The first fifteen years of IRONMAN were dominated by athletes from the US. Every men’s champion was American. But in 1994 that stranglehold came to a close.
Greg Welch from Australia was the guy to do it. He broke through the invisible foot up athletes from the US seemed to have. Maybe it was because the sport was born in Hawaii and it simply took a while for the fever to spread to other nations. The same was not true on the women’s side. Sylviane Puntous of Canada turned the results international all the way back in 1983 with the first of her two IRONMAN World Championships.
But the men’s race wasn’t so easy to crack. Greg Welch finished third in the epic IRONWAR year of 1989 when Dave Scott and I finished within 58-seconds of each other. Welch crept across the line next a whopping 22-minutes later. No, not even in the same zip code.
Greg Welch bounced around in the top ten for a number of years. And even though he had World Championship titles at other distances, he was having a struggle to put the whole package together in Kona.
In ’89 he was third. 1990 Welch crossed the line in 5th. The next year in ’91 he pushed for the lead with me on the marathon and came in second. That was just one person shy of an IRONMAN World Championship. But unfortunately 1992 wouldn’t take him to the top of the podium. He finished in 6th. Then bad luck struck in 1993 just two weeks prior to going to Kona. Greg was cycling home from a swim workout and was struck by a car. His knee was broken along with his dream of victory in Hawaii.
1994 would be a completely different year for Greg Welch. He traded happy-go-lucky for more serious IRONMAN week.
His wife Sian Welch described it this way:
“Greg kind of became like you. He just shut the world out and conserved ever bit of energy he could. He was like a monk that week before the race!”
That seemed to be the secret sauce. He put the missing ingredient in place and came out swinging. He had the fastest swim of any man in the top ten with a 50:22 split out of the water. But then one of the most critical decisions of his triathlon career came on the bike.
The gauntlet was thrown by Jurgen Zack and Ken Glah with about 35-miles to go on the bike. They were exceeding the sane speed limit for anyone wanting to actually run the marathon.
Welch had to decide. Should he go with the break that was in motion or should he play it more conservatively and then step on the gas with hopefully enough in the tank during the marathon? Dave Scott helped him with that decision:
“This was the first really key moment in ’94 that made the difference in the race. I had to decide whether to ride with Jurgen Zack and Ken Glah who were charging, or hold back. There were still 35-miles left on the bike and that’s a huge stretch.”
“In the end I had to ride my own pace. Dave made that choice easier when he yelled at me and said it was too fast. He was right!”
The gap opened up, but Welch played it smart. He knew the duo ahead was on a suicide mission. His was to win. And he knew his key to victory was going to be the run.
Taking his time, Greg Welch eventually worked his way to the front of the race. It was a position he’d been in before, but never in the later part of the marathon. The Energy Lab was approaching. There was only one guy left who had a chance of overtaking Welch from behind. That man was Dave Scott!
Scott has struggled a bit in the early miles of the marathon, but seemed to have regained his composure and was now heading into the part of the race where he went from slow burn to full nuclear.
Welch knew the Energy Lab was where Dave would try to make a move.
“The second key point in ’94 was coming. At the press conference Dave kept saying, “This race always comes down to the Energy Lab and this is where I am at my best.” Those words stuck with me. Luckily I was feeling great going down there.”
The race was down to two. Greg Welch was leading. Dave Scott was charging. He hadn’t raced the IRONMAN World Championship since getting second in 1989. Scott had a lot to prove. Welch had a few things to show the world himself!
I was working with NBC that day following the leaders as the race unfolded. The tension was critical. Welch didn’t look tired in the least, but he hadn’t fully putting his stamp on the race. Yes, he was in the lead, but he hadn’t yet lit the spark that would light the afterburners and blow the race to smithereens.
Dave was on fire. He knew if he was to catch Welch and make a pass it had to be in the Energy Lab. The small gap separating the two was shrinking. The NBC car I was in with the producer of the show stopped so we could get an exact split. It was infinitesimal. Greg Welch was leading the IRONMAN World Championship by a mere 12-seconds. And the 6-Time Champion looked like he was on trajectory to make a comeback and pull off a 7th title.
But then the reason this is one of the Top 40-Greatest Moments at IRONMAN happened.
Greg Welch turned and looked back. He saw Dave Scott looming just steps away. But instead of freaking out, he just turned and looked back at the road ahead with little concern for what he saw closing in from behind. Welch had been on on idle but now knew it was time to kick things in gear.
If I was in his sweat soaked shoes I would have been sh#tting because I know how strong Dave is in those final eight-miles of the marathon. But Greg didn’t have the same history I did with Scott. He looked back and you could see the shift happen. Welch just seemed to think, okay, he’s too close so I’d just better kick it up and put this race into the stratosphere.
Welch was now focused on the Energy Lab exit and the final 10k to the finish line. He had the spark, the fire. It was as clear as day. Scott didn’t have a chance. The gap opened like a worn out rubber band trying to hold a weight that’s way too heavy. There would be no seventh victory for Dave Scott. It would be a history victory for Australian Greg Welch.
Here’s a short video of his run down Ali’i Drive and to victory.
This was a groundbreaking victory for Greg Welch. He became the first non-American man to with the IRONMAN World Championship. He beat one of the best ever at the race in the process. And he opened the door for every athlete from every nation around the globe to fully embrace their dream to be the champion of this great race.
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I am the Founder and CEO at Mark Allen Coaching. I am proud to have been voted in an ESPN global poll "The Greatest Endurance Athlete Of All Time." During my multi-sport career I won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship six time, the inaugural Triathlon World Championship at the Olympic Distance in Avignon, France, and at one point in my career I won 21 straight races across every derivation and distance. It was a great career, but that's all it would ever be unless I was able to share all of the experience and methodology we invented long before smart watches, power meters, and flashy uniforms. That's why I started Mark Allen Coaching, as a way to return to others at least the part of the gifts I received.