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Winning isn’t everything: ‘New’ Hawaii Island resident claims title of fastest local at Ironman

Updated: 
October 15, 2017 - 12:05am

KAILUA-KONA — Jose Graca struggled to find the words, but his tears and his arms said what his mouth couldn’t.

Standing in the sand outside of King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel late Saturday afternoon, Graca, a Brazilian, tried to give an interview. English isn’t is his first language, but that wasn’t the problem. He was visibly fatigued, but that wasn’t the issue either.

Instead, the conversation was politely interrupted time and again as triathlete after triathlete stopped to exchange a hug, a handshake and usually a few words with Graca — sometimes in one language, sometimes in another.

“Hey, excellent!” Graca beamed as a contemporary passed by and congratulated him, both flashing the other a shaka sign. “Argentina? Ah, hermano! Hermano!”

The interactions were a collective snapshot of the vibrant international community built around triathlon, somewhat unique in American sports save for national participation in competitions like the World Cup or the Olympics.

Graca, 42, had just completed the grueling Ironman World Championship course in West Hawaii, earning the honor of the top local finisher with a time of 9:36:38.

It wasn’t his best time ever and it wasn’t his first time ever, as he’s earned the title of Ironman in Kona on several previous occasions — running in six races, though not finishing them all.

But Saturday was Graca’s first world championship trek as an official Big Islander — the first time he qualified as a “local” participant, despite moving here in 2013. He first came to Hawaii Island in 2011 for the surf but stayed for the triathlons.

After witnessing the Ironman World Championship in person for the first time Graca said he thought to himself, “Oh my God. I need to do this. I need to qualify.”

Six years later, Graca is set to receive a green card after he weds fellow triathlete and Hawaii Island massage therapist, Sara Bloom, in February.

Even though he wasn’t considered a resident racer until 2017, the Big Island has been Graca’s home for years. His event classification Saturday was yet another benchmark in making official something that’s long been true.

Thus, more than winning the title of fastest local, merely being recognized and identified as such was what moved Hawaii Island’s new top triathlete to tears.

“When I moved here, I didn’t have many friends, you know?” he said, choking up. “And the community, they helped me. They, uh, they like … this.”

Graca, his eyes blurred by tears, opened his arms and extended an embrace, the physical embodiment of the word that eluded him.

“I love this place,” he said.

Passing the torch

Graca never expected he’d claim the title of top local finisher in the 2017 Ironman World Championship, but the man he dethroned Saturday said he saw the Brazilian coming for months.

“I just met (Graca) at the end of July through a mutual friend of ours,” said Steffen Brocks, 49, who claimed top local honors in both 2015 and 2016. He finished second to Graca Saturday.

“I was expecting to get kicked in the nuts by him,” Brocks chuckled.

Brocks, who splits his time between Kona and Portland, Oregon, outperformed the mark he set last year by several minutes, crossing the finish line in 10:23:29. It was his 12th world championship event.

Though he’s a competitor and always wants to win, Brocks said there wasn’t much sting that accompanied passing the Big Island crown to a peer he respects.

“Would I have loved to have beaten him? Absolutely,” Brocks said. “But it’s one of those things. I’d have had to have a great day and he’d have to have kind of a mediocre day to make that happen.”

Graca’s victory wasn’t always a sure thing, however. He wasn’t even certain he’d be competing this year after undergoing meniscus surgery in May, which was followed by a month of physical therapy. In fact, Graca hadn’t even qualified for the race until he did so at the Ironman event in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho held in late August.

He continued to train extensively leading up to Saturday’s event, but actually quit biking and running in the final week before the world championship, opting instead only to swim in an effort to recover for the brutal test fast approaching.

Graca said the strategy paid off, adding it was one he might not have employed absent the experience of training almost exclusively on the Big Island over the last several years — something he explained is a distinct advantage.

“The Big Island is different,” Graca said. “You need to be here and train here to understand how the island (works).”

Local training experience aided both Graca and Brocks Saturday. They each said the opening portion of the marathon, the race’s third leg, was where they came closest to hitting the wall.

The heat and heavy humidity following a Friday night rain, familiar foes of triathletes in Kona, reared their ugly heads as the men started off down Alii Drive.

“I kept asking myself, ‘Do I really like running in an oven?’” Brocks said. “I guess the answer is yes.”

The new champion expressed a similar sentiment, also indicating no amount of heat or discomfort would dissuade him from his passion for triathlon in the coming year.

Both men plan to be back pushing each other once more at the 2018 Ironman World Championship next October.

“I really love this place,” Graca said again.

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