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Hilary Brown: Canada’s First Iron Woman

We celebrate the first Canadian woman to finish the Ironman World Championship

Readers of a certain vintage likely have the introductory theme to ABC’s Wide World of Sports seared in their memory.

For 56-year-old Hilary Brown, that classic music brings back memories of 1981, when a broadcast featuring the new sport of triathlon was the catalyst to a six-year career competing at the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. It was highlighted by Brown becoming the first Canadian woman to complete the race in 1982.

Born and raised in Toronto, Brown grew up near a public pool in North York with a well-established competitive aquatic program. She was always at the pool, training throughout the week and competing on the weekends, often racing a category above because of her athletic abilities. She swam in high school, but also competed in cross-country running, volleyball, basketball and tennis.

She enrolled at the University of Toronto in 1980 and was on both the varsity swimming and running teams in 1981 when a friend suggested she might find it interesting to watch a Wide World of Sports broadcast about the new sport of triathlon.

“I came out of the room and told my mother, ‘I want to do the Ironman,’” said Brown. “I thought it was going to be a fad and I never thought it would end up being an Olympic sport.”

Brown on the bike during her first Ironman in 1982.

Regardless of what she thought of triathlon’s long-term potential, she threw herself at the sport just like she had with many other sports growing up.

She bought a bike over the winter and joined Toronto’s Queen’s City Bike Club in the spring – training hard with the group of hard-nosed male cyclists from May until the race.

“They were so disciplined. That’s what I loved about it,” she said.

One of only two female cyclists in the club, Brown said she was given the cold shoulder until club member George Stewart helped arrange a century ride for her to train on and she easily completed it while leaving most of the men behind.

As for the other two sports, “There were no brick workouts, no books to learn from. There was nothing,” she said. “I was working on three separate sports and putting them together.”

But Brown worked hard that summer and arrived in Kona in October ready to go. What she didn’t see coming was that the once-tiny Ironman race, that had jumped to 300 participants in 1981 after a Sports Illustrated article, had ballooned to more than 1,100 in 1982, likely a result of the Wide World of Sports broadcast.

She was nervous (“I cried at the start wondering what I was getting myself into”), but everything fell into place. Out of the 150 women in the field, Brown finished a remarkable 12th and became the first Canadian woman to finish an Ironman race.

1982 Hilary’s first Ironman race in Kona. Elated to have finished what she set out to do with arms raised in triumph and a smile that reflects just that.

“I never felt as awful at an event as I did after that one,” she said. “When I finished, my body seized. I couldn’t walk and the next day I couldn’t bend.”

But she was hooked.

“Everything was so well-organized and I remember on the run there were all these people on the streets calling out your name,” she said.

It was also on the run that Brown briefly stopped to encourage a male German athlete who had slowed to a halt and didn’t want to go on.

“I encouraged him to finish and then, the next year, I was hitting the wall and was struggling to finish and the same guy found me and said ‘Let’s go.’ That’s pretty much the reason I finished in 1983.”

“What I remember the most was the camaraderie of the people. They came from all over the world and it was like they had no idea there were other people also doing this sport,” she said.

Brown went on to compete in Kona for six years, racing her final Ironman in 1987.

She also briefly focused on bike racing, highlighted by competing in the first-ever Women’s Tour de France in 1984.

Brown competed in the 1984 Canadian Olympic Cycling Trials held over eight days in the Niagara region. The top four finishers made the Olympic team, while the next six made up Team Canada for that inaugural Women’s Tour.

“The best went to the Olympics, so we were the B riders. We weren’t the best in the world, but they treated us like royalty,” she said.

The course followed the same route as the men’s Tour that year, only with shorter distances and fewer race days. But each stage ended in the same cities, including the final stage when Brown and the Canadian team rolled across the finish line on the Champs-Élysées.

Suddenly she was a star on the Queen’s City club.

“I was revered after that because I had gone to the Tour de France and they were all these old European riders,” Brown laughed.

She also won a silver medal in the 1984 Canadian road racing championships, but cycling wasn’t a sport she particularly enjoyed, so she stuck to triathlon racing until 1987, when she stopped competing altogether.

“When I was swimming as a kid, it got to the point where it wasn’t fun anymore, and I think that’s what happened,” she said. “I accomplished what I set out to do and I wasn’t headed for a professional career. It just kind of ran its course for me.”

Kona 1983 was Hilary’s second Ironman in Kona. She remembers suffering in the winds before finally finishing

Despite the important role she played in Canada’s Ironman history, Brown says being an athlete is something she did – it doesn’t define who she is.

“I’m 56. I competed for six years, but that’s 50 years of my life that I’ve done other things,” she said.

It has, however, helped her keep focused during a three-decades-long teaching career, that has included coaching just about every sport offered in elementary school while teaching in Ontario.

“I fell in love with teaching and motivating young people,” she said. “I wanted everyone to feel what it’s like to excel.”

Since 2008, Brown has been teaching future teachers. She’s a professor in the Faculty of Education at Brock University, where she won the Faculty’s Excellence in Teaching Award and delivered the Convocation address during Brock’s 2018 spring graduation ceremony.

As for the sport of triathlon today, Brown said she’s encouraged to see how far the sport has come for women.

“There’s more of an acceptance now for women in sport. There are still some issues, but when I see the availability for nutrition, training and everything, it’s different. I think people can really excel in their sport and they’re given the opportunity to do so,” she said. “I live in Grimsby and we have a women’s only triathlon where there are 600 women of all different shapes and sizes taking part. It’s just so cool.”