Lew Friedland: Ironman's game changer

Who is Lew Friedland? He's the guy who changed the face of our sport by adding races around the world an changing the way we got to watch Ironman racing.

| December 2, 2016 | PERSONALITY

Photo >Kevin Mackinnon

With files from Kelly Mione

There’s a very good chance that you don’t know who Lew Friedland is. You should, though. If it weren’t for this year’s inductee into the Ironman Hall of Fame, triathlon might not have been part of the 2000 Olympics, we wouldn’t have all the Ironman races we compete in around the world and Ironman wouldn’t have enjoyed the huge growth it did over the last 15 years.

In case you think I’m joking, think about this: When Lew Friedland became the president of the WTC (World Triathlon Corporation) in 1998, there were only two Ironman events in North America: the Ironman World Championship in Kona and Ironman Canada. The other Ironman events around the world? New Zealand. Australia. Japan. Germany. Lanzarote. Switzerland had just started.

Lew Friedland saw what the rest of the world didn’t: that there were thousands upon thousands of people who wanted to participate in an Ironman race. They just needed more chances to do that. He’d spent years watching the growth of marathon running around the world and realized that triathlon could enjoy similar growth given the right opportunities.

Friedland had been involved with Ironman since 1989, when his boss, Dr. James P. Gills bought the Ironman World Championship from Valerie Silk. As the president of Dr. Gills’ business companies, he negotiated the purchase of the Ironman Triathlon Brand and races and created the WTC. For the next 10 years he served as the vice-president of WTC and the Board of Directors Liaison. When he took over the helm in January, 1998, he shook up both the company and the sport.

Once he decided that there needed to be more Ironman races around the world, Friedland worked out deals with Graham Fraser (who would create Ironman North America), Graeme Hannen (who worked for IMG in Australia) and Triangle (the group who were in the process of starting up Ironman Austria) to start an ambitious expansion program around the world. Over the next few years North American Ironman races were started in Lake Placid, Florida, California, Wisconsin, Idaho and Arizona. Europe saw new races in France, UK and, in 2002, a new event in Frankfurt. Triangle also started Ironman South Africa. There were also events added in Korea and Malaysia.

The guy was busy. In addition to helping a bunch of licensees start up all those new races, he managed to negotiate an end to the long-running dispute between WTC and the ITU, which allowed the ITU to finalize its negotiations with the IOC around Sydney.

The changes kept coming. In 1999 Ironman did the first live updates from Kona, allowing fans from around the world to track athletes along the course. Ironmanlive.com was born and would become one of the sport’s premier websites.

There’s more:

Remember the good ol’ days when the Kona bike transition was down at the Kona Surf? Those days when it was pretty much impossible to really watch the world champs because it was so spread out? He changed the course so that spectators could see athletes up to five times by just staying in one spot. He hired Peter Henning to run Ironman’s television production – the NBC show won 11 Emmy awards during that time period.

Ever heard of Iron Girl? Friedland hired Judy Molnar to start up that program, too.

Hall of Fame Legends | Ironman Hall of Fame inductees Bob Babbitt, Mike Reilly, Lew Friedland and Peter Henning.

Ironman Hall of Fame inductees Bob Babbitt, Mike Reilly, Lew Friedland and Peter Henning.

Photo >Heidi Janzen

One of the first people Friedland met when he first went to Kona in 1989 was Bob Babbitt. That association ensured that the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which Babbitt co-founded, would always remain close to Friedland’s heart. He donated two Kona slots to the foundation to use as a fundraiser – over the years they raised millions of dollars through that program.

It was quite a ride. One Friedland looks back on very fondly:

“In 1989, I experienced my first Ironman event in Kona, which just happened to feature the incredible “Iron War” race between Dave Scott and Mark Allen. What an introduction. We finished our business deal with Hawaiian Triathlon Corporation in December 1989, creating our new company called the World Triathlon Corporation. During my 15 trips to Kona (every year from 1989 through 2003), I had the privilege to watch some of the greatest athletes in the world perform at the highest levels. My travels to observe events and discover new venues literally took me to the four corners of the earth, where I met so many great people and while searching for the perfect places to bring great athletes to race.  During my six-plus years as president of WTC, I flew more than 2.5 million miles and slept in hotel rooms over 200 nights a year. And it was worth every minute.”

So now do you understand why you really should know who Lew Friedland is? His induction into the Hall of Fame this year was well-deserved – he truly is a man who changed our sport.