Bree Wee has come a long way since the days when she couldn’t run to Lyman Beach and back from her Kailua-Kona apartment.
The 34-year-old could clinch a spot in the professional division of the Ironman World Championship this weekend with a victory in the Ironman Canada in Whistler, British Columbia.
Anything less than first place would put Wee in a precarious position. The top 28 females after this weekend’s races will qualify for the world championship, which will be held here on Oct. 11. She’s currently 44th in the Kona Points Ranking System. After this weekend, the remainder of the worldwide field of more than 300 professionals will be competing for the final seven spots, which will be determined by the points system as of Aug. 31.
If she doesn’t hit her goal on Sunday, Wee could enter another Ironman before the deadline, but that’s far from an ideal option.
“I’m trying really hard to not think about Plan B,” she said.
Instead, she’s trying to focus on what it would mean to get back to the world championship, where she burst onto the world stage in 2007 with a 13th-place finish that set the amateur record and earned her a professional card.
Her career since then has been a series of ups and downs – personally and professionally – that has included going through a divorce; competing in the world championship as a professional in 2009 and 2010 – the latter with broken ribs; and winning Ironman Louisville in 2012. She’s missed the past three world championships, and she got a bit emotional when talking about what qualifying for this year’s would mean to her.
“I don’t want to say it would mean everything to me, but it’s something very dear to my heart,” she said Tuesday, as she prepared to leave for Canada. “I think it would mean my life would come full circle. It just kind of means I’ve grown up.”
Wee started running in 2003 at the urging of her roommate at the time, who noticed the then-third-grade teacher at Kahakai Elementary School had begun putting on a few pounds. She decided to run to the beach and back, a four-mile trip that was a dismal failure.
“I was so exhausted,” Wee recalled. “The heat would get to me. I wasn’t that great of a runner.”
But she was determined. She kept at it and, eventually, the four miles was a breeze, as were longer distances. She ran the Kona Half Marathon in 2004. A year later she won that race and finished first in the Hawaii Half Ironman. Three years later, after her world championship success, she was ready to turn pro.
While she loves to get up and go for a run or a swim, she admits that being a professional triathlete – especially one in Hawaii – doesn’t make for an easy lifestyle. Finding sponsorship, the economic lifeblood for professional triathletes, can be difficult.
“I live in the middle of the ocean, so that puts me at a bit of a disadvantage,” she said, noting how difficult it is to travel to Ironman events on the mainland that others can access much easier. “A lot of sponsors aren’t thrilled to sponsor people that live in the middle of the ocean.”
She said that she’s been fortunate to have a local business – Bike Works – behind her as well as Zoot, which supplies her clothing and shoes. But she’s recently returned to substitute teaching to help with the expenses of qualifying, which requires professionals to compete in five races.
This year, she has participated in Ironman events in Mexico, New Zealand and Texas in addition to the Honu race. She finished fourth in both Ironman New Zealand and Ironman Texas. She believes those finishes have her in a good spot as she heads to British Columbia.
She does worry, however, that the Canada event is in a much cooler climate than she prefers.
“I don’t like a wetsuit, honestly,” she said before returning to a more positive mindset. “Everything we face in life is a matter of attitude. I’m just going to embrace the cold.”
Her son Kainoa, now 8, will be making the trip with her. It will be the eighth time he’s accompanied her to a race, and helps her realize what is most important in her life.
“Life isn’t so much a balancing act, but more about prioritizing,” she said. “I realize I race better when I keep my family first.”