When Melbourne mother of two Sara Chivers was dying of brain cancer, one of her last requests was that her husband Leigh Chivers tackle the iconic Ironman world championships in Hawaii in her memory.
“She was so happy with herself that she’d brought Leigh to tears,” Stephanie Clark told The New Daily of her sister Sara, whose letter of advice to her sons Hugh and Alfie made headlines around the world last September.
“She said, ‘I finally cracked him’,” Ms Clark recalled. “Goes to show how much it meant to both Sara and Leigh. A dream to be fulfilled.”
So it was that five months after Sara died of brain cancer in January – and just six days after Alfie, 2, passed away in June of the same cruel disease that took his mother – Leigh toed the start line for the Cairns triathlon.
His goal? To qualify, with minimal training, for the iconic Ironman world championship in Kailua Kona, Hawaii, and fulfil his promise to Sara.
Cairns was his last shot at it for 2018. And after getting through the swim and bike legs, Leigh, 35, pulled out during the marathon.
“I resigned myself to having to qualify next year,” he said.
But after The New Daily brought Leigh’s story to the attention of Dan Berglund, director of communications for Ironman in Tampa, Florida, the organisation made Sara’s wish a reality.
On August 14, Ironman named Leigh – who qualified for Kona in 2014 but had to forgo it when Hugh, now 4, was sick – and Queensland’s Elle Goodall as competitors and race ambassadors for 2018.
Only one such honorary slot is given each year – Turia Pitt won one in 2016 – but an exception was made for the two Australians.
“He is so incredibly deserving and I am just so glad we can make this happen,” Mr Berglund told The New Daily.
For the uninitiated, the 36-year-old Kona event is the Olympics of the Ironman world.
Most triathletes aim for it and only around 2000 get a shot every year. There’s a hairy 3.8-kilometre open water swim, a 180-kilometre ride where winds shear off a volcanic cliff face to smash cyclists, and a 42.2-kilometre run in the Hawaiian heat.
Leigh and Ms Goodall, who transformed her life by losing 120kg, were chosen “thanks to characteristics that go well beyond competition,” said Noel McMahon, Ironman’s Oceania media manager.
“They inspire others to do something they thought might not be possible and exemplify our mantra, “Anything is possible.”
“I’m literally blown away and honoured. Life is so strange,” the engineer told The New Daily after being surprised at work with news of his ambassador role.
“It’s funny how Sara in a way has been able to orchestrate this. I just feel it’s her gift to me.
“Saying, ‘Leigh you need to go after this’ was because she understood me. She understood I would need to have something to look forward to. She understood that would help me through the hard times.
“She was pretty clever.”
Leigh, who hopes to finish the gruelling event in under 10 hours, will have Hugh as head cheerleader in Hawaii.
“This will be the most special of memories for Hugh and I. And I look forward to seeing Sara and Alfie out on the course too. They will be there,” he said.
“I’ll get it done. Even if I have to walk, I’ll finish.”
Squashing around 18 months of preparation for Kona into eight weeks, the former competitive rower finished Sydney’s 14.2-kilometre City2 Surf run on August 12 in 50 minutes and seven seconds.
He placed 108 out of 67,242 runners.
“It wasn’t a terrible run, so I’ll probably focus on my swimming now,” said Leigh, who also plans to do training rides and runs in a jacket to prepare for the Hawaiian heat.
Doing triathlons together was Sara and Leigh’s thing.
“I think we loved having coffee and breakfast together afterwards,” Leigh said. One year, he finished the Noosa event and ran back to find Sara then did the last two kilometres again by her side.
Before their April 2012 wedding Sara signed up for an entire local series of six triathlons: “It was her strategy to do all of them purely to be at her fittest for the wedding. It worked.”
“We even had a Noosa triathlon photo for our wedding save-the-date invitation,” Leigh said. “Geeky but we thought it was hilarious – nobody looks good in a lycra onesie.”
Having Kona to train for has “definitely” given Leigh motivation after the heartbreaking deaths of his wife and son, whose ashes were scattered by their families at dawn on a Queensland beach last month.
“It’s been tricky because I was living day to day for a long, long time and hadn’t really thought about the future at all,” he told The New Daily.
“It comes and goes in waves.
“Some days you’re fine and some days I see a photo of Sara and Alfie and I get sad but I also get angry, for them as well. Even though there’s nobody to get angry at.”
How is Hugh dealing with life without his mum and brother? “So far, so good, but it’s not something you can ever say is all done,” Leigh said.
“We were driving to the airport the other day and talking about Sara and Alfie in the car, and he was telling me they’re not in the stars any more.
“He said they’re on the top of a mountain.”