Tim DeBoom, the American triathlon legend, is one of four people selected to be inducted into the IRONMAN Hall of Fame in 2019. This year, two athletes and two contributors have been selected for the honor. With four podium finishes within a four year period, Tim DeBoom has certainly left his mark on the island of Kona. Between 1999 and 2002, Tim DeBoom dominated at IRONMAN Kona, taking the victory in 2001 and defending his title again in 2002. His inspirational victory in 2001 came just months after the devastating 9/11 attacks that shook our country, marking the last time an American athlete has won in Kona.
Tim joined us for an interview in Kona to share some of his favorite IRONMAN memories, how he got involved in the sport and what he’s up to now.
Who introduced you to the sport of triathlon?
I had a swim coach when I was growing up who had done some triathlons. I was a swimmer through and through. I ran on my own, and I probably was a better runner. Our swim coach used to make us do timed miles and things like that and I had really fast times, that would have won state championships in running, but I was like “I’m a swimmer not a runner.” I should have been a runner probably. I really didn’t think about doing it until I was in college. It wasn’t that big of a sport. I didn’t really know anything about Mark and Dave. I followed cycling more, I knew Greg Lemond, it was in 1989 and I was in college and following that kind of thing. I had a couple of friends who were older than me that were kind of into the sport and one guy in particular who was always an animal in training – a hardcore swim trainer, the kind of guy who if the lights were out he was in lifting weights and grunting in the dark. I always kind of admired that because I was a hard worker too. He had been trying for a long time to qualify for this IRONMAN thing, so I kind of got that wild hair and decided to try it. I did one triathlon and didn’t do another one for a year. It was my first Olympic distance triathlon and I got second place. I rode out of transition without a helmet. I had to ride back and get it, they didn’t immediately DQ you back then. I was two miles down the road and had to circle back for my helmet and I still ended up second place. I thought that was fun. A year later I thought I’d try to qualify for Kona. You could qualify at Olympic distance races back then, so I went to Memphis in May and won it. I qualified in my second race ever. I had one guy who introduced me to it, but other than that it was just me saying I wanted to do triathlon.
When and how did you first decide that you wanted to compete as a professional triathlete?
The first time you come over here and race, it kind of sucks you in. I did it and I hadn’t trained for it at all. I was in college and trying to study, I hadn’t even run 26 miles in a week when I did my first one over here and I’d never ridden 100 miles. My swim was the only thing I really had going for me, since I was coming out of a swimming career. I think I came out of the water in 6th and then got passed by 140 people, since I ended up in 145th place my first year here. It was fun to come out of the swim in 6th and watch all the pros come by me and all the big name racers. I came over here bymyself, no family, no friends – just “hey I’m going to Hawaii.” I figured out a way to pay for it, did the race, went back home and no one really took notice. My friends and family didn’t really know what it was about, but then suddenly it took hold. I said “I’m going to do a lot more triathlons.” I was racing a lot more short course at the time, I was doing really well at short course and I had won national titles and world titles as an age grouper and that’s when I decided that “hey I can maybe do this.” I was losing money by not racing pro as an age group. Back then they let you race against the pros, even as an age grouper. I’d get 3rd and 4th at some of these races and lose out on several thousands of dollars. I didn’t really have an intention of racing professional IRONMAN. I didn’t really know back then that I’d be good at it. I was good at the short stuff, but the long just seemed pretty daunting to get good at it.
What drew you into the sport? Was it the success that fueled you?
Coming from my swimming background, I was never the fastest. I didn’t have Olympic trials cuts, but I won when I needed to. I won the State Championships in the backstroke. I ended up being fairly quick in my triathlon races and I found a way to win at these big races. I think it was more in my own head just how hard I could push myself. When I first start doing IRONMAN, it was more about “Can I do this? Can I finish?” That’s what got me into the sport. That’s why I did my very first short triathlon, was to see if it was something I could finish. It was just wasn’t mainstream back then, IRONMAN just wasn’t very mainstream. It was still this epic event that you complete and could look back and say “wow you finished.” I think I ran a 3:45 marathon and I was embarrassed by that, even though it’s still a respectable time for a first-time, 21-year old kid that had never really run. That’s how it grabs hold, you think “I just want to get better; I want to see what I can do. I can train with all these guys.” Then putting it all together in a race and seeing how hard you can push yourself. My tendency was to hold back a little bit in these races, to make sure I could finish. I think once I got over that, I’d push the swim and could be the first out of the swim, once I learned I had to hammer the bike and my run legs would be there if I’ve trained right. That’s kind of when things changed, when I’d come off the bike first too. You had to go hard on the bike. It kind of went from there, the success kind of fuels itself from that point. There was no blue print to follow at that point, no coaches. I look at the guys today and they have so much knowledge, but IRONMAN today is still so different for every person. I coach some guys and my training experience to them, most of them can’t handle what I did. I just suffered through training. It was the same when I was a swimmer. My brother and I were in a swim lane together and if my coach put another guy in our lane they would end up in tears because we just went and went and went until we broke each other. That’s kind of how it went in triathlon training and then once you combine that kind od training with serious rest it equaled good performance. I actually think some of the training today holds people back too much. There’s too much science and you’ve got to be able to find those limits sometime in your training and go to that edge and come back to find your best performance.
