When Bree Wee held the finish tape over her head after winning Ironman Louisville on Sunday, she had a look of ecstasy on her face and admitted later she didn’t want to let go of the moment. The adventurous Florida surfer girl who moved to the Big Island and took up triathlon had been chasing this dream for a long time – seven years since she took up the sport, five years since she placed 13th overall and set an overall amateur female record at Kona with her 9:47:40 finish, four years and several close-but-no-cigar finishes since she turned pro.
While her 2012 season with a 2nd at Rev3 Costa Rica, 4th at Ironman 70.3 Hawaii and 2nd at Ironman 70.3 Philippines underlined her talent, Wee is well known and beloved for her heartfelt blog which chronicles in passionate, loving detail her love of the Big Island people, places and traditions, her exuberant embrace of the sport of triathlon, and most especially a celebration of her happy life as a single mother with her 6-year-old son Kainoa – who was there at the finish line in Louisville to share the joy.
Slowtwitch: You said that not only were you unusually underprepared for Ironman Louisville but also you lost some sponsors this year. How were you emotionally before this race?
Bree Wee: Coming into the race I was the most happy I've been in months, maybe all year. The fading out of my support began last year, first with my manager who was my best friend in sport -- that hurt most of all. From there it was travel help and then financial help, and the list went on. By February, Kainoa and I were out of our home and I was trying to find work that still allowed training/racing time. I wasn’t ready to give up triathlon but I wasn’t willing to live in a tent at the beach either. At that point friends, family and my boyfriend stepped in and became my "sponsors" so I could make this year happen. The start line in Kentucky felt like a welcoming sight with opportunity rather than the usual pressure I face with material things to lose if the race unfolds sour.
ST: You had good races recently – 4th place at Honu 70.3 and 2nd to Caroline Steffen and ahead of Belinda Granger and Amanda Stevens at Philippines 70.3. How did they go?
Bree: Honu was a good race for a few reasons but I made a lot of mistakes as that was the start of having to coach myself. The 2nd at Philippines 70.3 was best described by Belinda Granger, who finished 3rd, as ‘The day you believed in yourself.’ I’ve always looked up to her and when she says something like that, it can move a person.
ST: You seem to really like Philippines 70.3.
Bree: I LOVE the Philippines, it is a favorite spot on Earth for sure! The people are unreal. It’s as if you make instant family when you step off the plane. The heat suits me, and I understand a lot of the poverty there as I've done several mission trips. It’s always a place that puts life back into perspective for me and leads me to look at everyone with love.
ST: When did your quest to win an Ironman begin?
Bree: I was 2nd at Ironman Japan in 2008, my first pro Ironman, and I’ll never forget it. After the race I was talking with Luke McKenzie and Amanda [his wife to be] and I told them I want to win one of these. Once I spoke those words, that dream opened up for me. They were very encouraging and told me it took Luke a lot of highs and lows to get there, but it happened because ne never gave up. That was also the race my husband and I first talked about getting a divorce. It was horrible, but having Kainoa in Japan was my strength.
ST: With your excellent performances this year, did it seem ironic that some sponsors were leaving?
Bree: The sponsors that I still hold are the ones I had from the start, like Splish swimwear. She was the first to write and congratulate me after the race, and she began giving me suits when I was an amateur. Swift Carbon as well, they write me "good luck" and "good job" after every race. They were also one of my first sponsors -- and I’ve been with Marc-Andre [Perron] for 4 years now. I think once sponsors become family, they ride the highs and lows with you. I’ve noticed others only like you when you’re high. But I get that now that I’m on my 4th pro season. Still to this day I am thankful for every company that I have ever been part of, they have all played a big role in where I am today.
ST: With so many good friends back home in Kailua-Kona, and many triathletes spending serious time there, how has that improved your game?
Bree: The good friends keep me humble and remind me there is more to life than triathlon. And all the athletes that come out to Hawaii to train always have me feeling like a kid in a candy store, I’m still star struck by a lot of them and amazed by many of their talents. Some have become good friends.
ST: A few years ago, what was your ace and what was the weakest link of your swim, bike and run?
Bree: A few years ago my bike was best and my swim was a nightmare. Coach Steve [Borowski] with Kona Aquatics has really helped with that swim mess I used to be.
ST: What have you done to improve?
Bree: I just try to swim with "swimmers," ride with "cyclists," and run with "runners" when possible. They are all a different breed than a triathlete, and that has helped the most.
ST: When was your son Kainoa born? Have you always raised him as a single mom? Tell us about the extended family and friends that help you raise him?
Bree: Kainoa was born in July of 2006, and by the end of 2008 I was on my own. His father is a great dad -- Kainoa is really blessed that he has both parents’ total support and love (and we live in the same town). As the saying goes, "It takes a [village] to raise a child" has never been more true in my life. My swim coach has let me bring Kainoa to the pool deck since he was a baby, and the high school girls would watch him. All my training partners understand my priority is my son so they never heckle me when I show up late or have to get out early.
