The usual suspects are all ready to battle it out in Florianopolis later this month in the men’s race at Ironman Brazil, but they’ll have some company.
Yes, both three time Ironman Brazil champions, Eduardo Sturla and Oscar Galindez will be shooting to claim their fourth title. Both are from Argentina, and between the two of them they account for the last four championship titles. In addition, Brazil’s own Reinaldo Colucci, who has two second place showings in his last two appearances, will be starting his fifth Ironman Brazil. While it might be reasonable to expect that this years winner at South America’s only Ironman will come from this trio, the boys from the south had better take note: there will be a new kid in town in Florianopolis this year.
That new kid comes in the form of Australia’s Luke McKenzie. With four Ironman champion titles, a couple of wins at the Ironman 70.3 distance and handful of podium finishes in the past twenty-four months at various race distances, the 28-year-old has the credentials to take on the South Americans on their own turf.
McKenzie’s is no stranger to the Ironman scene. As a teenager he accompanied his parents to volunteer at an aid station at Ironman Australia in Forster.
â€œI remember watching Pauli Kiru of Finland, who won four Ironman Australia titles in the early 90’s, and I thought he was amazing,â€ explains McKenzie. â€œMy family volunteered at the 38 km aid station and one year, when he (Kiru) came running through, I ran five meters behind him on the footpath all the way to the finish line. I left my family high and dry at the aid station. I went back though. It was then I knew it was always a goal to race Ironman and Hawaii after that experience,â€ said McKenzie.
Five years after watching his first Ironman, McKenzie was taking his initial plunge into triathlon at the age of thirteen. The result was a win and a triathlon career was born.
While being schooled in the St. George sprint triathlon series, McKenzie was selected for the Australian junior teams for the World Championships from 2001 through 2003. McKenzie eventually became a product of the Australian development system that has produced many of triathlon’s champions.
After some promising results, McKenzie secured a coveted spot with the Australian Institute of Sport Triathlon (AIS) squad. The AIS provided the valuable support, training and learning experiences through their camps within Australia and abroad that helped McKenzie develop. He launched his international career after some superb performances in Europe.
Early in his career there were some valuable Australian triathletes for role models. Brad Beven and the 1994 Ironman World Champion, Greg Welch were both tearing it up at all distances and set high standards for McKenzie to shoot for.
After competing on the short course circuit for a time, he did his first Ironman at 23 â€“ putting together an impressive debut at the 2004 Ironman Western Australia.
â€œI led until 15 km of the run, then blew up. I had second until about 39 km, but Pete Jacobs stormed past me and I had nothing; a marathon is a long way.â€ He ended finished third in a time of 8:34:24.
â€œI had been in the sport for 10 years by that stage and I guess it was just where I felt I belonged,â€ continued McKenzie. â€œI still like to race Olympic distance and 70.3, but I just love racing Ironman.â€
McKenzie’s resume now includes wins at the 2008 and 2009 Ironman Japan, 2009 Ironman Malaysia as well as his recent his win at Ironman China. There’s also a second place showing at last years Ironman Louisville and a pair of third place podium finishes at Ironman Western Australia. â€œIt brings a smile to my face when I hear or read of those titles,â€ said McKenzie. â€œIt took a lot of hard training, but mostly self belief that I can be an Ironman champion.â€
McKenzie has displayed progress at the Ford Ironman World Championship over his four appearances, and solid understanding of what it will take for him to jump to the next level into the top ten. He explains: â€œI had always raced from the front ever since I started Ironman. In my first several races, I would plummet back through the field because I was not confident in my marathon. Over the past two years I have worked hard on my running to bring it up to the standard, and now I have a few Ironman titles, which are great. The next goal is to bring it (his running) up to standard to have a chance of winning in Hawaii.â€
Kona holds a special place in terms of training, racing and life for McKenzie and his fiancÃ©, third year pro, Amanda Balding. Currently training in Kona, McKenzie explains, â€œThe last two years we have come to Kona in May and June to train leading into Ironman 70.3 Hawaii and to prepare for Ironman Japan. This year we changed the race schedule slightly and, although we aren’t racing Ironman 70.3 Hawaii, we came back to train here leading into Ironman Brazil. With winter coming on in Australia it was time to leave and head north back to summer.â€
McKenzie continues: â€œWe love training here for so many reasons. I guess it’s the climate, the riding out on the Queen K, the swimming in the ocean â€¦ just to name a few things. We also have a great support base with good massage therapists, bike shops and gyms. We actually have a lot of friends here now which also makes it a fun place to be.â€
While McKenzie makes his fifth appearance at the Ford Ironman World Championship this year, the Island will take on more significance and meaning in his life. Balding and McKenzie plan to marry on the Island after this year’s race.
However, before his big day(s) in Kona this year, McKenzie has his focus clearly on May 30th, where he hopes wrestle the South American stranglehold at Ironman Brazil. We will have to wait to see how the new kid in town, with four Ironman titles to his name, can continue his winning ways.
Shawn Skene can be reached at: [email protected]