It was a whirlwind weekend for Athy when Formula One sportsman Jenson Button took a fancy to the River Barrow and decided to take the plunge for TriAthy 2012. And what a splash he made.
A keen triathlete, the 2009 Formula One Champion, who stayed in Straffan’s K Club during his visit to the county, decided early last week to try out Ireland’s grand prix triathlon, TriAthy.
TriAthy has been running in the south Kildare town for seven years now and it attracts thousands of competitors and spectators alike. Athy has history with endurance men - Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton being a native of nearby Kilkea - and now it can add the 32-year-old McLaren driver to that list.
The sports star pre-registered in secret on Friday last with TriAthy organisers Arthur Lynch, Angela Lang and Karl McCann.
He tested the Barrow waters shortly after - which were a wee bit colder than Monaco climes - then went for a quick cycle and run. For a bit of food he visited the nearby Bay Tree restaurant and then sampled Irish wares in Andersons Pub. Onlookers were in awe, indeed the whole town was bubbling with excitement as word quickly spread about the British Formula One driver’s visit.
Then Saturday came, and in the Triathlon transition area the racing driver lined up with the 1,000 other athletes competing in the TriAthy Olympic Triathlon - no pressure! The gracious sportsman signed autographs and posed for photos, but he was always conscious of his race and stood waiting for his wave, as he was a competitor like everyone else. The Castlemitchell Church town pipe band lead Jenson out and with ease he completed the gruelling Olympic course, a 1.5km swim, 40km cycle and 10km run, coming 7th overall in his division.
Speaking from the podium in Emily Square, he thanked the organisers for a fantastic race and promised to be back next year. Then he was off, for the Bavaria City Racing in Dublin.
Speaking to the Leader, Arthur Lynch of TriAthy said: “We got approached by Jenson Button’s team early last week asking to take part. It was just great, nobody was expecting it.
“While everyone was getting ready for their own race, there was Jenson Button getting ready for his nearby. He was very good, he posed for photographs and signed autographs for people and was happy to do that, He was an ordinary competitor like everyone else and he was very quick. He thanked TriAthy and promised he would be back next year.”
Indeed, as is the nature of TriAthy all their competitors are superstars. Thousands took part in the TryAthy, Sprint, Olympic and Double Olympic races over the Saturday and Sunday. Locally Naas Triathlon Club and Athy Triathlon Club had a huge turnout with many scoring personal bests.
All competitors of the SixWeeksToTri programme, where the organisers set out a training schedule for people new to the sport, competed the race in good times.
These included local garda Sean O’Mahony and businesswoman Wendy Kavanagh. “They all did brilliant. They have become triathletes and they are over the moon,” said Mr Lynch, clearly as proud as punch.
TriAthy also hosted Limerick man Gary Kirwan, who has featured regularly on Today FM on his mission to lose weight. “Gary had huge support. He finished the Olympic race and loved it. It was great. He was 44 stone and has lost 13 stone over the past year. That’s very impressive.”
Many locals also took the plunge, including Kildare South TD Martin Heydon - we hear he’s scheduled for the Double Olympic next year.
All in all it was a pretty amazing weekend for Athy, with many people pinching themselves wondering if the charming Jenson Buttton was all but a dream.
“Something like this, a major sports superstar effectively endorsing our triathlon and promising he’ll be back again is a quite a big deal,” added Mr Lynch.
“He is highly regarded in his own sport and is a very popular triathlete competing in worldwide races. It puts TriAthy on the map and it’s great for Athy, for the local businesses and for our image, it gives the whole town a lift.”
He praised the competition’s sponsor Waterways Ireland and already the hardcore organising crew of Angela Lang, Arthur Lynch and Karl McCann are planning for June 2013. “Who knows, we might get [cyclist and triathlon enthusiast] Lance Armstrong next year too!”