Western Australia's evolving long course tradition
HOT RACE: Mandurah Triathlon Club members serving as volunteers on the run leg at the 1997 Rottnest Island Triathlon;
In this brand new series we take a look at how the sport of triathlon has evolved in Australia. First up, Dr Jane Hunt reveals the rocky road that led to two beloved Busselton races.
Long-running east coast triathlon traditions are well known. We recently celebrated 30 years of Nepean and Noosa, and 25 years of SuperSprint triathlons, Devonport, and what became the Australian Ironman. But what about the west coast? Western Australia has its own nostalgia-inducing triathlon traditions. The story of one in particular – the state long course titles – has all the key components of triathlon legend: an iconic location, extreme weather,
kings, queens and stalwarts, and political drama.
It all began on October 20, 1985, when 83 people gathered on Rottnest Island for the inaugural State ‘Triathalon’ [sic] Championships. The 2km swim, 54km bike ride (two laps of the island over exposed, undulating sand dunes), and 20km run presented all the dramatic elements necessary for the inauguration of a memorable tradition. With menacing black clouds overhead and a Channel 9 television crew recording the action, surf lifesaver Greg Mickle took charge in the swim. Kiwi John Hughes caught up with him in the bike to run ‘changeover’, and the pair ran stride-for-stride until Hughes edged out Mickle
for victory in the final metres. Future national champion Carol Pickard led the women from start to finish. Satisfied and proud, the 80 competitors who finished the event made plans to return the following year.
Clouds threatened in 1985, while thunder and lightening greeted competitors at Rottnest Island in 1986, but on both occasions the weather held off. It was in May 1987 – the ‘year from hell’ – that the weather broke. Hypothermia, gale force winds, hail and driving rain combined to torment the 76 athletes who bravely launched into the dark, angry waters of the Indian Ocean. Somehow 57 finished. Strong wind gusts tossed some into the bushes during the 81km cycle leg, many were bruised by hailstones, and, while a sadistic few revelled in the challenge, many others were devastated. The ordeal, combined with the cost
of running the event on an island run by private operators, brought the future of the Rottnest Island Triathlon into doubt.
As with most events held in and around Perth at the time, the Rottnest Island Triathlon was organised by Triathlon Sport Enterprises. They ran it under the auspices of the ‘Triathalon’ [sic] Association of WA (TAWA), which they had established in 1985. At the TAWA’s first AGM in late 1986 however, Rob Pickard and a number of others led a ‘bloodless coup’, citing signs of mounting debt and a lack of accountability among their concerns and echoing east coast doubts about the involvement of commercial enterprises in the administration of the sport. Ironically, as the original event organisers retreated from the scene, the new TAWA executive committee began to organise events themselves in a unique model for triathlon administration that has rarely worked elsewhere.
Following the devastation of the 1987 Rottnest Island Triathlon, the May 1988 state long course championships were held at Collie instead. But Rottnest, it seems, had already acquired a magnetic allure for the west coast triathlon community. In 1989, fifty triathletes participated in a fundraising bike ride, with the aim of making a return to Rottnest possible. In addition, a second, shorter, triathlon – aptly named “Rottnest Loves You” – was introduced to the 1989 Rottnest Island Triathlon program. The aim was to bring more participants and volunteers to the island.
With these changes, the promise of an iconic event was realised, and “Rotto” became a tradition. For a decade, Rotto grew in size and reputation. It was a place, according to the 1999 Rottnest Triathlon Festival program, “where dreams are made or broken”; where “the spirit of the island joins all triathletes together.”
Job Done: Julie Choate crosses the finish line at the 1997 Rottnest Island Triathlon
Rotto had its own stars and legends. Rob Pickard won in 1988 and 1989. Stefan Kolm – tenth place finisher at the 1991 Hawaii Ironman, and second place finisher at the 1992 New Zealand Ironman – won Rottnest in 1991 and 1992. In 1993 Warren Milward became King of Rotto when he ran past Kolm on a climb out of the last turn around. Milward won three more times, including the national long course championships held at Rottnest in 1997. From 1989 to 1993 inclusive, Loretta Garrett was the queen of Rottnest. She returned after starting a family to win again in 2000. Rotto was also known for its courageous performances: in 1995 cancer sufferer Paul Goodman finished 2km/80km/20km in 4:05. He died six months later.
Spirits may have added to the “spirit of Rotto”. Until 1997, the transition area and post-event celebrations took place at Rottnest pub the Quokka Arms Hotel. As Milward recalled in 1999, it was “the single biggest party” on the WA triathlon calendar: “Long may the tradition continue,” he added.
Sadly, the Rotto tradition did not continue.
In 2000, Rottnest was classed as an Australian Ironman qualifier. A number of factors, however, including the charges levied by the island’s private operators, TWA’s own financial difficulties, and low morale among its members, led to a drastic decision to end the tradition. As past TWA president Mark Batten put it, TWA and the Rottnest operators
“fell out of love with each other.”
But the triathlon community had not fallen out of love with the place: “Rotto is our race, it simply must exist.” A mass of people confronted TWA at the next AGM, protesting the decision and demanding an explanation. In response, TWA came up with an alternative venue for the 2001 Half Ironman – Margaret River.
FIRST TIME: The inaugural Ironman WA was held at Busselton in 2004 and won by Jason Shortis and Bek Keat
Despite the hopes of many, the Margaret River solution did not take hold, and for organisers it proved to be a “nightmare”. Environmental concerns and an unwillingness to give up access to a local surf break compromised local support for the event. Within two days of the troubled event, however, an alternate venue had presented itself – Busselton. In contrast to Margaret River, the Busselton Council and the town’s residents couldn’t do enough to make it possible.
The 2002 and 2003 Half Ironman events at Busselton ran well. Despite the turbulent transition, some sense of tradition remained:TWA retained ownership of the event, as well as the usual date in early May. Many west coast triathletes followed the event from Rotto to Margaret River to Busso. Among them was Milward, who retired from professional racing and ran Margaret River in a devil’s costume. In 2010 Gary Itzstein celebrated 21 finishes in the WA long course tradition, while Milward, Tim Howley and Graeme Thomas all made their twentieth finish. The event also became intertwined with the story of Australia’s emerging strength in Ironman: future Ironman World Champion Pete Jacobs won in 2007 and 2008.
A further development emerged out of the success of the Busselton experiment: IMG agreed to stage a full Ironman at Busselton in 2004. With 850 people registered, and former 1997 national long course Rottnest Island participant Jason Shortis finishing first in a personal best time (on the same course two years later he clocked a new Australian record), the new event seemed set to develop its own tradition. As with the half, the Busselton full Ironman became a key event in the evolution of long course talent from around the country: 2007 Australian Ironman champion Rebekah Keat was the first woman home at the inaugural event.
Busso is different to Rotto, but it has its own spirit. The tradition, through its highs and lows, continues. Between them, the two Busselton events have their own history, a history that involves athletes from the west and east coasts, from across Australia and around the world.
Dr Jane E. Hunt