Lea-ding the way
Growing up in Park City, Rob Lea was a member of the Park City High School swim team and cross-country team and also enjoyed the many mountain biking trails the area has to offer.
With interests like Lea’s, it was only a matter of time before he put them all together and gave triathlons a try.
During his last couple years at PCHS and his years as a swimmer in college at UC Davis, he entered a few triathlons with some friends.
"I did a couple ‘tris’ through those years, but nothing too serious," he said.
Years later, he finally got serious about the sport.
"In fall of 2011 I did a couple tris and said, ‘Gosh, if I really put my mind to this maybe I can do well at it,’" he said. "So I finally got a coach and started training full-time as a second job basically."
It’s safe to say the 32-year-old caught on quickly. Last year, he won the Half Ironman world championship in Las Vegas, despite the scorching heat.
"The water we swam in was, like, 85 degrees," Lea said. "And the air temperature was 85 degrees (at the start of the race), so on the bike portion the temps were 85-95 and during the run, it topped out at 103."
Because the race started in waves, Lea had no idea how well he’d done.
"I thought I blew it," he said. "I had to stop on the run a couple times and I collapsed across the finish line."
After spending an hour and a half in the medical tent and receiving two IVs, he came outside to see how he’d finished.
"My mom said, ‘Well, we think you won,’" he said. "My attitude completely changed after that and all of a sudden I had a big smile across my face."
Lea thinks the key to his success is his swimming prowess. In high school he was the 3A state champion in the 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle events. In college, he earned Division II All-American honors.
"Most people tend to struggle with the swim or get nervous," he said. "That part, for me, is more like a warm-up. My goal is to use my swimming background to start off the race well."
He’s been training in Kona, Hawaii, preparing for his chance to defend his Half Ironman title in Las Vegas on Sept. 9. At a recent competition, he finished first in his 30-34 age group and second overall.
Because of his finish at last year’s Half Ironman championship, Lea earned the chance to compete in the full Ironman world championship in Kona on Oct. 12, but he said his main focus is retaining the Half Ironman title.
"I’ll be specifically training for that one more than the full Ironman," he said. "But I feel blessed and honored to be able to run (the full Ironman). It’s what got me into triathlons. I remember watching the Ironmans in the ’80s with the legends crossing the finish line and thinking, ‘Gosh, I want to try that.’"
He said he’s nervous for the longer race, but excited to be participating.
"I did one full Ironman when I was 19 and in college," he said. "It was an experience, but it was before I had fully trained for one. I almost don’t count it."
From his humble beginnings learning to swim at the Park City Racquet Club (now the PC MARC), up through the support Cole Sport now gives him for his races, Lea said his success really is a Park City community effort.
"They believed in me before I believed in me," he said.
Soon, Lea plans to take his talents to the next level.
"The goal is to compete at the professional level," he said. "But I want to get more experience before making that jump."
He plans on competing in a local event the Olympic-distance triathlon at the Jordanelle Reservoir on Aug. 17 this summer to prepare for the half Ironman world championship.
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