It is early on a Tuesday morning, and with a couple of hours before work, Wil Yamamoto isn’t in bed with squinted eyes frantically trying to turn off his alarm clock. Instead Yamamoto has gone out for a quick swim in the nearby warm Honolulu waters. But his definition of quick is somewhat different than the average person’s.
“It’s great to just go out with some friends and get a nice mile or two of swimming in the morning,” Yamamoto said.
A day of exercise for Yamamoto can equal a weeks’ worth for some of us. On top of that morning swim, and after a long day’s work as a corporate attorney, Yamamoto unwinds with a training regimen that has him running for two to four hours. And he sees that as a treat: “[Training] forces me out of the office to get out and have fun.”
Yamamoto is part of a tried and tested group of men and women around the world known as Ironmen and Ironwomen. Known for their top-notch determination, Ironmen train year round for competitions that display an almost inhuman prowess and versatility in three sports.
In 1978 a group of United States Navy Seals began to compare athletes from the sports of biking, swimming and marathon running in an attempt to assess which athlete was the fittest. One commander suggested that the best way to decide would be to combine all three, saying, according to Ironman lore, whomever finished would be a real Ironman. Thus was born the Ironman Triathlon, which is now regarded as the most prestigious one-day endurance event in the world.
With the world championships held annually in Kailua-Kona, Hawai‘i, competitors swim 2.4 miles, followed by a 112-mile bike trek through a route ridden with gusty winds and finally topped off with a 26.2-mile marathon run to the finish. Athletes must complete the entire race within the 17-hour time limit, held between the hours of 7 a.m. and midnight, in order to be bestowed with the title of Ironman.
“It is such a tough and demanding event,” Yamamoto admitted. “It takes a lot of hard work and commitment.”
Those characteristics have been engrained in Yamamoto since he began swimming at age 7. That sport only underscored the messages he gleaned from his parents while growing up.
“Being in an Asian family, we were taught the values of hard work, commitment and taking pride in what you do,” said Yamamoto, a fourth-generation Asian American of Japanese and Korean descent. “I learned you don’t have to be the biggest or the fastest—it’s who wants it the most.”
Yamamoto has proven this philosophy well, placing first in his age group in the 2005 Tinman Triathlon as well as consistently placing in the top three of his age group in the Ironman World Championships. In May, Yamamoto placed third in the Ironman Brazil competition, which qualified him to be one of 1500 taking part in the Kona World Championships this weekend.
Contrary to the competition’s name, 40 percent of the athletes are women, like Korean American Ironwoman Sandy Sun Kaster. Every year she competes in a Florida Ironwoman branch event to run the fastest five kilometers; she has placed in the top three for the past five years.
Kaster sees the event as about more than just winning. “It’s more about pushing myself to a higher place,” she said.
With the popularity of triathlons increasing and with the majority of athletes being Caucasian, both Yamamoto and Kaster hope for a stronger Asian American presence in these events.
“We need to break the submissive Asian stereotype,” Kaster said.