Thirty-six years ago, surprise front-runner Julie Moss collapsed just 15 feet shy of the finish line at the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.
But in one of the most famous moments in televised sports history, the 23-year-old fledgling triathlete used her hands to drag her body across the line.
ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” cameras captured her final moments in the race. First came a series of painful falls, then a total loss of bowel control and finally her then-rival Kathleen McCartney crosses the finish line in the gathering darkness, not even aware she’d passed the crawling Moss until the winner’s medal was placed around her neck.
The experience forever changed Moss, now 59 and a resident of Cardiff by the Sea. Not only did it make her the world’s most famous triathlete, it also profoundly changed her awareness of her capabilities.
“Something broke open inside of me at that moment,” Moss said in a recent interview. “I was brokenhearted when I realized I wasn’t going to win because I thought winning was the mecca. It only took me two heartbeats to say, ‘there’s more to this.’
“I let my head drop and surrendered to the disappointment and the pain,” she said. “Then that inner voice said, ‘just crawl!’ That forward movement showed me the meaning of being victorious. It wasn’t about beating someone, it was about finishing.”
Moss recounts that race and her life and career in the years since in “Crawl of Fame,” a memoir that hit bookstores on Oct. 2. Co-written by veteran author and longtime friend Robert Yehling for Pegasus Books, the 333-page book arrives at a momentous time in Moss’s life.
On Oct. 8, she will board a plane to Kona to compete for the 12th and final time in the Ironman World Championship. She isn’t expecting to set any records or even win her age group at the Oct. 13 race. She’s simply approaching it with the same naive, indomitable spirit she had the first time around.
“When you have a goal, you wake up with a little more purpose,” she said. “It makes me feel a little more alive every day.”
Moss jokes that she literally fell into her career as a triathlete. She discovered Ironman while watching the 1981 race recap on “Wide World of Sports” and was inspired to try it herself, even though she’d never run a triathlon or marathon.
Back then, Ironman was virtually unknown except to the world’s most extreme endurance athletes. Launched in 1978 in Oahu, it first attracted only a couple hundred competitors, mostly men, for the grueling, one-day test of a 2.4-mile rough-water swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a full 26.2-mile marathon.
At the time, Moss was a kinesiology student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and she entered the race as her senior research project. All she needed to earn her diploma was to finish the race. Instead, she shot to fame in a way ABC sportscaster Jim McKay called “the most agonizing moment I’ve ever seen in sports.”
The TV episode was viewed by more than 20 million people and it transformed the sport of triathlon virtually overnight. In 1982, 60,000 people entered about 400 triathlons worldwide. That grew to 250,000 people in 100 triathlons in 1983 and 1.1 million people in 2,100 triathlons by 1985, according to Triathlon Magazine.
In “Crawl of Fame,” Ironman Hall of Famer Scott Tinley — who was the male champion of the 1982 race — said that if Moss had simply beaten the favored McCartney, it would’ve been a small news story about a rookie upset. But because of her “agony of defeat” moment, Tinley said public interest in triathlons exploded, dramatically accelerating the sport’s growth rate.
After that race, Moss raced professionally until 1990, then took a 10-year break to support the career of her now-ex-husband, six-time Ironman World champion Mark Allen, and raise their son, Mats. She returned to racing in 2000 and was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2013.
Moss said she still cringes at the self-important interviews she gave in her mid-20s as she tried to disguise her inexperience as a triathlete. In the book, she documents those struggles, as well as the ups and downs in her personal life and health. Facing difficult obstacles isn’t easy, she said, but her philosophy is to “lean in” and tackle the things she fears most.
“Part of me is comfortable being uncomfortable,” she said. “It’s been that way my whole life. I was the girl with the red hair and freckles who got teased, and I was the surfer girl who wasn’t welcome in the water.”
Moss grew up in Carlsbad, the unwanted daughter of a father who abandoned his family when she was 8. She was a self-described risk-taker and “smart-aleck” whose childhood idols were the spunky literary heroines Pippi Lockstocking and Scout Finch.
She started surfing in her teens, and at Carlsbad High she gravitated to team sports. One of her classmates and fellow athletes was Yehling, an award-winning author she approached a couple of years ago for help with her memoir.
In the book, Moss details her pattern of subjugating her needs in bad relationships with men, which she connects to a desire to please her absentee dad. Her long relationship with Allen ended unhappily but they will share the experience Oct. 13 when their 24-year-old son runs his first Ironman in Kona while his mom runs her last.
Over the years, Moss has made her living as a lifeguard, a triathlete coach, a broadcast announcer and as an ambassador of the sport, most recently for the athletic shoemaker Hoka One One. She has also done motivational speaking tours with McCartney, the La Jolla resident who she once saw as a rival and now considers a close friend.
The book includes chapters devoted to McCartney, as well as her son and ex-husband. She said the writing process was cathartic and feedback has been positive. Many readers have commented on the book’s raw honesty about her personal failings.
“People talk about how transparent I was. That’s great to hear,” she said. “The more vulnerable you are, the more people can get to know you.”
Moss and Yehling are hosting a free public book-launch party from 6 to 8 p.m. on Oct. 3 at the Wildwood Crossing Restaurant at 116 Civic Center Drive in Vista. Moss will sign copies of her book and the 1982 “Wide World of Sports” video will be screened.
Moss will turn 60 on Oct. 15. Her future plans involve promoting the book, doing more triathlons and half-Ironmans, hiking the Pacific Coast Trail and hopefully do some more public speaking.
“My message to people is to find something that speaks to you,” she said. “If it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, think bigger. Really big dreams can change your life.”
-- Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune.