By Rani Henderson - West Hawaii Today
From within the crowd of spectators, many dreams are born, resolutions proclaimed, and lives changed — all while watching the inspirational accomplishments that unfold at triathlon’s most famous finish line in Kona.
Fifteen years ago, one of those spectators happened to be a shy 6-year-old girl.
It was the 2001 Hawaii IRONMAN World Championships and that little girl was Mercedes DeCarli, who held her dad’s hand as they walked down Alii Drive.
“I remember watching everyone finish,” DeCarli said. “It was the first time my family watched IRONMAN and my mom said that at the finish line, I just looked at my dad and said that I was going to do it someday.”
That year, the October IRONMAN World Championships was a day filled with pride and patriotism as competitors raced in the aftermath of tragic events that occurred on Sept. 11.
The IRONMAN motto “anything is possible” resonated amidst thousands who proudly wore red, white, and blue while ferociously waving their U.S. flags for American Tim DeBoom, who put an exclamation point for his country at the finish line by winning his first IRONMAN World Championship crown.
DeCarli watched in complete awe as one by one, athletes from around the world fulfilled their IRONMAN dreams. She never forgot that day.
“It was the determination that I saw in everyone and even those people who were hurting were still walking toward the finish line because they didn’t want to give up,” she said. “That was something that I knew I wanted to work towards.”
As DeCarli grew older and entered Makua Lani Christian Academy, she played soccer, dabbled in a little tennis and ran cross-country. DeCarli admits to dropping out from the cross-county team during her freshman and sophomore years as she didn’t want to be the slowest person on the team, but stuck it out throughout her junior and senior years.
“I finally sucked it up and learned that I am not a short distance runner,” the 21-year old said. “It was a good experience, but I think my background in soccer really helped because I had the drive to be conditioned for two hours.”
DeCarli then began cycling and was able to attend practices with the Waverider Triathlon Club as her sister, Lexi, attended Kealakehe High School and was also on the team. With running and cycling under her belt, the only sport left was learning how to swim.
“I wasn’t a strong swimmer so one of the things that held me back when I first started triathlon was I needed to teach myself how to breathe while swimming,” she said. “So my sister and I started going to the pool and we eventually taught ourselves how to swim. We knew how to swim but we didn’t know how to swim competitively.”
As she became more proficient in the swim, bike, and run – while also adding weightlifting to her workout regimen — DeCarli gained more self-confidence in her abilities, and began to emerge from being a shy little girl to an outgoing triathlete.
Competing in the monthly Peaman Biathlon events that offered free swim-runs gave her a taste of local competition before entering her first triathlons in 2013 – Lavaman Waikoloa Olympic Distance Triathlon and IRONMAN 70.3 Hawaii.
It was also the year DeCarli graduated from Makua Lani Christian Academy and got accepted into Colorado State University to major in journalism. Thus, it put her dreams of getting a slot at the IRONMAN World Championships on hold for just a little longer.
“I know when my dad and Dan (Gampon) got into IRONMAN in 2013, I’m pretty sure that I cried because my parents did not let me put my name in the lottery because I was going to college,” DeCarli said. “Then they didn’t let me put my name in the following year either for the same reason. In 2015 I put my name in but didn’t get it.”
While at CSU, DeCarli kept active by joining the CSU Triathlon Team working out seven days a week and sometimes twice per day. DeCarli said that having a consistent schedule and other people constantly pushing her helped to make her a better triathlete.
The most dramatic improvement came in her in swim times – going from barely knowing how to swim a few years ago to now beating her dad Michael, an accomplished triathlete, in just about every swim race. And beating her dad out of the water, DeCarli says with a smile, is something she is proud of.
“The team has really helped me,” DeCarli said. “It’s great to get your butt kicked by tons of college kids. We do four races a year, two in the fall and two in the spring, Olympic Distance. College Nationals is crazy. There are 2000 athletes and I don’t even come close to their times. But I have seen my Olympic times improve and I think it is part of the whole competitiveness and just having 30 other girls to compete against to be part of the top seven on the team.”
And now, it’s finally DeCarli’s turn to fulfill her childhood dream.
After receiving a slot to compete in her hometown race from May’s Big Island IRONMAN World Championship drawing, DeCarli decided to take a semester off from college to focus on training and her two part-time jobs that range from 20 to 40 hours per week.
“I think I could’ve pulled it off, but I didn’t want it to come down to the point where I wasn’t enjoying anything anymore,” she said. “Right now I have two jobs and I need to work, and I need to train, so school would’ve just been pushed to the side and I wouldn’t have been able to put forth my best effort. So I made the decision to push it back a semester. School will always be there, but I won’t always have the opportunity to do IRONMAN.”
Some of her hardest training weeks on her schedule include riding over 200 miles on her bike, running near 50 miles, and swimming three times per week. DeCarli says her greatest challenge is to keep herself motivated since she typically trains by herself, and credits her family for their support.
“My dad will run with me to the pier, then Dan (DeCarli’s boyfriend) and my sister will either bike next to me or follow me with their car,” she said. “It’s all about team work. Dan wakes me up in the morning because I sleep through the morning and I can’t wake up. My mom handles my nutrition and recovery.”
DeCarli says she feels grateful to have the opportunity to race in her hometown on Oct. 8 — swimming 2.4-miles in Kailua Bay, riding 112-miles on her bike along the famed Queen Kaahumanu Highway toward Hawi, and having a 26.2-mile run course on Alii Drive that passes near her house.
“I think it’s really special to be able to look back and say that I had this dream since I was six and now 15 years later, I’m going at it. Even though it’s hard you can push through it and it’s amazing what you can put your body through if you just let yourself. I learned that I’m a lot stronger than I think. I really just want to finish and have fun. So the main goal for this one is to have fun and enjoy every step because there’s so much that has gone into it and so many people that have helped me that I don’t want to let them down either.”