Welcome home, Kauai’s Ironman

Ben Hoppe has trained with Joe Kali. He knows about the thousands of miles of biking, running and swimming. He’s seen Kali push through the pain and drive himself when most would call it a day.

Kali trains, Hoppe said, “like an animal.”

“He’s dedicated beyond belief. He has a fire in him that’s just fantastic to watch,” Hoppe said. “This is everything he loves to do, and you can tell.”

You could see it, too, on Saturday.

The 28-year-old from Kauai completed the 35th annual Ironman World Championship in Kona in 9 hours, 45 minutes and 47 seconds.

Friends, family and training partners came out to welcome him home, and offer congratulations, at the Lihue Airport Monday evening.

It’s believed he is the first Kauaian to finish an Ironman.

“We checked and checked almost all of the statistics we could find,” said Lisa Ledesma, of the Kauai Divas. “We couldn’t find anything even after we checked thoroughly. Joe is the first Kauai person to cross the finish line of the Ironman triathlon.”

Flanked by his wife, Ihilani, and support crew, Kali was met with enthusiastic cow bells and hoots from a small group of Kauai supporters led by Ledesma.

“He likes sweets, so we all made him a lei of doughnuts,” she said.

A smiling Kali was pleased with his race, and his welcome home party, too.

“To finish the race is one thing. To have a support group like I have right now, that’s something else,” he said.

“To have everybody let you know they think you did great, words can’t even explain it.”

For Kali, his performance capped what’s so far been an amazing year.

He was married earlier this year to Ihilani Laureta and he also completed the Ironman New Zealand in 10 hours and 8 minutes to qualify for the championship.

“I basically had one of the best races I’ve ever had,” he said. “I exceeded my expectations.”

Out of a field of around 2,000 of the world’s fittest athletes, Kali placed 443th overall, and 45th in the 25-29 age division.

He said he invested three years of training for the championship race, and when he finished, he had nothing left.

“I went in it heads down, thumbs up and to see what happened,” he said.

What happened was excellence.

He covered the 2.4-mile swim in 1:04:35, slightly faster than he expected.

He covered the 112-mile bike ride in 5:01:01, 45 minutes better than he thought.

He finished it off by completing the 26.2-mile run in 3:31:18.

Toward the end, a friend told him he had a shot a breaking 10 hours.

“Are you kidding me?” Kali thought.

When he finished, there were tears of joy.

“Just to know that you laid it down, just to execute a race like I did, I was very, very happy,” he said.

Hoppe followed Kali’s race as he became one of the first Hawaiians to finish the Ironman championship on Saturday.

“For the Island of Kauai to have somebody do that well, under 10 hours, that’s pretty cool,” he said.

Kali credited his wife Ihilani for her support.

“She literally pampered me before the race. She made sure everything was taken care of,” he said.

Friend and training partner Rocky Maniago was another who turned out for the airport celebration party.

He wasn’t surprised at how well Kali did.

“He trained hard for this one. He was really determined, he focused on it. Every bike ride, you could see him just go,” he said.

Kali believes he can improve. The toned 5-11, 162-pounder wants to be faster and stronger. He wants to qualify for the championship again.

Until then, expect to see him at local races when he’s not operating Blue Dolphin Charters in Port Allen.

“If we don’t support the local races, they’ll disappear,” he said.

Leave no doubt, he loves racing on Kauai.

“I believe testing of fitness is the only way you can actually become faster,” Kali said.

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