Home > Personalities

We ALL belong there – The ‘World’s Okayest Triathlete’ goes to Kona

Melissa Marowelli is just fine with being triathlon’s Weird Barbie

Picturing herself in the throng of triathletes on Kona’s Dig Me Beach, Melissa Marowelli vowed she would drown out that voice in her head telling her she didn’t deserve to be there. She’d think back to that scared mom who stood frozen on a lakeshore 15 years ago, too petrified of deep water to jump in after her toddler who’d just plunged off the end of the dock.

“You’ve come a long way, PinkiePie,” she’d say.

“PinkiePie” is her husband Bart’s pet name for her, after the hot-pink Quintana Roo bike Marowelli, 44, bought used at Ironman 70.3 Boulder in 2021. It replaced the trusted steed that had seen her through three Ironman races and another nine half-Ironman events since the pair of them did Muncie 70.3 together in 2015.

It takes a certain kind of derring-do to decide to fix a fear of water by signing up for a triathlon, but that’s Marowelli in a nutshell. A mother of six, she couldn’t live with her phobia after her father had to rescue her son Reiker from that lake in northern Michigan. A friend’s dare led to her first try-a-tri near her home in Saline, Michigan, a couple of years later. She dog-paddled the entire swim.

“It took two years of me doing mini-sprints before I even learned how to put my face in the water,” she recounts. “I was back-stroking and side-stroking and just getting my body from point A to point B any way I could.”

Then she signed up for a Triathlon 101 workshop at her local rec centre and — many lengths of head-up swimming while holding onto a kickboard later — she finally got the courage to get her face wet.

“I knew I was hot garbage at swimming, but I was a decent runner and an OK cyclist, so I was like, ‘I’m not terrible at two out of three of these. So maybe I can do this race again next year and see if I can be faster.’”

A triathlete was born.

Fast-forward to 2023. Marowelli signed up with a relay team for Ironman 70.3 Musselman, aiming to come in under three hours on the bike leg, and for Ironman 70.3 Oregon — a fast course with a downstream swim — where she met her goal and set a personal best.

“That was supposed to be it for the season,” said Marowelli. “I told all my friends, ‘No. I am not doing a full Ironman this year.’”

Then, three weeks before Ironman Mont-Tremblant in August, Ironman sent everyone on its mailing list the same notice: this would be the last year for the full-distance event in Quebec’s Laurentian mountains. There were still slots for anyone who wanted to tick the race off their bucket list.

From rock bottom to Ironman: “I chose a better addiction”

“I texted my coach and said, ‘If someone just PR’d their 70.3 and is feeling really good and has been doing the same amount of bike training as a friend going to Tremblant, what would you say if that someone accidentally registered for Tremblant?’” she said.

She was scrolling through the registration page, still waiting for her coach’s response, when Bart looked over her shoulder.

“He’s like, ‘Oh my God, you are going to register for this race, aren’t you?”

“It has the word ‘mount’ in the name – as in mountain,” she’d always told anyone who asked. “I am NOT racing my bike up a mountain.”

Here’s the thing: Bart already had a hotel room booked, since he was going to support friends. Melissa had a lot of bike miles in her legs from training for that 70.3 PB all season. So what if her swim would be slow – it always was. So what if she’d have to walk/run the marathon.

Oh, and did I mention? Right before the race, she and Bart were going to France for 10 days with their daughter Reigan for a long-planned high school graduation gift. Whatever training she could manage would happen in Paris.

“She’s a teenager, so she sleeps in,” says Marowelli, laughing. “I got all of my training done in the morning, before she was even out of bed.”

She wrapped resistance bands around the railings on the balcony of her hotel room and “swam.” She rented a road bike and took on the surly Paris traffic. She ran – and practised her French.

She flew to Quebec a couple of days after getting home to Detroit. Only Bart and a couple of friends knew she was there to race. She hid her athlete wristband every time someone snapped a photo, so her tri friends on social media wouldn’t figure out why she was there.

Find out they did, when Triathlon Magazine’s editor Kevin Mackinnon snapped a photo of Marowelli crossing the finish line with less than 15 minutes to spare before the 17-hour cutoff, second-last in her 40-to-44 age group. She’d never before been a “magic hour” finisher, but all she’d wanted was to finish her eighth Ironman and have fun doing it. Mission accomplished.

What happened next was entirely unexpected.

“I went to the rolldown this morning because there were 100 slots for women to go to Kona in 7 weeks,” she posted the next day. “There were 18 spots for my AG. I took the 18th spot.“

She ended up in hospital after her first triathlon. She qualified for Kona in her next

Team Questionable Life Choices is going to Kona!

Marowelli had always hoped for a Kona slot one day and knew she could get there as a legacy athlete, once she had 12 Ironman races under her belt. Her Kona opportunity just came sooner than expected.

Her huge community of tri friends were super-supportive, as was her coach of five years, Michael Parker, who would never think of shutting down an athlete with a goal.

“When someone asks me, ‘Can I do this race? Does it make sense?’ I tell them it always makes sense to do a race if you approach that race and execute that race appropriately. Every single race can’t be a PR. Every single race is not meant to be the pinnacle of peak performance for you.”

What neither Marowelli nor her coach were prepared for were the naysayers who had no compunction about taking to social media to disparage athletes like her who got to Kona through Ironman’s “Women for Tri” program, which created hundreds of extra spots to encourage more women to race.

“There are women who are very upset,” said Marowelli. “I was back and forth with one lady who was just, ‘No. You don’t belong.’”

“I know I played Ironman’s game,” she said. “I followed the rules, and I played by the rules, and I got my slot.”

Marowelli jokes about making decisions like signing up for Mont-Tremblant over margaritas (hence the “questionable life choices”) but Parker, her coach, says the levity belies her determination, her consistency in training and her devotion to her family, her community and the sport of triathlon. She coached middle-school cross-country runners, including five of her six kids, for the past eight years. She runs as a pace bunny in local events, and she is her triathlete friends’ biggest cheerleader. She never misses a workout on her Training Peaks calendar.

“Of anyone I know that exemplifies an Ironman attitude, that deserves to have that Kona experience, absolutely it is Melissa,” Parker said.

In the weeks leading up to the Oct. 14 race, Marowelli decided to stay off social media, hunker down and train hard – but not before a public post on Facebook about what it has felt like since “the world’s Okayest triathlete” heard the words, “You’re going to Kona.”

“I have been very intentional about HOW I say that I’m going to Kona,” she wrote. She says, “I received a roll-down slot to Kona,” or “I’m going to Kona on a ‘Women for Tri’ slot.”

“I feel super uncomfortable saying that I qualified for Kona. That’s on a different level, that’s for the women who are out there slaying the swim, bike and run. Women who finish when it’s daylight out. Women who come BACK to cheer for the people like me in the final few hours of the race.

I will cheer on every woman who is going to Kona, regardless of if they think that I ‘belong’ there. We *ALL* belong there. We *ALL* played the game. Weird Barbie still had a place in Barbieland. I’m the Weird Barbie of Kona this year, and I love it. Somebody has to be last. It might as well be me. See you in Kona.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: For the record, Melissa Marowelli was NOT last at Kona. She swam a personal best time of 1:43:40 and finished her world championship race in a time of 16:11:38 – 34 minutes faster than her time in Mont-Tremblant.

Loreen Pindera is a triathlete and freelance journalist from Montreal.

This story originally appeared in the November issue of Triathlon Magazine