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40 Stories – The Swim Start – 2004

One of the most iconic moments at the IRONMAN World Championship is the swim start. Months of preparation and tension are finally released in that moment.

From one instant to the next the starting cannon unleashes the anxiety, the pressure, the anticipation and the unknown that every athlete has pent up inside. It’s like a huge human pressure valve that gets uncorked. Speculation stops and reality takes over. The boom wipes away every bit of wondering about what the day will take and puts it squarely in the action needed to help it unfold.

An iconic IRONMAN moment is the swim start.

The swim start was a single sonic clap belched out of the starting cannon. It put the race in motion for everyone. But in 2004 that unifying moment changed. For the very first time not everyone started together. The pros went off at at 6:45am. The age groupers left at the traditional 7:00am hour.

For the first time in the history of IRONMAN in Hawaii, there were two races going on. Yes, everyone was going to do the same course and cross the same finish line. But the crew of pros had a 15-minute head start.

It was a small shift, but it was significant. First it buffered the top women from being rustled around by as many guys in the swim. But more importantly it was done in the hopes that separate swim starts would make for a cleaner bike leg without  the inevitable age groupers who would leap frog ahead of the women and make them slow down.

How successful was that? Here’s what the 1997 IRONMAN World Champion Heather Fuhr had to say:

By doing this, it accomplished a couple of things: For sure it was a cleaner swim for pro athletes swimming in the 55mins – 1 hour range. It allowed these athletes (myself included) to be able to settle into their pace without having to physically battle with hundreds of age group athletes swimming similar speed.”
“It also did a great job of spreading athletes out on the bike course. The pro women in particular were given the opportunity to ride a cleaner race for a better portion of the ride. Age group athletes still came through, but at a later point on the ride and those that did were going significantly faster.”

2004 opened the door for even more changes to come at the swim start. In 2013 the pro men started 5-minutes before the pro women. Now there were three starts to the race. A year later the age group men went off 15-minutes before the age group women. That made for four starts. Instead of it being like uncorking a magnum of champagne that had been shaken, the starts had become a gradual step-by-step release of athletes into the unknown of race day.

Separating the men and women into waves set up a whole new dynamic to the race.

Were swim waves a good thing? Or did we lose a part of IRONMAN that everyone looked forward to each year? The answer is that like any change to the course, there will be proponents on both sides of the question.

But regardless of your perspective on the change made to the swim start in 2004, it did change the dynamic of the race. And that’s what makes it one of the Top 40-Greatest Moments At IRONMAN. It was not about any one athlete doing something that inspired thousands. It was not a finish that set a new standard of what is possible. But separating the swim into waves has indeed impacted the race ever since.

Having separate swim starts for men and women have solved some problems, but not all of them.

Did having separate starts for men and women, both pro and age group, make the swim less rugged? Diana Hassel, winner of the 50-54 division at the IRONMAN World Championship in 2017 commented that:

“The biggest thing I learned during that first year of wave starts in 2014, was that the brutality of the swim start was not a result of the age group men being aggressive at the World Championships, as I was beaten up more by the women that year than in all of my 11 starts prior to that!”
“I do think the separation of the men and women has helped a little bit with the crowding on the Queen K in the bike leg which is always helpful as only those who intend to cheat do it, rather than being forced into it somewhat due to crowding.  As the number of competitors has grown each year, I feel like the crowding would be considerably worse than the early years if there was a return to the mass start.”

It is still the IRONMAN World Championship, but there are differences now because of the swim start waves. The pros get out of the water and on the bike about a half hour earlier than in the past.

They get out to Hawi earlier. And as we all know, even a five minute difference in when you hit the road to Hawi can be a world of difference in the winds. They also finish earlier than before.

On a sunny year that can be the difference of a few degrees. And who wouldn’t like to run the marathon with just a couple degrees less heat! On a cloudier year it could play to their disadvantage since that cover tends to show up later rather than earlier.

This video shows the tension, excitement and explosion of the swim start in Kona:

Overall the waves do spread the field out. I know there are some who point out that there are still packs and that it’s a problem. But that is just what happened as the sport matured. The differences in fitness among athletes has shrunk.

In the early years people trickled across the finish line pretty steadily. Now it’s like a traffic jam at the discount store in that 10-12hr range. People are just closer in speed, and there is no revamp to the swim start that can ensures a spread on the bike for everyone. But starting in 2004 there was at least some relief with waves.

IRONMAN will continue to evolve. Athletes will get faster. The course may be changed from time to time. We may see even more swim waves. But whatever changes take place, the race will ultimately remain one of the greatest tests of a person’s capabilities. It will beg us to go beyond our limits. It will always have a way of revealing our greatest potential.

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