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JULIE MOSS : Her Crawl to Glory Helps to Popularize Sport of Triathlon

August 04, 1985|STEVE LOWERY

Funny how things worked out for Julie Moss.

In February of 1982, when she was less than 15 feet away from winning the Super Bowl of triathlons, the Ironman in Hawaii, she lay flat on the pavement.

Fifteen feet. Five giant steps and the world of triathlon, and all the sponsorships she could handle, would be hers. She had passed six women in the 26.2-mile run, the event's final leg, and now, flat on her back, she thought about the proper way to win the Ironman.

"I wanted to win it in style," says Moss, spreading her arms to either side and thrusting out her chest as if to break the tape. "I thought there was a right way to win the race."

Her vision of what was right had kept her running the last mile even though she felt her legs, along with the rest of her body, slipping away. Looking back she says she should have walked across the finish line.

"Get there anyway you can," she says now.

In 1982 Hawaii was basically a vacation for her. Sure there was the race, but she had only been training for triathlons, with her boyfriend Reed Gregerson, for a total of three months. The Ironman was a school project. The experience of competing would complete a senior thesis (Moss graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo) on the physiological aspects of the triathlon.

But now, with 15 feet to go, there were hundreds of people cheering her. The whole thing was being filmed by ABC for a delayed nationwide broadcast of "Wide World of Sports." Coast-to-coast there would be Julie Moss, winning the right way.

Except that as the crowd urged her on, as the cameras gulped it up, Moss was unable to pick herself up.

She had swum, cycled and run 140 miles and now, with just 15 feet to go, she crawled toward a finish line that seemed miles away. Fifteen feet. It took much of her strength just to ward off those who wanted to help her.

"I know I was coherent, because I had the sense to keep those people away," she says. "I thought if they touched me I'd be disqualified."

So she continued. Alone. She would win this by herself. But Kathleen McCartney, who figured she was closing in on Moss because the ABC helicopter following her and the one following Moss were getting closer, pranced by as Moss struggled. With all the confusion, McCartney had thought she'd finished second. It wasn't until later that she realized she'd won.

Moss eventually got across for second place. ABC loved it. It was every corny movie you've ever seen. "Andy Hardy Runs the Ironman."

"It was almost too dramatic," Scott Tinley said. He provided a stark contrast in that race by easily winning the men's division. "There were some people that thought the thing was play-acted. That real life wasn't like this."

But it was real. For McCartney, a happy ending. For Moss, a bitter defeat. Well, that's the funny thing. Though she didn't win, Moss' effort the last hundred yards had hit a nerve with the TV audience.

ABC knew it had a hot commodity and flew both women to New York for an interview to go along with its broadcast of the race. Fifteen minutes of the program was devoted to Moss' plight. The response to the broadcast was overwhelming. ABC reran it on Mother's Day.

Moss was a celebrity. The woman who had started competing in triathlons because it was a nice way to spend some time with her boyfriend, who had never taken sports seriously, was now a symbol of the struggle in sports.

Forget the poor yokel careening off the ski jump, this was the agony of defeat. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the Modern Olympics, had said the important thing inlife was not to win but to struggle. Here was the struggle, and in living color.

NBC wanted to cash in, too. The network recruited Moss for its "Survival of the Fittest." There were offers from sponsors and requests for appearances. By losing, Moss had become the best known triathlon competitor in America.

But many involved in triathlons worried that the notoriety of Moss' collapse in the Ironman competition would be destructive to the reputation of their sport.

Said Tinley: "For people watching the telecast in Iowa, this was the only contact they had with triathlons. We thought they might think all triathlons were as long or difficult as the Ironman, or that everyone passed out at the end."

Murphy Reinscheiber, Moss' manager, had told his parents that he would compete in the next Ironman. After Tinley breezed across the finish line in Hawaii, his father called him.

"He told me that it didn't look that hard," Reinscheiber recalled his father saying. "He said that he might try it. Then came all the stuff about Julie. My mom called me and told me I was a damn fool."

But the funny thing is, triathlons started to gain popularity, and quickly. In 1982 there were 250 triathlons with a total of 60,000 participants. A year later, that number had jumped to 600 triathlons and 600,000 participants.

Julie Moss had crawled her way to fame and fortune, and the sport of triathlon came along for the ride.

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