ST. GEORGE, Utah — Skye Moench’s dream of competing at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, has been ripped from her grasp — twice.

Once by a traumatic bike crash and once by a virus that shut down the world.

And while she struggled with having her dream of racing in one of the most iconic sporting events in the world taken away again last year, she wasn’t alone. 

Even more than two years after those initial shutdowns, COVID-19 precautions and outbreaks have wreaked havoc on the event industry. From small 5K runs to world-class events, organizers have struggled to find ways to safely host participatory sporting events.

It’s one thing for professional sports leagues to isolate their players and host competitions in relatively safe environments, but it’s quite another for events like the Ironman World Championship, which brings thousands of athletes from all over the world to the island of Hawaii to compete. That’s much more complicated.

“I think like everybody in the world, you don’t know what just hit you,” said Diana Bertsch, vice president of world championship events for Ironman of the initial pandemic shutdowns. “We have all of these gifts, we have a lot in our world, and we move through life, and you sometimes take it for granted. So when something hits us like the pandemic, everybody, I think, had to take a pause.”

Event companies weren’t alone in the anxiety they felt about the future, especially as weeks of precaution turned into months of uncertainty. Communities that rely on tourism were particularly devastated by the shutdowns.

“So when the pandemic hit, the first two months were crisis, disaster, the sky is falling,” said Kevin Lewis, director of the Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office in St. George. “But then we retooled, shifted our messaging.”

If medical experts, which they and city leaders consulted with on a weekly basis throughout the pandemic, said people were safer outside and keeping their distance, that’s what they’d offer.

“We did a campaign called find your space,” Lewis said. “We tried to be very sensitive to the conditions. But our community leaders were pretty good about getting things opened up again, as quickly as felt good.”

For professional athletes like Moench, the pandemic was a mixed bag. It made sponsorships more challenging and complicated because so much is based on success in events, which were mostly canceled. 

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“COVID was quite the letdown,” she said. “I was so excited to get back to racing (after a 2019 bike accident) so when my first race was postponed, I was disappointed, but it was like, ‘Give it a month and we’ll be back to racing.’”

But as pools and gyms remained closed throughout the summer, Moench realized she wasn’t going back to racing any time soon. 

“So I started to focus on doing things I liked to do,” she said. “I kept up my training, but I also tried to enjoy things that I didn’t get to do when I was racing (on a regular basis) — house projects, spending time with my husband — just tried to stay positive. I thought, ‘When racing comes back, I’ll be ready.’”

The crash

Moench’s disappointment about those initial cancellations was compounded by an accident that could have ended her career. A few months after she qualified for her first Ironman World Championship, she was riding down Little Cottonwood Canyon with a training partner when she crashed her bike. She hit her head so hard, she doesn’t remember much about the accident. It left her with a broken collarbone, a shattered elbow and, on the opposite hand, a “blown-out thumb.”

“I couldn’t do anything for myself,” she said, noting that included showering, going to the bathroom, making food or even combing her hair. “Kona was off for me. … I was devastated not to make it to Kona. But the outpouring of love and support I got was unbelievable. I’ve never felt so much love and support from such a broad range of people in my life.”

She spent months working her way back to normal.

“There were so many little milestones in my recovery,” she said, “like being able to brush my own teeth.”

Soon those milestones became goals celebrated.

“As soon as I could, I went for a run,” she said. “As soon as I could straighten my elbow, I could swim. I was just extremely motivated.”

The crash had been particularly hard on her because she’d finally found enough success to earn a few critical sponsorships.

“I was on the rise and that was my breakthrough season,” Moench said. “It came crashing down, literally. … I wanted to quit. I had this great season, won a couple of races and I meant to race at Kona. Finally, I’ve made it and I thought I’d start to get sponsorships.”

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Marketing herself had been grueling. She became frustrated that she “wasn’t getting any traction” despite winning.

“I thought, ‘What’s the point of doing this if I’m winning a race and I can’t get sponsors?’” she said. “I had some days when I was really frustrated. It takes consistency and time. I was fairly new and performing well. I won some good races, but it takes time to prove yourself. It’s been quite difficult.”

In 2019, she won the Ironman European Championship and the Half Ironman in Boulder, Colorado. That season, she was on the podium after every race but one. Then, she crashed and had to work her way back, on the race course and with sponsors. 

She did so day by day, race by race. She looked forward to making that trip to Kona that she missed out on in 2019. And then, the pandemic shut down almost everything.

“Then, COVID took away all the races, and many of them haven’t come back,” she said. Racing has gotten more competitive, but there aren’t any more sponsors or races in which to prove oneself.

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“The entire sport of triathlon has gotten more competitive,” she said, noting that adding it to the Olympics caused an explosion in participation. “We want to grow the sport so it is a more viable career option for professionals, but it’s difficult to get sponsors. The sport needs more exposure.”

Pandemic takes toll on communities

It wasn’t just individuals struggling with the impact of the pandemic. Communities that depend on tourism looked like they might be devastated by the precautions or outbreaks.

