The Vinfast Ironman 70.3 Championship gets underway on Aug. 26-27 in Lahti, Finland, and athletes from all over the globe will converge to take part in an epic long-distance triathlon that will see competitors cover a total of 70.3 miles. While some of the entrants will be limited by the terrain and elevation of the courses, others will also be fighting personal battles against physical and mental limitations. M&F wanted to find out what motivates those that are defying the odds, and soon learned that you can’t keep a passionate athlete down.
The Ironman 70.3 takes place on Aug. 26 for the women and August 27 for the men, consisting of a 1.2-mile (1.9km) swim, 56-mile (90km) bike ride and a 13.1-mile (21.1km) run. Here’s the lowdown on three inspiring and driven athletes who are putting it all on the line to complete this superhuman task.
Sam Holness is known to his legions of fans and supporters as “Super Sam.” He is often credited as the first openly autistic triathlete and views autism as his superpower. In 2023, he was awarded with a Guinness World Record for becoming the first openly autistic athlete to finish the Ironman World Championship.
Sam trains like any other elite competitor, swimming, running and cycling to become the best that he can be. His focus and “Never Give Up” outlook have made him a force to be reckoned with as a triathlete. He will be racing as an “Age-Grouper”, building up points based on his performance as compared with his peers in the same age bracket. Holness is also an ambassador for the Ironman Foundation. The Ironman Foundation engages athletes and volunteers to participate in programs that demonstrate service through sport and commitment to community. Last season, with the support of The Ironman Foundation ambassadors and athletes, it provided more than $2 million in charitable giveback, to more than 1,500 local, regional, national, and global nonprofit initiatives. Holness serves to show people that we all have untapped potential.
“My biggest sporting highlight to date was racing at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii in 2022,” says the London born triathlete. “Although that race was difficult, because of the humidity and I had gut issues, It was an amazing feeling to finish the race and to then learn that I was the first known person with autism to compete in this race. I then got a Guinness World record for my achievement.” Indeed, Holness’ most intense challenge isn’t the sporting or athletic aspect, but rather the digestion issues that thwart many people who suffer from autism. “So, it’s important that I get my nutrition perfect for the big day,” he says.
Fortunately, Holness has a great support system. “I have done a lot of training,” he adds. “I usually train up to 25 hours per week which includes four sessions each of swimming, bike, and running plus strength and conditioning and yoga every night before I go to bed. My Dad is my coach because he understands how to motivate me so that I can do my best. He is also my taxi driver, bike mechanic, manager and sometimes my chef! Mum helps with my wellbeing and does yoga with me too.” Crossing the finish line would mean everything to this 30-year-old. “Crossing the finishing line would represent one more step on my journey to become the first professional triathlete with autism,” shares Holness. “It would also help to show the world that people who have autism and are neurodiverse can be great athletes.”
Representing other athletes and hopefuls that suffer with autism drives Holness to the finish line in every race. “When I was young, many people told me that I wouldn’t achieve a lot, but my parents didn’t believe them,” he says. “My family have always given me a lot of encouragement and made sure that I have everything around me to be happy and successful. So, don’t let your disability stop you from doing sport, get out there and try a sport that you like!”
Ondřej ‘Ondra’ Zmeškal
Ondřej is a blind athlete from the Czech Republic. He lost his sight suddenly, aged 20, and has since used sports as a catalyst to live his best life. In 2016, Zmeškal completed the Great Wall Marathon, in China, and auctioned off his medal to help a young boy with muscular dystrophy.
In 2018, Zmeškal ran across the Czech Republic and raised more than 280,000 CZK ($12,550) for visually impaired child athletes. He also completed the Ultra Czech 515 Račice competition where he earned the title of World Champion in Para. In 2021, Zmeškal cycled the entire course of the Tour de France on a tandem bike with a guide and raised funds for visually impaired children. His next goal is to surpass himself and inspire others by crossing the finish line at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship.
Zmeškal will be racing as a para-athlete in the Physically Challenged / Intellectual Disability Open Division. “I am inspired by people who have achieved something in life,” says the trailblazer. “I like learning from them and following in their footsteps. My latest inspiration came from reading Arnold Schwarzenegger’s book. When I was a kid, I always dreamt of being a great athlete. Paradoxically, my handicap allowed me to return to sports again, and live my dream to the fullest.” For Zmeškal, the most ‘comfortable’ aspect of the race will be the running phase. “It was the first discipline that I tried after losing my sight,” he shares. “And, since I have the most experience in it, I feel comfortable. For example, I completed one of the most demanding marathons in the world on the Great Wall of China, climbing a total of 5,164 steps, none of which are the same height!”
Losing his sight meant that Zmeškal would have to train in ways that were safe while alone. “When I lost my sight, it was very important for me not to be so dependent on my family and friends,” he recalls. “That is why a cycling machine and a treadmill are the key accessories so that I can train by myself at any time.” Zmeškal has many motivations to push towards the finish line. “There are several things, he explains. “Whether it’s proving to all people, healthy or the disabled, that a handicap is no obstacle in my life, or helping blind children and making their life a little easier with sports. A lot of people are helping me, so I try to give back every way I can.”
Arturo “Athur” Yarasca
Arturo Yarasca, 38, is para-triathlon pioneer in his home country of Peru. During his time serving in the armed forces, an explosive device detonated, causing his upper right arm to be amputated. Incredibly, “Arthur’s” his swift and brave actions following the blast would save the lives of other patrol members around him. As an army veteran, Yarasca feels gratified to have contributed to his country’s national defense and the fight to eradicate the drug trafficking epidemic that plagues Peru. After a period of physical rehabilitation, Yarasca decided to continue serving his country in a new way, spreading the message of improvement and inclusion of people with disabilities in society through sport. He is now focussed set on the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Finland.
“I consider Rafael Nadal to be my sports hero,” says Yarasca. “I watched his matches when I was recovering from the amputation of my right upper limb. His attitude on the court immediately impacted me, along with his respect for his opponents, his mental strength to face the decisive moments of the game and the courage to go for every ball and never give up a point. The resilience he showed when the game went uphill, and his desire to be a better person and athlete every day truly inspired me. In his book, he mentions the adversities that he had to overcome in his early days in tennis. However, he had a very clear and defined objective, teaching us that with focus and determination, anyone can achieve their personal, sporting and professional goals.”
Yarasca is leaving nothing to chance when it comes to putting on the best possible performance at the Ironman 70.3. “I had the opportunity to review the cycling segment ahead of time and saw that there are sectors with unevenness,” he says. “So, I think that will bring a different degree of difficulty compared to other competitions.” Together with his coach, Yarasca has incorporated uneven terrain into his cycling practice to get as familiar as possible with riding on this type of environment. “I made changes to my diet when I started triathlon because I understood the importance of being light,” explains Yarasca. “Even more so in the middle distance. However, since I found out that I was selected to compete in the Ironman 70.3 World Championship, together with my nutritionist, we made some adjustments to the diet that I had been taking, including increasing my intake of vegetables and greens.”
For Yarasca, Ironman 70.3 is a legacy that he is pursuing not just for himself, but for the people of Peru. “As an athlete, it would mean leaving a legacy in triathlon and Peruvian sport and having paved the way for many more para-athletes to dare to dream big,” he says proudly. “As a husband and father, it would mean a reward for so many years of effort for a dream. What really motivates me is that my son sees, through my example, that with dedication, commitment, trust and teamwork, great goals can be achieved!”
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