World Triathlon Paths to Paris: Manami Iijima

by Ben Eastman on 29 Jun, 2024 11:05 • Español
World Triathlon Paths to Paris: Manami Iijima

It is fair to say that Manami Iijima (GUM) is a little overwhelmed. Having secured her Olympic berth in triathlon, all of a sudden there are plenty of eyes on her. For example, shortly before speaking to World Triathlon as part of the Paths to Paris series, she held an interview with ABC Pacific. When you make sporting history, though, attention tends to follow.

After a set of impressive performances over the past year, Iijima became the first triathlete from Guam to qualify for the Olympics. Moreover, she is the first woman to have claimed the Oceania New Flag slot, ensuring that she has made triathlon history in multiple ways.

“It’s kind of crazy,” conceded Iijima. “I wasn’t thinking about it that way until I actually qualified and then everyone was like ‘you know you’re the first triathlete from the Pacific Islands’ and that was cool.”

Throw in the fact that Guam has sent a total of 35 athletes across all sports to the Olympics this century and the scale of her achievement becomes clear.

“I’m currently just trying to focus on training and stay grounded,” said Iijima. Hers, though, is the story of what happens when hard work, talent and vibes are thrown together in a potent cocktail.

The first steps

Iijima got into triathlon in 2017 after first dabbling with the 70.3 distance. “My friends were going to a race in the Philippines and asked if I wanted to come,” she explained. “I just signed up not knowing what the level was. I just signed up because my friends were going.”

A little over half a dozen years later, Iijima has evolved from signing up for a first triathlon on a self-described whim into an Olympic qualifier. It was not until 2022, though, that she took her first steps in short distance triathlon.

“We have our Pacific Mini Games and, because of the pandemic, that year was big amongst the Pacific Islands because we hadn’t had a race and other events were being cancelled. I was the top athlete on Guam for triathlon so I thought I would do it and see how it went.”

You guessed it already: Iijima won the race. Her success at the Pacific Mini Games stoked her interest in short course racing. Perhaps as significantly, it prompted the Guam National Olympic Committee to give her a small budget to tackle further races and see how she went.

“It didn’t go really well for my first couple of races after that!” laughed Iijima. “But then it got better slowly.”

“I was more into the 70.3s and I hadn’t really raced on a road bike before. Most of the racing locally was using the TT bike. But I did my first race in Colombia and I had a lot of fun with the drafting and different dynamics. It was pretty short so you’re not sore for a week after!”

Project Paris

After taking her first steps in short distance racing, qualifying for Paris popped up as a possible, if vague, prospect. Iijima spoke with her national federation and NOC and made the decision to pursue the New Flag slot.

“I kind of had no idea what it was at the beginning and was just trying to race wherever I could get into.”

A 5th place at an Asia Cup in Malaysia proved a turning point as Iijima realised that if she optimised her approach to racing she could earn the requisite points to qualify. Connecting with Team World Triathlon also helped to fine-tune her planning. Back-to-back silver medals at Asia Cup events followed last November while another silver medal at this year’s Asia Cup in Pokhara behind fellow Olympic qualifier Edda Hannesdottir set Iijima on course to Paris.

Since qualifying, she has worked to dial in the smaller details, especially on the bike, that will likely play a big role in Paris. She did not get to race the Paris Test Event last summer and thus has no first-hand experience of the course. “I’ve been watching the video of the Test Event on loop. I think I’ve watched it five times since my qualification was confirmed!”

Guam’s trailblazer

In the meantime, another big moment is set to come. Whereas two years ago she took on her first proper race on a road bike, she will now be making her WTCS debut in Hamburg.

“Sometimes I’m like ‘what am I doing’? But I think it’s a good challenge. I know there are so many great athletes and whatever level we’re at we aspire to be at the top. Coming from a small island and throwing myself in the big pond, I’m super nervous but I’m excited for the challenge.”

From Hamburg, it will be straight on to Paris. When discussing her preparation for the two events, though, the fundamentally different challenge of Iijima’s path to that of most of her peers becomes clear.

“Our island is pretty developed but we don’t have a public pool, and we don’t have a track that’s easily accessible. Most of us swim in the ocean. I’m fortunate enough that someone is letting me use their private pool so I’m very happy to have qualified with the limited resources we have.”

On the surface, it seems like it would be easy to grow frustrated or even despondent when the sporting cards are stacked against you in such a way. Iijima, however, simply smiled it off.
“I hope that it shows people that, even with limited resources, that you can achieve your goals.”

Guam’s top triathlete has already made history by making it to Paris. Given the way she has risen to every challenge over the past few years, she may yet have something special in store for the big show itself.

Article tags paris 2024 paths to paris
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