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Ambassador athletes inspire at Ironman World Championship

Updated: 
October 13, 2017 - 8:22pm

KAILUA-KONA — Athletes from all over the world are preparing to attempt the impossible at the Ironman World Championship today, with the goal of hearing their names called at the finish line with the famous words, “you are an Ironman.”

However, for some, the journey to the Big Island has been more difficult than others. Every year Ironman selects a few athletes to participate in the “granddaddy” off all other Ironman events.

This year’s list of what Ironman calls “Ambassador Athletes” is a selection of people who have overcome challenges from cancer and paralysis, to poverty and PTSD. There are also a few unique stories that include a woman who trains in extreme conditions in the middle of nowhere in Western Australia and a doctor who helped save a life at an Ironman race earlier this year, and then go on to finish the race.

Included in this group of selected athletes is Sweden’s Aron Anderson, who at 7 years old was diagnosed with cancer. After having a tumor removed from his lower back, found himself wheelchair bound due to paralysis.

At a young age, Anderson, who excelled in soccer before the surgery, was now facing a life of uncertainty, and looking for a new path in athletics.

“At 9 years old I was left with a choice, to stay inside and play video games all the time or to go for it,” Anderson said.

Anderson went for it. Sports became an important part of his life, allowing him to regain some of his confidence. He started with sailing and then went into track and field, followed by sled hockey.

He was hooked.

As time went on, Anderson started to look for more adventures, taking him to the far corners of the world. He became the first person in a wheelchair to climb Kebnekaise — the highest mountain in his home country. He then became the first to do the same on Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa.

Anderson has also swam 37 kilometers (roughly 23 miles) across the often choppy Sea of Aland, arm-biked the 1,272-kilometers (790 miles) from Malmo, Sweden to Paris, and skied for nearly 300 kilometers (186 miles) across Antarctica, to the South Pole.

“It is not about the ability, it is about what you do with the abilities you have,” Anderson said. “I have been able to travel all over the world and do a lot of fun things.”

As for Ironman, Anderson was first introduced to the sport when he saw a video when he was 15 years old. His immediate reaction was how cool it was and he knew that he would want to do it one day, but he had a lot of other plans first.

After accomplishing many of his early goals, Anderson finally competed in a race, the Ironman Kalmar in Sweden. However, his plans of trying to compete in the world championship, he admits, were about three to four years away.

That changed in July. As he was driving to Sweden’s capital city of Stockholm one day, he got a call asking if he could swing by Ironman 70.3 Jonkoping. As he rolled down to the finish line, he was handed a gift box and inside that box was a lei and his invitation to the world championship.

“I almost started crying when I got the ticket — it was so amazing,” Anderson said. “It was a cool feeling.”

Anderson will be joined by many more inspiring athletes at the 2017 Ironman World Championship. Here is a brief look at each Ironman Ambassador:

Mike Levine and

Kathleen McCartney

Levine and McCartney are connected through Ironman, specifically the 1982 Ironman World Championship.

McCartney won the women’s race that year in dramatic fashion. Coming down to the finish line, the leader — Julie Moss — fell to the ground and was trying to crawl to the finish. McCartney ended up passing Moss, which she did not realize until she completed the race, so it came as a big surprise that she had won. The finish helped thrust Ironman into the national spotlight because of its dramatic finish.

Levine watched that 1982 finish by McCartney and immediately signed up for the 1983 race and finished. He raced for a couple of years, but then moved away from the sport to focus on his career and family, though he did manage to do triathlons at mostly the Olympic distance for a six year stretch in the 90s.

Two and a half years ago, Levine’s life came to a halt when he was diagnosed with Stage-4 pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis that gave him less than a 1 percent chance to live for five more years.

“I found a miracle doctor who was able to reverse the spread of the cancer to my lungs, but I was still depressed and lying around on the coach a lot, just expecting the inevitable,” Levine said. “My wife and Kathleen’s friend work for the same airline and they decided that they needed to get us together since Kathleen was my initial inspiration.”

McCartney called Levine and convinced him to go for a bike ride once week.

“We barely went three miles, it lasted an hour and I couldn’t breath,” Levine said. “She invited me for another ride the next week and we continued that. I got stronger and stronger, and my doctor started seeing my cancer numbers coming down.”

Now Levine and McCartney will run together in the Ironman World Championship, completing a journey that started at the beginning of the year.

“When I met Mike in January, I never thought we would be going to Ironman together,” McCartney said. “It just goes to show what happens when you make a special connection with someone that needs you, whatever the case may be. In this case, Mike needed to get off the couch and live again. We discovered that spark and cultivated it. We gave him hopes and dreams, and I am so happy about Ironman giving us this opportunity to fulfill the Ironman moto that anything is possible.”

Dr. Tricia DeLaMora

DeLaMora was in the right place at the right time during the inaugural Ironman Santa Rosa in July. As she was riding her bike, the pediatrician from New York came across a fellow athlete in distress and she jumped into action, performing CPR for seven minutes, effectively saving the person’s life. She then managed to finish the race.

“There were two other people who had stopped but did not know CPR, but were keeping the man company and I asked if they needed my help,” DeLaMora said. “I pulled over and so did another person from Poland and we did two-person CPR. I did not know if he had lived for most of the race. I found out his outcome during the run and it was very exciting that he lived.”

That Ironman was DeLaMora’s 12th overall and she and her husband had plans of applying to compete in the Ironman World Championship as a part of the legacy program in 2018. However, that all changed recently as DeLaMora’s selfless act led to her earning a ticket to the Big Island one year sooner, which came as quite a shock.

