For 29-year-old Mike Cunningham and three friends, Sunday morning's race through the ocean currents and across the loose sand at Redondo Beach might have provided lasting glory--the national sports spotlight, thousands of dollars in cash prizes, photographs on Wheaties boxes.
If only the race had been held in Australia.
But in the United States--where Redondo Beach was the site of the first American rendition of Australia's Coolangatta Gold, a nationally esteemed aquatic triathlon--the winning relay team drew a round of applause, a trophy and a chicken-and-steak dinner at an afternoon barbecue.
Little fame, no money, no Wheaties offer.
"It's still kind of neat to compete in a first-time race like this and set a record," insisted Cunningham, a lifeguard who lives in Manhattan Beach and is a national paddle board champion. "I'm just happy that we're having this race. This is the first time we've had a real ocean race out here."
Indeed, many of the 40 competitors for the first California Gold Ocean Iron Man Classic, including 24 individuals and four relay teams, reveled as much in the contest's prospects for developing "a good beach awareness" as they did in its numerous athletic feats.
"There was the Annette Funicello time when ocean events were fashionable, but then they died down," said Nicholas Carr, 24, a member of the winning team. "Now, they're getting popular again."
Competitors, most of whom were lifeguards, swam one mile, propelled a paddle board (similar to a surfboard) two miles, rowed a surf ski (like a kayak) five miles and ran four miles--one event followed exhaustingly by the next. Cunningham's relay team, also including Bud Bohn of Hawthorne, Bram Tester of Fullerton and Carr of Hermosa Beach, crossed the finish line first with a time of 1 hour, 46 minutes and 22 seconds, establishing the record for the American event. Individual competitor Mitch Kahn, a 25-year-old San Clemente resident and current U.S. leader among lifeguards who compete in Iron Man contests, came in second at 1:49:06.
"This is kind of the summit of endurance ocean racing," said Scott Hubbell, an organizer of the event, sponsored by the Redondo Beach Pier Assn., the Redondo Boardwalk and Marina Assn. and Stroh's beer. "The physical aspect goes without saying, but what we're also trying to do is generate interest in ocean events. The spectator interest in these events has been pretty small in recent years."
"For the majority of the public, there isn't an awareness of water sports," agreed Anne Tweedy, 22, who came in fifth in the swimming leg of the competition and was one of three women to compete in the race. "Water sports are popular during the Olympics, and that's all. . . . It would be nice to change that."
Sunday's race may not have spurred as much interest in ocean sports as the Coolangatta Gold has in Australia, but many supporters hope that its popularity will grow. The lure of the contest's seaside setting and a resurgent appreciation of muscles and fitness bode well for the race, they said.
"We have the climate and the beaches here; why shouldn't this be big in the United States?" said Hayden Kenny, an organizer for the Australian race who also helped to arrange the California contest. "There are many fine athletes here, and more people live along the beaches from Santa Barbara to San Diego than live in all of Australia."
Australia's Coolangatta Gold, named after a beachside city in Queensland, began about two years ago, Kenny said. Interest in the race, he said, was fueled by a movie of the same name. Australian support has been hearty, with corporate sponsorship totaling more than $30,000 in prize money, extensive television coverage and a beachfront audience of 250,000, Kenny said.
By comparison, the American event in Redondo Beach drew 250 to 300 viewers at any given time, most of them competitors' families and friends and people who stopped during jaunts on The Strand.
"It a shame that this isn't bigger because these are some of the finest athletes in the world," said onlooker Scott Davey, 32, of Hermosa Beach. "I think it could become, and should become, something pretty big in Southern California."