ST: Can you talk a bit about the Hawaiian values of kokua and ohana living on the Big Island?
Bree: It’s all about respect and family. Both of those go a long way in this life, sport too. Off island, it has taught me to never judge the new people I meet at races and to celebrate differences. The respect has taught me a lot about my competitors and of course the challenge of a race itself.
ST: What part does your faith play in your sport and your life?
Bree: My faith has always been what moves me in everything and anything in life. I struggled with it a lot in high school [in Florida]. My parents sent me to a Christian college and it was there that I began to understand a bigger purpose in this life than to just spend all day at the beach. I never pressure Kainoa to believe in God, but he loves church, comes to Bible study, and has this huge heart where I'll catch him loading up food and asking me to take it to feed people. He understands there is a big picture to this life and already wants to go on a mission trip after seeing some of my photos. I support that for sure.
ST: You seem to have found a man who shares your values.
Bree: Oh I LOVE this question, good one Tim! Yes, I have the most amazing man in my life! Small town, so I've known him for a long while. But it wasn’t until last August (over school supply shopping in Target) that we realized just how good life could be shared. He's been a rock in my life. I’m quick for adventure, I guard my heart pretty well, and I dream big often, so having him more grounded, has been the best support system for me. He pushes me a lot and is equally as good at picking me up when I land on my face (a lot). He’s my best friend and cares about Kainoa in ways I always dreamed about a man doing. I love his boys too, and have found a beautiful balance in work and play in life from him. It's not always easy (having the blended family) but we have so much patience and understanding that it's making for a really beautiful love story.
ST: The race?
Louisville went exactly as all Ironmans go for me – a long day with a lot of moments to be brave, be strong, or break down. Thankfully, my heart was up for the challenge of being brave and strong all 140.6 miles because it literally was "raced" all the way as Jackie [Arendt] never gave up in her hunt for me. She really pushed the best out of me that day and I’m thankful to her for that. In 2010 I was 3rd, nearly 15 minutes slower than Sunday on the same course and what felt like a cooler day than this year’s sauna, so I know I was working to get the most out of me. It wasn’t until I looked back before grabbing the tape that I knew I won. What beautiful relief!
ST: What did [Ironman Louisville men’s winner] Patrick Evoe tell you before the race? And what did [defending men’s champion] Chris McDonald have to say?
Bree: Evoe and McDonald both had great things to say at the pro panel. From Evoe I took ‘eat and drink a lot the first and last 10 miles of the bike, that’s the flat parts of the race,’ and ‘Don’t be a first loop superhero - save for the second loop.’ Chris said he eats till he barfs, so I did that too. I credit both of those men a lot for my good race result.
ST: Did you have any fears or nerves before the race?
Bree: No fears, no nerves before the race. When you have nothing to lose those things don't play a part in your life.
ST: When you race, who helps you take care of Kainoa?
Bree: Every time I’ve raced Kentucky, my parents come and help. My sister helps a lot too. I mostly choose my races on the weekends when Kainoa is at his dad’s, then I don’t have to worry about a sitter and I don’t have to leave him. Those races are great - he doesn’t even know I’m gone he’s so busy having fun with his dad.
ST: What’s it like to go to a race with this bright, curious boy?
Bree: Kainoa is the most fun travel partner ever. He is so excited about everything at races, it really [reignites] that passion I had when I fell in love with triathlon.
ST: What did you know about your rivals before the race?
Bree: Jackie Arendt and I just met at the pro panel. She was spoken of very highly as a race favorite and last year’s runner up. And of course Nina [Kraft] -- never count her out. She has her days where she is on fire and you just can’t touch her. But this is Ironman. The day is so long that surprises happen and you can’t be sure ‘til the finish.
ST: How did the swim go?
Bree: I lacked long swim fitness so I could tell I was fading. Thankfully I found feet and just floated in that warm Ohio River. Believe it or not, I like swimming there – it’s not pretty like the Pacific but it’s entertaining what you find in there. And the current felt like a treadmill. We were not moving under the second bridge -- it felt like I was stuck in mud.
ST: You took the lead at Mile 15 of the bike. Have you ever led so early and for so long?
Bree: I’ve led four other Ironmans and two of them were about that early. But I always get nervous being up there, only recently (after my Belinda Granger pep talk in Philippines) am I learning to trust my training and have a little confidence.
ST: How did you feel coming off the bike in the lead?
Bree: I felt instantly awesome off the bike. It may have looked ugly, but I felt so excited to get the run going and a huge desire to hold my lead. I was definitely fueled by passion -- Kainoa and my mom were there, and with all the support that friends back home and in the crowd had lavished upon me, I could feel every one of them!
ST: Why were you a bit undertrained?
