Sean Kelly will be among the 2,600 athletes at the inaugural Ironman Ohio 70.3 triathlon in Delaware this weekend, bringing his “slightly complicated” background to Sunday’s race, he said.
The Lewis Center resident, 36, will compete in the 30th such event of its kind in the United States, and the first in Ohio, consisting of a 1.2-mile swim in Delaware Lake; a 56-mile bike ride through three counties; and a 13.1-mile run that starts and finishes at Selby Stadium in Delaware.
Kelly has trained to become a top triathlete for the past three years, overcoming his childhood fears and frustrations. Born in England to Irish parents, his aspiration to become a triathlete was rooted in a traumatic experience.
“I nearly drowned in an accident when I was 6 years old, my dad saved my life,” he said in an email. “I’d spent my whole life scared of water, did everything I could to avoid it – I didn’t even stick my head under in a swimming pool again until I was 21. I would always try and get out of swim classes at school. It was like ritual humiliation.”
Before his mother died in 2006, Kelly said he told her would love to compete in triathlons because he couldn’t swim or ride a bicycle well and hated running.
“After attending the 2012 Olympics in London, I decided to try and pursue it,” he said.
Kelly spent the first five months of 2013 in the shallow end of a pool (wearing “floaties”) with a coach, while trying to swim one width.
“Small children and [retirees] were swimming past me like it was nothing,” he said. “It feels bad enough when you’re a child, but when you’re 32, you feel completely inadequate.”
He finally could swim a width of a pool at the end of May 2013 before moving into open water, a terrifying moment for Kelly since his drowning incident. Seven weeks later, he completed a triathlon in London and four months later his first Ironman in Cozumel, Mexico, followed by a California marathon, a week later.
“It was only after it was all finished that my coach told me that when we had started in January, she thought there was no hope of getting me ready in time,” he said. “Apparently she didn’t want to discourage me.”
Kelly completed another Ironman in Cozumel in 2014 and has raced in the United States, Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom.
“I’ve discussed doing five Ironmans on five continents in one year, but that takes up quite a lot of time and effort, so I haven’t done it yet,” he said.
Instead, he committed to doing three triathlons in three countries on three straight weekends, while the Olympics take place in Rio de Janeiro. Kelly competed in the London Triathlon in England with the bicycle portion going past the London Eye Ferris wheel and the Big Ben (officially the Elizabeth Tower). But he had to withdraw from the Ironman 70.3 in Ireland because he suffered a cold shock in the Irish Sea, which was 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
“I’ve never trained in anything close to that. As much as I wanted to complete all three races this month, you have to overrule your ego when it comes to safety. I’ve nearly drowned once, and I have to respect the water,” Kelly said.
The city of Delaware announced in October that it would host an Ironman competition this weekend. The event is expected to bring a $2.5 million economic impact to the county.
“The Ironman 70.3 is a good fit for the Ohio region, an area that we thought was underserved in terms of athlete development for our Ironman events already present in Madison, Wisconsin, and Louisville, Kentucky,” said Ken Hammond, race director of World Triathlon Corp., of whom put on the Ironman events.
Kelly, who moved to the United States in 2007, relocated from San Diego to the Delaware area, because his girlfriend is from Westerville with her ballet career based there as well. With the race site close to home, Kelly said he’s scouted the race route already and has raised $2,500 for Save The Children charity in the process. After the Ohio race, he plans to do more training for the Columbus marathon on Oct. 16 and an Ironman in Arizona, which is 140.6 miles total — two times greater in length than the Ironman in Delaware.
Kelly said the goal is simply to finish in the Delaware race with no target times, but he considers the race basic training for Arizona.
“This is going to be a quite different challenge to London and Dublin. London was Olympic distance, which if you’re doing Ironman distances is something you can rattle off in training easily, and Dublin was extremely cold water,” he said. “Delaware is going to be really tough with high ambient temperature and humidity. The swim in Delaware State Park should be really nice, and it will be very cool to finish the run on the athletics track in Selby Stadium with my girlfriend and her family there.”
“Although I might be reduced to a walk by then,” he added.
Brandon Klein can be reached at 740-413-0904 or on Twitter at @brandoneklein.