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In Kona, of His Own Accord -- Reigning Army Ironman champ defies odds and budget cuts

Army National Guard Captain Robert Killian won the military division of the Ironman World Championships in 2010 and has high hopes for the future. (Photo courtesy of Jim Gourley)

Army National Guard Captain Robert Killian won the military division of the Ironman World Championships in 2010 and has high hopes for the future. (Photo courtesy of Jim Gourley)

KONA, Hawaii -- As reported earlier this year, the US Army's office of sports programs announced that budget cuts would not permit the service to sponsor two athletes to compete in the military division of the Ironman World Championships. That news was especially disheartening in light of the fact that Army Captain Robert Killian won the title in 2010. For a time, it seemed that the other services would have a clear run at Ali'i drive with Killian out of the running.

Nuts to that. Killian is on the island.

One could say that it wasn't easy to get there, but for Robert Killian, his last three trips to Kona have all been according to Hannibal's edict while crossing the Alps--find a way or make one. Through deployments, competitors, training requirements and the recent budget news, he is a champion whose determination begins long before the swim start and whose energy carries him way beyond the finish line.

Killian's Army career began in 2004, he was assigned to the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division, in Fort Polk, Louisiana. After completing the grueling 62-day training of Ranger School in 2006 he deployed to combat in 2009 for a 12 month tour in Iraq with the 4BCT. Once back in the US, he wasted no time in competing athletically. He and a partner entered the Army's "Best Ranger" competition. The event is a non-stop, three day contest involving obstacle courses, long-range foot marches, 60-foot rope climbs, nighttime marksmanship, parachuting and tomahawk throwing. With only a few months of training for the competition, they still managed to place 23rd. From there, it was on to Ironman Coeur d'Alene. Killian qualified for Kona in his first Ironman. But despite that stunning achievement, he would not represent Army in 2009. "The Army had already selected its representative for that year's championship," he remembers. "So I had to prove myself if I wanted to run for Army in 2010." He did that, beating the Army-sponsored athlete by a few minutes. Killian remains graciously humble about that victory." To his credit, he had a bad day on the course. It could have gone the other way."

If Killian was lucky, it was the only time fate smiled on him. Despite his 2009 performance, the Army told him in 2010 that there was another contender for the service slot, and that he would have to run a 70.3 event in a fast enough time to prove he was worthy. With the selection deadline fast approaching, there was only one event that would work--Ironman 70.3 Boulder. Killian had to beat a time of 4:23.00, and he'd have to do it at altitude. Fortunately, he'd transitioned from the active duty Army to the National Guard by this point, and was living in Colorado. He wound up putting in one of the best races of his racing career and secured his slot to Kona. The rest, as they say, is history.

Killian hasn't slowed down for a moment since last year's victory. Maintaining a physically challenging Army career, he recently passed the selection process for the US Army's Special Forces. His trip to Kona is a short break from the Maneuver Officer Captain's Career Course at Fort Benning, Georgia. After completing that training, he'll await a start date for Special Forces Officer training.

That is, unless he makes the US Olympic Team. Last summer, Killian won the North American Summer Biathlon Championships. The event departs from the traditional winter sport format by replacing the cross country skiing with running. After Kona, Killian will start ski training to find out if he can make the US Olympic squad. And if biathlon isn't in the cards, there's always the marathon. He's already scheduled to travel to the US Olympic trials for that event this January.

Success breeds success, though, and his national-level competition earned Killian some well-timed recognition from National Guard sports authorities. When the Army was forced to make the hard decision to cut Ironman funding, the National Guard stepped up in a big way. "The National Guard has its own sports program separate from the active duty Army," Killian explains. "So as we were discussing possibilities about biathlon and marathon, I brought up the Kona issue. The National Guard officials were all for it. I'd already paid for my flight and hotel reservations out of my own pocket, so they recouped the expense." As a result, if Killian wins again this year, it will be in Army National Guard colors. Though guard and reserve athletes have represented their services at Kona before, they have always raced under the banner of the main branch. This is the first time that the National Guard or Reserve component has been the actual sponsor. So if Killian wins, it would technically be an unprecedented victory for the National Guard.

Killian doesn't discriminate, especially when it comes to his hopes about an Army sweep this year. He's elated to be joined by Sergeant First Class Tina Eakin, and he's enthusiastically forthcoming about their prospects. "Tina's an amazing long distance triathlete. She had to take off last year due to military training, but she can win, no question." Eakin has her own bona fides in military triathlon. She was the 2002 Armed Forces female athlete of the year, winning her age group at Ironman Australia and finishing 12th overall, as well as winning the military division in the World Championships in Kona that year. It's worth noting that Eakin was a Navy athlete at the time. Ironically, things have not gone her way since transferring to the Army in 2007. Soon after the switch, she broke her ankle so badly on her first jump during Army Airborne School that she thought her racing career was over. Having traveled the long road to recovery, she now faces another consequence of her fateful decision to change services. Because she is an active duty soldier, Eakin cannot avail herself of the same opportunity as Killian. She travels to Kona today, but although she goes to represent the Army, she'll pay all expenses on her own.

Note on the title: Sua Sponte, Latin for "of their own accord," is the motto of the United States Army Rangers. Originally formed during World War II, modern day Ranger units take on such dangerous missions that they only select their members from soldiers who volunteer.

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Jim Gourley graduated from the United States Air Force Academy with a degree in Astronautical Engineering. He served seven years in the Army as an infantry and intelligence officer in the 101st Airborne Division. An iron-distance triathlete, he writes on technological developments and military athletes in triathlon for LAVA.