Lewis said in those two months when everything was shut down, Washington County lost $1.5 million in transient room taxes. By the end of 2020, however, and largely because of this campaign, they’d made it all up.

“By the end of 2021, we were 70% higher (than 2019). … So we’ve been really successful. People came from all over. They were looking for places to get outside.”

Lewis said they did what most large participatory events did in those first few months of the pandemic, including the Boston Marathon, and postponed the events scheduled in the spring to the fall of 2020. 

“We postponed our Ironman race (a half Ironman event) ... to the fall,” Lewis said. “And we ended up just canceling that race, the marathon and the Senior Games.”

They were able to successfully host some youth sporting events, and that gave them a way to plan for the return of these larger events that drew participants from around the world.

“Because of the world dynamics, those larger events were more complicated,” Lewis said. “It was different, but we found a way out and had some pretty high hopes for going forward.”

The community had already been awarded the Ironman 70.3 World Championship event for 2021. Now the question was, could they host their regular springtime event and the World Championships in the same year?

“We started with our annual 70.3 race, and pulled that off successfully,” he said, noting it included more than 3,000 athletes. “Kind of a proof of concept, if you will. Coming out of a pandemic, it was proof you could do a big event like this.”

They had a myriad special protocols and safety measures, but it gave everyone confidence that they could successfully host the 70.3 Ironman World Championship in September.

“You cannot believe how many thank-yous we got,” Lewis said. “The athletes were so ecstatic about being able to do what they’re passionate about. … It was very rewarding to see it all come together.”

For Bertsch and her Ironman colleagues, the eve of those first few races was overwhelming.

“You’re nervous about doing everything right, and no matter if it’s during the pandemic or any other time, I think the thing that stresses you out the most is that you’re providing a safe environment for people to compete.”

She said seeing it come together was a joyful experience.

“I think the thing I really took home with me after that first race that I was at was the unbelievable joy at the finish line,” she said. “People are always happy when they get across the finish line, and it’s this great moment you’ve just had such a great success. … And maybe it is because of how you all felt during that (pandemic) time, but it was probably some of the most emotional times I’ve had at the finish line even watching because of the utter joy and emotion that you saw at the finish. … It was pretty amazing.”

Even as St. George was successfully hosting the 70.3 Ironman World Championship in September, there were discussions about whether the Ironman World Championship would need to be canceled or postponed, as Hawaii remained under significant COVID-19 restrictions.

“So 2020, we postponed to the beginning of 2021,” Bertsch said. “And then we had to cancel. We thought we were on track, just as we all did in the world, and then 24 hours later, you wake up to something new.”

But even as Ironman events happened around the world, the situation in Hawaii made Ironman officials begin to consider something they’d never done before — moving the World Championship somewhere new.

‘Aloha spirit’ meets the desert

At a reception for the 70.3 Half Ironman World Championship, Ironman executives began talking with state and local officials, as well as corporate sponsors about the realities. Someone suggested, “What if we were to move the event, put on the event but bring it to the Greater Zion and host it here. As crazy as the idea sounded, we didn’t want to have to cancel again.”

It will be the first time since the championships began in 1978 that they will be held outside of Hawaii. Athletes from 80 countries and around the U.S. will descend on St. George to participate in the historic event.

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Bertsch said athletes, including Utah’s own Moench, had qualified as far back as 2019, and they felt compelled to find a way to hold the World Championship.

“How do you continue to stay motivated, to chase that goal, because it happens once a year?” Bertsch said. “We wanted to be able to provide that opportunity of choice that you can compete in 2021.”

For athletes like Moench, she said, this is their livelihood. 

So officials offered athletes a couple of choices. They could compete in the World Championship, scheduled for this weekend, May 7, in St. George, or they could wait until the 2023 World Championship. Some opted not to race — either out of COVID-19 concerns or because they want to wait for the race to return to Kona. 

But around 3,400 athletes chose to race in St. George, where they will try to channel the ‘Aloha spirit’ with the red carpet welcome Greater Zion has become known for in event circles.

“I absolutely know people are going to love the opportunity to compete in St. George and in great Zion because they already know the 70.3 event,” Bertsch said. “People love the course, they love the experience, they love the community.”

And for Moench, she loves the fact that she’ll have essentially a hometown crowd at a world championship event.

“Until August we all thought we were going to Kona, and then COVID was rearing its head again,” she said. “I was really looking forward to racing in Kona; it would have been a first. … I just kind of realized Kona isn’t like the end all and be all. I certainly just want to race.”

She added, “I get a lot of support on the course because there are so many local people. I hear my name a lot. … I am just super grateful to be at the World Championship.”

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She said she hopes to put together a “race that I’m proud of, but you can’t control the result. … I’m just going to enjoy being at a hometown race, a World Championship.”

Moench said she’s especially grateful that if the event had to leave Kona for a year, she’s thrilled it came to her backyard. 

“I’m really glad it’s in St. George,” she said. “It’s important for the sport that we have a World Championship.”

Amy Donaldson is a contributor to the Deseret News.

Skye Moench on the podium after winning the Ironman Chattanooga in 2021. | Courtesy Skye Moench
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