Triathlon Magazine Canada
AS FRUSTRATED AS some people are with Ironman of late – the company sold for hundreds of millions of dollars last year, but has refused to offer refunds for the events it cancelled, sorry, “postponed” in 2020 – it’s hard to imagine anyone who won’t be impressed by what the folks who put on the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, have been doing since last July.
The people who play such a critical part in making the Ironman race in Kona happen every year – the volunteers – have been hammered by the COVID-19 pandemic, as tourism shut down, forcing hotels and restaurants to close. To help them, Diana Bertsch, Ironman’s senior vice president in charge of world championship events, and the rest of her team based on Kona decided to start a program called Kahiau Together.
Kahiau is a Hawaiian word that means “give generously or lavishly from the heart while not expecting anything in return.” (Efficient language, Hawaiian – that’s a lot of meaning in one word.) I’ve known Bertsch for many years, and knew full well there was no point calling her about the program. All she’d tell me is how “the team” did a great job. So I called up Mahea Akau, the Kona event director, to find out more about the program.
“You know Diana, she’s not going to stand idly by and watch the community suffer,” Akau told me. “We saw and felt the impact the pandemic had on the Kona community. It was clear to us that we had a responsibility to give back to a community that, for over 30 years, has embraced and supported Ironman.”
“Diana, being Diana, envisioned this aid station-like atmosphere,” Akau continued. “We were turning the tables – we’d be the volunteers giving back to the community. So we took that vision and created a safe drive-through experience, so people could come by and pick up their bundles.”
They pull out all the stops, too, branding the “aid station” with Ironman and Kahiau Together banners and playing music. “There’s amazing energy that’s infectious,” Akau said. “We look forward to the event as much as we look forward to giving.”
The Ironman Foundation has donated US$1 million to the project. They’ve partnered with other local groups who have been helping the community, too, including Pa¯’ina by Ocean. Started a year ago by 14-year-old Ocean Kanekoa and his father, Jayson, the executive chef at the Waikaloa Marriot, Pa¯’ina by Ocean has not only been helping farmers and ranchers who have also been devastated by the pandemic, but also the local community. Ocean Kanekoa can’t believe just how much of a difference the program has made in the community.
“It blew my mind,” he said when I caught up with him just before it was time to head off to school – he’s in Grade 9. “I thought maybe we could do 16 boxes [bundles of food], and I’d be happy. I never thought that we would get to 600.”
That’s only at one time. In the 14 “aid station” events since July the program has served over 35,000 meals to members of the community. And it won’t be stopping any time soon – there are events planned each month for the rest of the year, and the program is also helping local non-profit organizations with grants to help supply food banks.
One of the Kahiau events will take place during race week for this year’s Ironman World Championship. I sure hope I’m able to be there to see it all in action, catch up with the folks from the Ironman office in Kona and meet Ocean Kanekoa and his dad. Hopefully there will be a lot more feel-good stories like these as we continue into 2021.