One of the sport’s most beloved original heroes has died. Dave Orlowski, who finished third at the first Ironman race in 1978, had been battling cancer (leukemia) for a number of years.
Orlowski was a popular figure in the triathlon world, travelling to events around the world – he was a regular at races with folks like Canadians John Wragg and Elizabeth Model, who have completed every Ironman race on the planet along with Mexico’s Luis Alvarez and American Jeff Jonas. He will always be most remembered, though, for his third-place finish behind Gordon Haller and John Dunbar in a time of 13:59:13 at the original Ironman event.
Orlowski, who was in the Marine Corps and stationed in Hawaii, was at the famous awards banquet at the Primo Beer Gardens in Honolulu, Hawaii, in December, 1977, where the debate about the fittest athlete – runner, swimmer or cyclist – broke out between Commander John Collins, Tom Knoll and Dan Hendrickson. To settle the debate Collins joked that they should put the three annual Oahu events together – the Waikiki Rough Water Swim, the Around Oahu Bike Race and the Honolulu Marathon. Collins and his wife Judy would call the race “The Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon,” Orlowski recalled.
On February 18, 1978, 15 men took on that challenge, including Orlowski and two other men from his Marine Base – Knoll and Mike Loyd. Orlowski rode a borrowed Sears Free Spirit bicycle and wore cut off jeans over his “Speedo swim suit” so he could carry money to buy food and drink during the ride. Severely chafed, he wore running shorts for the marathon, running his way from sixth to third.
“When I look at where Ironman is today, I think about what it’s done for people,” Orlowski told Triathlete’s Brad Culp a couple of days before that 40th anniversary race. “It’s helped people who are physically challenged. It’s helped people through cancer and heart disease. It’s done so much for so many people for so many different reasons. And it’s done so much for my own life. It’s picked me up when I’ve been down. It’s why I know that there are no struggles in my life that I can’t get through.”
Orlowski managed to surprise me at so many races around the world over the years. “Hey, buddy,” he’d always say when we’d see each other in Frankfurt, or Lanzarote, or Cozumel. Relentlessly positive, he embodied those words about Ironman helping so many. You’d never hear him complain about dealing with leukemia. He just went out and did his thing. Even when he wasn’t able to race, he’d bring a positive vibe to any event.
For years Dave Orlowski has served as a reminder of triathlon’s roots, a bridge between the origins of the sport and it’s higher-tech, more-serious present. We’re going to miss that.