Tuesday, October 5, 1999

athletes face wilder
hurdle: sharks

But state officials and triathlon
planners say precautions
are in place

By Gary T. Kubota


Anxiety is high in the moments before the start of the Ironman Triathlon World Championship.

You can see it on the competitors' faces as they bob in Kailua Bay or cling to the seawall prior to the 2.4-mile ocean swim.

The anxiety may be higher than usual this year, though, in the wake of a shark attack that occurred Friday about a mile from the swim course off Kailua-Kona.

Triathlete Michael Mullahey of Kona said the attack on a 16-year-old surfer hasn't deterred him. But the attack could give pause to those not accustomed to swimming in the ocean, let alone sharing their space with the creatures of the deep.

Ross Kimball, a manager at B&L Bike Shop, said there's been some concern about the shark attack and he expects some people from Europe or the Midwest might be uneasy.

But "most people understand it's a rare instance, not something that's a common occurrence," Kimball said.

State officials and race organizers say the attack on the teen off Old Kona Airport State Park was an unfortunate but isolated incident.

"There are sharks here. People see sharks, but they're never aggressive," said state conservation official Charles Nahale. "We've been monitoring the beach, and so far there have been no sightings."

Ironman director Sharron Ackles said she will be making a public statement about the shark attack and advising triathletes on ways to avoid shark encounters.

Ackles said triathlon officials will disseminate similar information at their booth on the Kailua-Kona pier.

Ironman competitors arrive in Kona early to acclimate to the heat, and every morning they congregate in the heart of town, stripping to swimsuits and donning goggles at the pier to swim the same course they'll tackle on race day, Oct. 23 this year.

As always, competitors are already swimming the course, which is outside the area closed after the shark attack, Ackles said.

Ackles said triathlon officials are advising participants to swim with a partner and to avoid swimming before dawn or at night when sharks are more likely to be feeding or breeding.

As in previous years, volunteers on kayaks are in the water in the event someone needs help of any kind, Ackles said.

Nahale said that prior to Friday's attack in Kona, the last shark encounter in West Hawaii took place about 10 years ago, when a shark bit a surfboard but did not injure the surfer.

A shark also bit a Big Island man in waters near Honolii Bridge in Hilo on July 21.

The teen injured in the attack Friday has been transferred to Queen's Hospital on Oahu. His parents scheduled a news conference for today.

State officials say that attack occurred in the evening, when sharks are known to feed in near-shore waters.

Ironman organizers say the swimming part of the race on Oct. 23 will start in daylight and continue for a little over two hours. A flotilla of vessels, inflatables and surfboards will accompany the swimmers, with many water safety volunteers to watch over them.

None of that matters to Mullahey. He's been waiting about three years to get in the Ironman, and this is his first shot at the race considered the world's premier triathlon. After the swim, there's a 112-mile bike ride, then a full marathon, 26.2 miles.

"I feel pretty lucky," said Mullahey, 27. "A lot of people throw their name in a lottery, but only 150 get picked."

The lottery competitors will be among about 1,500 total expected to participate in this year's Ironman.

Triathlete Lokelani McMichael of Kailua-Kona said she's seen sharks while swimming but doesn't think a shark would be attracted by the mob of people who will be swimming.

"If I was the shark, I'd be scared," she said.

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