PROMISE FULFILLED: Miyahara competes in Ironman contest to honor late friend


Kelly Miyahara. photo by Nils Nilsen

Kelly Miyahara. photo by Nils Nilsen
Kelly Miyahara. photo by Nils Nilsen

Kelly Miyahara is no stranger to elite sporting events, having won one of seven spots in the Ironman World Championship that was held Oct. 12 in Kona, Hawai‘i through the Kona Inspired competition. Despite this, however, she doesn’t consider herself an “elite athlete.”

Miyahara was raised in San Ramon, Calif., and is a former Greater Seattle Japanese Community First Princess. She is currently a “Jeopardy!” Clue Crew member.

Miyahara swam 2.4 miles, cycled 112 miles and ran 26.2 miles in about 14 hours, all to honor her late friend Marisela Echeverria, who was killed in an accident while training one year prior to the 2013 championship, and on the day of the 2012 championship.

Miyahara set out to fulfill a promise that she at first jokingly made with Echeverria, to go to Kona together for the championship.

The following interview was edited for length.

Nichi Bei Weekly: How well did you place overall?
Kelly Miyahara: This particular race, I didn’t place very well at all, but that wasn’t why I was really there. This is a race is for elite athletes, it’s for the best of the best. I was not there to compete, per se, as one of the elite athletes. I would like to say I am, but I am not. I earned my spot through Kona Inspired which allows non-elite athletes a chance to compete. …

What an amazing experience. Not only just to compete in a race that I probably would not have had the chance to compete in amidst the world’s greatest athletes, but most importantly to do it in honor of my friend and to have so much incredible support with me from Team Mari. I think I had maybe 40-plus teammates, friends, family, whatnot to support me on race day, which was pretty darn incredible actually. Hands down we had the best cheer squad of anybody.

NBW: How long did it take for you to finish?
KM: I did it in just 14 hours. For me, honestly, that’s pretty good. I wasn’t there to try to do a personal best or anything like that, … it was just to enjoy the day and to be out there and appreciate every second. … It included many ups and downs, namely hugs and photos on the course. … So coming in at 14 hours I was actually pretty impressed and surprised. …

It was hard, mentally, to be out there alone, especially in the second half of the race. I’m a very strong swimmer, so when I came out of the water I was up there with the top athletes, but I can’t hold my own for the whole time. …

If anything it made me stronger because you have to really buckle down and use your mental strength to get through. Thinking of my friend Marisela and doing it for her and all the people who loved her, it made it easier.

Kelly Miyahara and Marisela Echeverria at the Half-Ironman, Vineman 70.3 in July of 2011. courtesy of Kelly Miyahara

NBW: Do you think you fulfilled your promise to Marisela?
KM: First and foremost my promise to Marisela back when she was still with us was that we’d go to Kona one day … The day of her death happened on the race day of Kona 2012. It was very ironic and impacted me very hard. … I couldn’t get it out of my head. I couldn’t get it out of my heart. It just felt like this is something I had to do to keep that promise I made to her, not only to go to Kona together but in addition, now knowing that she never would have the chance to finish the Ironman she trained so hard for. To cross the finish line in honor of her, to do that on her one-year anniversary of her passing, is pretty significant.

Being the one to … represent so many people who loved her and (were) touched by her story was truly an honor. My goal was to finish strong and enjoy every second I had out there. … Two of my closest teammates, and two of Marisela’s close friends were officially volunteering so they were the first two people to hug me and congratulate me and bring me across the finish line.

NBW: Did you feel something within you changed in crossing the finish line?
KM: Not necessarily to do with the race at all, but absolutely. When I saw the theme of the contest was “anything was possible,” it really resonated with me. … The day that I lost Marisela it struck in a whole different way that anything really is possible. You can lose someone you love in a split second and your life can change forever. So positive and negative, anything is possible.

I think the greatest lesson I draw from my experience is that out of something terrible and tragic, so much love and inspiration and friendship and overwhelming positive energy can come from that and that’s what this is all about. I was absolutely stunned and in awe of what Team Mari has accomplished.