Bree: The Ironman was a last minute plan. I was actually looking to go to REV3 Ohio so I would have some time to train for an Ironman, but that plan never fell into place. When I chose Kentucky, I realized I needed a long run since I only had a couple 13 milers all season. I asked my friend Pablo what to do and he said ‘Run 17 miles, 13 in the morning and 4 at night.’ So I did that. It worked alright. I only had two weeks to prepare and did not want to show up to the start line trashed. I would have loved more run training, but this is my life -- one big adventure -- and it worked out.
ST: How close did Jackie Arendt get to you?
Bree: I thought Nina was running well and I know how good she runs in the heat. This is one of the most difficult runs I’ve ever done and the thought of her behind me had me running so brave. But I soon learned it was Jackie and that she was gaining on me and I knew she is a great runner. At one point I heard her friends cheering, ‘You got her, run steady, this is it!’ at mile 19. I started to cry because I was hurting so badly in my quads, they were like bricks. But Michelle Mitchell was running out there and said, ‘Bree, SHE IS STILL BEHIND YOU -- it will be worth it!’ Her words were priceless. Jackie was still behind, so I pretended it was the last mile and tried to sprint. After that I would just hold on for 6 more miles. It was one of those ‘Who wants it more?’ moments -- and I did.
ST: Where did you find the strength to hold her off?
Bree: I grew up a country girl on horses. I helped my dad bail hay and shovel poop all summer. Before the race we were on the phone and he told me, "Bree, country girls are grown the strongest, you remember that." I may be a beach girl now, but I was born in cowboy boots and a big hat. That part of me I've lost somewhere, but I found a little bit of her at mile 19 in Kentucky.
ST: You said you could tell you were being chased for the lead and learned someone came within 29 seconds. What thoughts inspired you to fight back so hard?
Bree: That run had me fighting so hard because it was the closest to a dream I’ve been in a very long time and I wanted to see that dream come true. I was too close to let it pass me by just because my legs hurt. And nobody from Hawaii ever won an Ironman -- my island deserved to have a win.
ST: When you hit the line and held the tape, the look on your face was sublime. What were you thinking?
Bree: To think about the tape still has me in tears. No words can explain it. Maybe it felt like a girl on her wedding day when she lands the man of her dreams and finally gets to kiss him. Maybe not that exciting, but it was unreal. I didn’t want to let go of the tape or give it back. I wanted to stand there and high-five and kiss every person at the finish line, to thank each of them for being there and making it my loudest, most exciting moment in sport since 2007 when I ran across the line at Ironman Kona with Kainoa. All the tears over the last two seasons finally faded.
ST: When you had a chance to pick up and hold Kainoa in your arms, did he realize what you had done?
Bree: Kainoa thinks anyone that gets a medal wins. So when we saw the last man at midnight, he said, ‘Look, another winner!’ I’m with him on that. Ironman makes a lot of winners!
ST: How sore and sick did you feel afterward?
Bree: I was so sore and sick at the end, my body literally dug till there was nothing left. Maybe not a Julie Moss dig, but it was the deepest I had dug in sport. I will remember Jackie forever as a huge part of the reason I won my first Ironman.
ST: I read you and your mother and Kainoa were in the hotel elevator after the race when an older woman asked Kainoa where he got that medal.
Bree: Yes, we were riding up the elevator and Kainoa was proudly wearing his medal when the woman asked if he had raced (joking of course). He said ‘No, my mom did and she won.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sure sweetie, that’s really cute,’ as if to say he was making it up. He is so humble though and just smiled while my mom and I were laughing so hard. I could feel how proud my mom was of me.
ST: Did you leave before the awards ceremony?
Bree: Our flight left at 11:15 and the awards were at 11:15. Beggars can’t be choosers. My dad paid for Kainoa’s flight and my friend Vicki paid for my flight with her miles, so we could not change both flights and get on the same flight home. I don’t mind not standing on the top spot giving a speech, but I was sad to not be able to publicly thank the race directors, the volunteers, and the girls who raced for making the race so wonderful. As pros it is our job to acknowledge the support we get and give back, I missed out on that.
ST: When you look back on the journey to this moment, what were among your toughest moments?
Bree: Still to this day my tuffest moment in life was my marriage and divorce. It really broke me down and put me in a dark ugly place. Through sport though, I’m learning all kinds of beautiful lessons that are always building back up my confidence, my perseverance, and knowing it’s okay to dream again and again until we land the finish line we want most in life.
ST: Where is the medal?
Bree: Kainoa is the medal owner. He has them all. You can't take them to heaven so I don't hold any of them too tightly. But he has a lot of pride in them so he can be the medal keeper and enjoy them all he wants.
ST: What did your friends on the Big Island say to you when you got back?
Bree: When we arrived the airport was turned into a giant finish line!! Most all our friends from the island were there. Forty people came in two shifts to greet us! It was nothing short of amazing, it still has me smiling to see all their faces. It really was a win for all of us.
ST: What does it all mean?
Bree: That you just have to keep believing in the beauty of a dream.