challenges here — the wind, the heat. I did have it in mind to train and do a full-length triathlon somewhere this year if I didn’t get a lottery slot. But, you’ve got to try to get the slot. When you’re rewarded with the slot, you’ve got to do it.”
Oliver Kiel of the Triathlon School of Hawaii, who Piccuta brought on as his personal coach when he learned he would have an opportunity to race in the world championship, said the distance should not be a problem.
“This guy has talent,” said Kiel, who has trained a number of Ironman competitors. “It’s been hidden.”
Piccuta knows that for the longer distance, he’ll need to have the right mindset.
“I’m going to have to find the mental strength,” he said. “The physical strength, Oliver is helping me get. I know I’m going to be physically ready. Being mentally ready is up to me.”