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How many Canadians will be in Kona for the Ironman World Championship?

Canadian athletes who haven't nailed a spot to Kona face an uphill battle trying to qualify this year

Photo by: Kevin Mackinnon

Since 2004 there’s been an average of 115 Canadians competing at the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii every year. (We’ve got our statistics from race timing company Sportstats, who have been timing the event since 2004.) Whether or not we’ll see anywhere close to that number in 2021 will likely depend on whether or not we see full-distance racing return to Canada this summer – specifically by the end of August.

Canada has long had a presence at the Ironman World Championship – Hilary Brown was Canada’s first female finisher in 1982 and Sylviane and Patricia Puntous put Canada on the Ironman map around the world with their first- and second-place finishes in 1983 and 1984. Les McDonald, the founder of Triathlon Canada and the International Triathlon Union (now known as the ITU), won his age group in Kona every year from 1983 to 1987.

Since Sportstats started timing the event we’ve seen as few as 94 (2004) Canadians compete on the Big Island and as many as 159 (2014). In 2019 there were 99 Canadians on the start line. The participant list for this year’s race, which includes just under 1,400 athletes as of March 5, has 47 Canadians listed.

So are we likely to see many more Canadians qualify for this year’s Ironman World Championship? That’s very dependent on athletes being able to travel to events and whether or not we’ll see the two Canadian Ironman events, Ironman Mont-Tremblant and Ironman Canada (Penticton), actually go ahead.

Photo: Getty Images

Travel restrictions

With much of the country in the midst of a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hard to imagine that there will be many Canadians not based in the United States competing at Ironman Tulsa on May 22, or Ironman Coeur d’Alene on June 26. European and Asia-Pacific events seem even more unlikely. (Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if you were a competitive age-grouper in Australia right now? Last year 75 of the 199 finishers at Ironman Cairns got themselves a Kona spot, and there will be another 75 slots handed out on June 5.)

But what if, thanks to vaccine availability and the much-talked about vaccine passports, we’re able to start traveling later in July or August? Ironman Lake Placid, a popular race for Canadians, will offer 40 Kona slots and takes place on July 24. If, by some miracle, athletes are able to travel to Europe in August, and had the foresight to enter themselves in one of the events way back when, Ironman has nine full-distance races planned for that month.

Related: Which Ironman races in North America are full in 2021?

endurance sports
Photo: Kevin Mackinnon

Canadian races

Realistically, though, the best chance for Canadians to qualify for Kona this year will likely come from competing at Ironman Mont-Tremblant, scheduled for Aug. 22, or Ironman Canada Pentiction, scheduled for Aug. 29. Ironman Mont-Tremblant has 40 slots for the Ironman World Championship.

There’s a chance that Ironman Canada Penticton won’t serve as a qualifier for this year’s race in Kona, too. Ironman extended the qualifying window by a week last year in hopes that it could get more athletes qualified. That meant that if the race had gone ahead last year there would have been 60 qualifying slots for the 2020 world championship and 40 for the 2021 Kona event. Will Ironman move things back and offer 40 slots for the 2022 Ironman World Championship in Penticton?

The bigger question is whether or not we’ll be ready to have races with thousands of athletes in August. Last week, Dr. Bonnie Henry, the B.C. Provincial Health Officer, said that large sporting events would not be happening in that province this year.

“I can say there is not likely to be big events of any sort, even outdoors, through this summer and into the fall and winter of next year,” Dr. Henry said. “But I can see many situations where we could have smaller, distanced, outdoor events this summer, with perhaps hundreds of people.”

That certainly doesn’t bode well for Ironman Canada Penticton, with an expected field of over 2,000 athletes.

It’s hard to say where things stand in Quebec. A recent story on the Canadian Running Magazine website described how the Montreal Marathon is looking to go ahead this fall. Does that mean a race might go ahead in Mont-Tremblant at the end of August with considerably fewer athletes?

All of which seems to suggest that we’re in for a low Canadian turnout in Kona this year.