Categorized | Multi-sport, Sports

Ironman: Kokua crew truly make a difference

(Janet Pike shines the spotlight on Ironman World Championship volunteers)

Aside from the 1,800 athletes who prepare for and travel to the Ironman World Championship course, a group of 5,000 endurance performers deserves equal respect and admiration.

“The Kokua Crew (volunteers) at our event are truly remarkable,” Event Director Diana Bertsch said. “Their passion is unmatched and I continue to be amazed by their selfless generosity. We attribute this unique event experience to their support and how they share their genuine Aloha with each and every athlete.” 

No spotlight is big enough to shine at once on all the volunteers who make the race happen and every volunteer deserves as much credit as another. But the sheer number of hands at the 30 aid stations is astounding. 

If an award were given for longest enduring volunteer groups two crews would be contenders: Keauhou Canoe Club and Solid Rock Ministries.

From The Beginning

When the Ironman moved from Oahu to the Big Island in 1981, Keauhou Canoe Club was one of the first volunteer groups. 

Its paddlers joined other outrigger canoes to create a line for swimmers to go around, according to longtime volunteer, Jane Bockus, who helped organize the group those 28 years ago.

Keauhou’s involvement shifted from the swim course to the changing tents, then as spotters for television coverage. 

The advent of electronic mats and chip timing reduced on-course spotting volunteers, so Keauhou now provides about 250 people at three far-flung aid stations.

Cyclists first find about 40 Keauhou volunteers at the bike turnaround on the north end of the island in Hawi. The station is primarily staffed by the club’s competitive racing women because the men are usually off island on Ironman weekend paddling in the Molokai-to-Oahu outrigger canoe race. 

The station sets up about 7 a.m. and finishes about 2 p.m. 

Rumor has it a bit of good-natured whistling at particularly good-looking police officers has been known to occur. But the sincere, caring side of the women shows when end-of-the-pack riders arrive with the sadness or fear they won’t make it back to Kona by the bike cutoff. 

Those athletes get a Gatorade and a big hug if they want it.

Keauhou’s other two stations are on the run course, one at Royal Kona (near downtown) and at White Sands Beach near the south run turnaround on Alii Drive. As out/back stations, they mark miles 1, 4, 6, and 9. 

Top pros arrive by noon, and the 200+ volunteers cover the stations until the last runner at around 7 p.m. 

“We run three shifts at this station with a mix of Keauhou members, Konawaena High School honor society students and visitors who want to help but need to stay close to town,” said Peter Lasich, bike aid station coordinator. “It’s very high energy for the early, fast people, but we try to make it easier for the back of the pack, too. They have a long way to go, and we give them all the moral support we can.”

Bockus points out how “the energy flows both ways” between athletes and volunteers. Aid station Captain Bill Armer agrees. 

“The excitement that Kona is the home of the world championship motivates everyone who works on the event to make race day an outstanding experience for every athlete and every volunteer. It’s a sense of ohana, of everyone belonging,” Armour said. “Just like every athlete, every volunteer has a story to tell of why they are out there, and they are as rich and varied and honorable as any athlete’s story or memory, especially the volunteers who come back every year to help.”

All the way to the end

Solid Rock Ministries has one aid station on the Queen Kaahumanu Highway, one that also represents what Kona volunteers are all about. Their commitment of time and of heart is the story athletes see unfold throughout the course. 

Solid Rock’s endurance event includes Friday evening setup, a campout, and all of race day through the Saturday late-night cleanup.

From early morning rockets on bikes to the late night shufflers barely on their feet, athletes look forward to Solid Rock’s wild cheering and rockin’ music, complete with a DJ and dancing that registers on the Richter scale. 

The group does three jobs: bike mile 12, outbound run mile 14, and inbound run mile 21. 

Pastor “Tex” Texeira and others start the setup at 5 p.m. Friday night and camp out at the Kaloko site just north of town to make sure their 200 volunteers are in place by 7 a.m., “ready to run for a shift that is fast paced and action packed.”

Many cyclists come through aid stations fast, and Solid Rock has learned to spread out at least 800 feet, nearly three football fields, so riders have plenty of chances to get what they need, said Nita Ponte, an Ironman volunteer since 1981 and captain of the station. 

Volunteers shift their attention to runners who start arriving about 1:30 p.m. and continue until nearly midnight when back of the pack runners are greeted with the same enthusiasm and even greater moral support. 

The teamwork builds a sense of community, both within the volunteer group, and throughout the event. Aid stations, marshals, medical vans, supply trucks, police officers, and more all support each other. 

Ponte, one of the many who camp, work, clean up, and still make it to church Sunday morning, admits it is a long night, but sees the effort as a lesson in dedication and commitment — both for volunteers and for athletes. 

“We have our youth and our youth-at-heart work the late shift,” Ponte said. “We know the athletes are so tired, and some of them want to stop. We say ‘yes you can … yes, you can; we walk with them, let them rest a little or maybe get them to just dance a few steps. Pretty soon they know they can finish, and they go on.” 

The passion in her voice rises, as it does when talking to any of Kona’s remarkable volunteers.

“Athletes constantly show us it is not how you start, it is how you finish. There are no losers,” Ponte said. “We want to encourage people no matter what their need, and Ironman is the place for all volunteers with a heart for serving, a heart for people.”

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