“When Mike Reilly (the voice of Ironman) showed up at my office three weeks ago, with what I thought was a regular meeting with my boss … My first thought was ‘is my office doing something for Ironman wellness.’ It did not quite click in my head and then I introduced myself to Mike like a ding dong,” DeLaMora said. “I did not put it together until my husband walked in and my kids walked in, and then Mike came over and said, ‘I know who you are.”

And with those words, DeLaMora is able to experience the second greatest thing to happen to her this year, a large step down from saving someones life, but gratifying nonetheless.

Mike Ergo

Ergo is a former Marine who had to overcome a traumatic appearance that most people hope to never experience. During the Iraq War, Ergo was involved in the Battle of Fallujah, where he lost 29 fellow soldiers. After returning from the war, Ergo fell into a deep depression and he tried to deal with his PTSD by falling into a life of alcohol and drugs.

“I had a lot of survivors guilt when I returned back home, and even though my mind knew I was in a safe place, I was feeling guilty and my body thought I was still in combat. That is what PTSD is like.”

After going down what he called a “dark path,” Ergo’s life began to deteriorate until he finally got the help he needed, starting with his wife.

“She came up to me one day and told me she knew I could do better,” Ergo said. “She saw something within me that was much more than I saw in myself at that moment.”

That day, Ergo stopped drinking and doing drugs and he started to search for a purpose. However, challenges began to present themselves as he now had to deal with his problems, his fears, head on, with no aid from mind-altering substances.

“I had a lot of intense feelings coming up, but instead of running from them, I went to face them head on, and through some spiritual guidance and therapy, I found that charging through fears will deliver you to your calling, what you are born to do.”

In a twist of fate, Ergo was on the Big Island three years ago during Ironman, but did not know what it was. As he saw people riding their bikes, it “terrified” him.

“I got so terrified I was mad,” Ergo said. “Why would people do this. This is stupid. Then I thought, wait, this is that fear, and I decided to run toward the fear again.”

Ergo said he “found purpose” by competing in Ironman and representing the 29 fallen soldiers. During race day, he will wear the names of all 29 marines on his jersey.

“It allows me to honor my friends and chat with people on the run, telling them about these guys,” Ergo said. “It helps change the fear, bitterness and sadness into gratitude for knowing such great people and being grateful for being alive.”

Caroline Ashby

Ashby is an Australian athlete who trains alone in blazing heat and freezing cold temperatures of Western Australia. She has to drive to train for the bike portion of the triathlon because she does not have a paved road that runs to her farm, which is pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

“The road I ride on constantly has grain trucks passing down it, so I wear my bright yellow clothes, light myself up like a Christmas tree, get on my bike and ride on the rickety road,” Ashby said. “It’s kind of lonely, and I will wave at the passing trucks and they toot, toot as I go along”

It gets really hot on the road during the summer, pushing upward of 125 degrees, so often times Ashby will find herself heading out at 2:30 a.m., just to beat the heat. She also swims in a small pond created by a dam. When it is full, it is roughly 120 yards. When it is empty it is only 80 yards.

“I love swimming. I swim every day which my coach isn’t really happy about,” Ashby said. “I’ve had a hawk try to swoop at me and the ducks will sometimes come and try to chase me away from their little ducklings but I love swimming at the dam. At one point there was even a black swan. I was wondering where the swan came from. It was in the middle of nowhere. Maybe it is a good omen.”

Hanson Singaphi

Singaphi is a former swimming pool maintenance operator for a gym in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Raised in poverty, in a tin roof shack, he was taught to swim by Ironman South Africa Race Director Paul Wolff. Five months later he was competing in Ironman events.

Singaphi has now competed in nine Ironman races and nine Ironman 70.3 races. No. 10 for him will be the world championship.

“For me it has been a great privilege and a wonderful experience,” Singaphi said. “It has been a great journey to connect with many cultures and network with many companies around the world. I have been very inspired and I have started to see life better than I used to.”

Tim Deer

Deer, a 15-time Ironman, could have qualified to compete in the world championship if he had wanted to. Instead, he elected to support the Ironman Foundation and Race for More by competing as an ambassador. He is one of 29 athletes racing to support the Ironman Foundation’s programs and he has helped raise a record breaking $850,000.

“I have had many chances in my life to race for myself, sometimes selfishly” Deer said. “Now I am racing for the Foundation and I realize we are all role models to someone in some way. I think if you go out and do things in your community that is worthwhile, you will show others it shouldn’t be about yourself and I encourage my fellow athletes to do the same.”

Nicholas Purschke

Purschke may not be competing in the Ironman World Championship, but he is still inspiring those around him. The 12-year-old kid was diagnosed with Adrenoleukodystrophy and recently underwent a successful, life saving, bone marrow transplant to treat the genetic brain disorder.

Purschke was approached by the Make-A-Wish Foundation and asked what he would like to use his wish on. He chose to attend the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii so that he could meet some of his triathlon heroes.

So far Kona and Ironman have left a great impression on Purschke.

“It is amazing to see all the athletes coming together and competing,” Purschke said. “It has inspired me to keep pushing, keep working and not give up.”

Along with meeting many of the professional triathletes, Purschke was able to compete in the Ironkids Keiki Dip-n-Dash. He also had a chance to swim the Ironman course, going out to the coffee boat, an experience the young man chalked up to “being very cool,” though he was not given any coffee.

While getting to experience the world championship is a great experience, Ironman didn’t want to leave it at just that. At the Ambassador Press Conference on Thursday, Purschke, who is a basketball player and loves the sport, was surprised with a basketball signed by all the players on his favorite team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. He was also given a birthday cake to celebrate turning 13, which will happen at the end of the month.

After the cake was delivered, all the Ambassadors on the podium at the Ironman Expo, as well as many of the spectators attending the event at Hale Halawai sang Happy Birthday to end the press conference.

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