USA Triathlon celebrated the accomplishments of four distinguished multisport athletes on Thursday night at the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. The ceremony was held at Windows on the River in Cleveland, in conjunction with the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships taking place here Saturday and Sunday.
Four-time U.S. Olympian Hunter Kemper was the sole elite-athlete inductee, formally announcing his retirement from professional triathlon as part of the ceremony. Mike Reilly, the “Voice of IRONMAN,” and age-group multisport standouts Donna Smyers and James “Jim” Ward (posthumous), were also honored. The inductees, who make up the Hall of Fame’s ninth induction class, were joined by nearly 200 friends, family members and fans of triathlon for the evening of celebration.
Two-time U.S. Olympic wrestler and 1996 Olympic silver medalist Matt Ghaffari delivered the keynote speech. Ghaffari, a local Clevelander, spoke about what it means to be successful at the highest levels of amateur and professional sport. He emphasized the importance of self-improvement every day, a practice he valued throughout his storied athletic career.
“The first time I wrestled (Russian Aleksandr Karelin), I lost 11-1. The last time I wrestled him, it was overtime in the Olympic finals, 1-0,” Ghaffari said. “I could live with that. I closed the gap, I got better. If you take one message with you tonight: each day, strive to get better and better than yesterday. Today, just try to be better than yesterday, a little bit braver. Something different. Challenge yourself.”
Rocky Harris, USA Triathlon CEO, spoke about the four inductees and the unique ways each of them have impacted the sport.
“Our Hall of Fame is special. We’re not just here to honor the Olympians and IRONMAN champions, but we’re also here to honor a contributor to the sport, the best endurance sports announcer in the world, and we’re honoring two age-group athletes,” Harris said. “These people are inspirational. That’s what our sport is all about. Inspiring communities and inspiring people to get off the couch and get moving.”
The three living inductees each expressed their gratitude for their loved ones and the wider multisport community for fueling their achievements.
The most renowned endurance sports announcer in history, Reilly has called the finishes of 176 IRONMAN triathlons, 1,200 races and more than 2 million athletes with his signature line, “YOU are an IRONMAN.” Reilly was quick to thank the many inspiring athletes he has welcomed to the finish line as his biggest career motivator.
“I’ve seen people transform who were drug addicts. I’ve seen age groupers who had written their suicide note, had told me about it, who came back because of our sport. They’re still with us,” Reilly said. “I know people who are amputees who were told they couldn’t (run, bike or swim), but they did. I’ve been right there with them, year after year. It’s like they’re coming into the house, and we’re all just having a great party.”
Donna Smyers spoke about how her sister, former elite triathlete and fellow Hall-of-Famer Karen Smyers, introduced her to the sport. Donna said Karen encouraged her incredible success at the amateur level, which was highlighted by four USA Triathlon Age Group National Championship titles, two ITU Age Group World Championship titles, six age-group IRONMAN World Championship wins and an IRONMAN 70.3 age-group world title.
“The person I just can’t thank enough for my involvement in triathlon is my sister Karen,” Donna Smyers said. “Everybody knows Karen — she was in the initial Hall of Fame class. She got me into triathlon, she shared her fame and fortune with me a lot, and not just hand-me-down bikes. She put me up in my early days in triathlon. Karen, thank you so much for all you’ve done to help me.”
Ward, an icon in the USA Triathlon age-group community, was honored posthumously. His daughter, Sara Ward, and grandson, Sean Burrow, accepted the honor on his behalf. They were joined by Ward’s close friend Don Ardell, each speaking a few words about Ward’s legacy in the sport and in life.
“He was bigger than life. Dad was always like Superman,” Sara Ward said. “He, to me, was John Wayne, Matt Dillon and James Bond all rolled up into one. Jim Ward, as a father and as a person, was a man of integrity. He taught us, his family, respect for other people and particularly ourselves. He was a person in whom I saw values and courage, and what we call good sportsmanship, and that was above all.”
Ward’s age-group career included six USA Triathlon Age Group National Championship titles and three age-group world titles, all after age 60. He was an inspiration to many older athletes, proving that age is just a number when he won his age group as the most senior competitor at the 1994 IRONMAN World Championship at 77. A retired U.S. Army Colonel and World War II veteran, Ward passed away in 2000 at 83.
Kemper closed the evening with a tribute to his sponsors, supporters and family as he formally announced his retirement. Kemper is the most decorated male triathlete in U.S. history and one of only two male triathletes to have represented his country at the first four Olympic triathlon competitions. He is a two-time Pan American Games medalist and won a record seven USA Triathlon Elite National Championship titles. Kemper is one of only two American men to be ranked No. 1 in the world, which he accomplished in 2005.
“Triathlon and the Olympic movement have been my passion for over 30 years,” Kemper said. “I’ve seen the world and lived out my dreams with those I love right by my side. I’ve been so blessed. This is not the end of my career, but just the beginning of something new and exciting. However, there is one thing I’m definitely sure of, and that’s that the Lord has got hold of me. I’m right where I need to be, fully reliant on God.”
The USA Triathlon Hall Fame serves to recognize, honor and commemorate those individuals and groups who have demonstrated excellence in every aspect of multisport — thereby inspiring others to elevate their own performance, participation and community involvement. Founded in 2008, it has recognized the best performances and contributions in the sport’s 43-year history. This year’s class brings the total number of inductees to 41.