We’re going on over $18,000 raised for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. …. We’re in the running to win a $10,000 match from the Ironman Foundation. … By the end of it we could be close to or over $30,000. …

Our whole mission was to honor our friend and to honor her memory, to keep her memory alive. I think we did so much more than that. I couldn’t be more honored and thrilled and amazed at it all.

NBW: Did you face any further challenges since our last interview?
KM: Always, you know my travel schedule for “Jeopardy!” can be a little bit demanding. … A lot of trips came up along the way so I did a lot of homework to find a pool or a park or a hotel with a gym. I kept my training going. I think that’s always been a challenge for me, balancing my life, my work, my job, my family and friends, even. …

On race day there was lot of little things that got me down or made me feel defeated. It started with the swim. I had a few jellyfish stings on my arm, which I remember them happening, … it was kind of one of those things you just brush off and keep going because it didn’t matter.

Then on mile 36 of the bike ride, I was in a pretty bad bike wreck. … I’ve got some battle wounds on me, I’ve gotten all scraped up, elbow, hip, knee, ankle, I was kind of a mess. I didn’t have time to look at it, it didn’t matter, I was OK enough to go.

The pain all settled in the next day (laughs). But again, I look at it as these are my battle wounds from the day, these were the challenges that really were nothing. It was kind of an honor to have. Now I look at them and I think of them as my reminders for my most incredible journey in my life.

They remind me of my friend too, you know, being out there. I know she’s with me and I thank her because I feel her little angel wings were what really protected me overall. Challenges or not, I kept on going and cross the finish line and feel pretty darn good.

NBW: Do you have any future plans for Ironman?
KM: At first I said I would never do an Ironman, then I said I would never do another one and then it became a medical thing. I’ve had three knee surgeries. I don’t have the majority of my meniscus in my right knee and it’s starting to wear into my cartilage.

I had a talk with my doctor and said, “listen there’s a slim chance this could happen, if it does, I want to do this.” He told me, he knew why. After hearing my story he couldn’t say no, but he warned me to be careful, … “If you wanna walk normally … you gotta knock it off.” So I told him I promise this would be my last Ironman. But this was different, it wasn’t about personal goals it was about inspiration, so any physical challenges that I met, I just tried to overcome. … Grateful to say, I made it all through in one piece. …

Luckily on race day, I felt pretty darn good. There was a couple times I felt it a little, little clicks or little catches here and there but nothing that stopped me, and I felt pretty good the next day too which was the real test. I’m very grateful for that.

I am going to also keep my promise to myself. … I’m going to limit my long distance running to a more moderate distance, running maybe three to six miles, 10Ks are probably OK. I already have friends trying to pressure me into doing an Ironman 70.3, which is a half Ironman.

(Laughs) I have not accepted anything, but I’m not gonna lie it’s really hard. … I do plan to do some more. I love swimming and that’s good for me. So I want to look into more of the water swimming races. I could maybe stick with that and do running more on the side. …

So I do what I can, I know I can’t do nothing. That’s just me. I’ve been told “you’ll never run again, you’ll never play sports again.” I’ve been told that and I proved it all wrong. I just want to continue, be smart, but at the same time continue to push myself.

I definitely plan to go back to Kona. I talked to some friends and we decided this is a place we want to be every year for the anniversary of our friend’s passing. That last time I was in Kona was with her and a bunch of our teammates and we did an Ironman 70.3, June of 2012. So returning there, without her, in honor of her, was a little bit intense, a little bit emotional. I think being able to be there every year now and volunteer, to be around Ironman without competing, would be just as rewarding and awesome.

NBW: It seems Team Mari is a lot of people. How many people is it?
KM: I couldn’t even tell you. It started out as something my teammates started after she passed. The IronTeam with Marisela was about 80 people and then she had been on countless seasons of teams to train with people. … She touched many lives through training. … All of us, all of our friends, our family — it spread from there. It was incredible. … It wasn’t just here in California … it was all over the world.

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