What is your most memorable memory from IRONMAN Kona?
With the induction to the Hall of Fame I’ve had to start thinking back on my career a little bit. My first race here was in 1992 and my last race was 2010 and I remember them all. I have great memories and memories outside of Kona, like racing IRONMAN California head to head with my brother for 8 hours. My victories were the best memories for sure. I mean crossing the finish line first, in 2001 you are running down Ali’i drive with an American Flag and the crowds are chanting “USA, USA” you can’t really script that. That brings back a whole wave of emotions that obviously means it’s something special. Coming back and winning the next year was really special. People maybe through 2001 was really a fluke and you have athletes like Chris McCormick, people a little more brash than me and coming in having won everything, so the focus on him more than me and some others. To come over here as a returning Champion, do my business and leave again as a Champion that was really satisfying to me. It’s taken me a while but I’m really proud of that. Those races are obviously the big-time memories, and I know that’s why I’m sitting here and being inducted into the Hall of Fame. There are other races too, like the Norseman race. I’m the only non-European to win that race. I always like to say I’m the only guy who has won IRONMAN and Norseman, no one else has ever done that. The Norseman was the end of my career, but it was something I wanted to see if I could do. I came full circle back to another race of “can I do it?” and it was just such a great experience and such a fun event. It’s cool to see those kinds of events flourish. I’ve got a pretty good memory and there’s a lot in there that stirs a lot of good emotions.
What are your plans going forward? Does the sport of triathlon fit into that at all?
My competitive drive is not prominent these days. My daughter was born and I like to say I think I fired all my bullets when it comes to that. I’m really into pushing myself in the outdoors still, but in a non-competitive nature. It’s more of personal challenges, I find myself thinking “Can I do that?” but it’s all based on myself instead of competing with someone else. I’m into climbing mountain and ski mountaineering and that kind of thing. I think moving forward that’s more of where I am headed. I have no idea if my daughter will compete in triathlon. She comes over here and she says “I want to do an IRONMAN!” it’s one of those things that we’ll see how it goes. She obviously has loads of athletic ability so it’ll be fun to watch that. Otherwise I took a little bit of a break from triathlon, but I’m following triathlon again and some of the top guys again and some of the races. It’s fun to be a part of that and I still work with some of these companies. Coming over here again is starting to be refreshing rather than a chore. I would say racing is not in my future, but being a part of triathlon is.
We know you are into photography and you now spend time participating in other endurance sports. What has drawn you to that?
Photography has been great. Instead of just going out on my runs and rides with the intent of looking at what my work out is like, it’s more like “Hey this would make a great picture.” I now don’t have a problem to stop in the middle of a run to take a picture. I really enjoy the outdoors so much more than when I was racing because it’s not a job anymore. It’s my stress relief now, it’s my adventure. The photography has kind of just been a part of that. I just want to see if I can do it. I’m not a big social media person but I started an Instagram account years and years ago as it seemed like an easy way to keep a photo journal to see what I was doing that day. It just kind of progressed from there. I still take a picture every day or multiple pictures every day.
I’ve found myself getting into sports that are very endurance based. Actually, now I crave winter more than summer. I’m definitely more into the winter sports, skiing, backcountry skiing, ski mountaineering have all become the priority. That’s where my year is based around.
I love mountain biking where we are at up in the mountains. It’s just silly how good the riding is. I don’t ride on the road anymore ever. I honestly can’t remember the last road ride I did. I’ll ride gravel, but the cars have kind of scared me off. I can go out and ride three or four hours of single track on a mountain bike and not see anyone and that’s a pretty good day. I think I’m still an addict to exercise, so that’s still there. My wife would definitely say I’m not the same guy if I don’t get out and do something every day.