Juliya Azzopardi Mazur both qualified and trained for the women’s 2023 Ironman World Championship while living in war-torn Ukraine. Juliya’s story is one of resilience, dedication and of course, triumph despite chaos surrounding her at every turn. An Ironman triumph amidst adversity has a different meaning when seen through the lens of war. Juliya’s no-quit attitude isn’t just about being on the course, but about getting there and seeing her dreams come to fruition.
War-Torn Beginnings: Juliya’s Resilience
In part one of her story, Juliya shared with us about how the dynamic situation in Ukraine fostered the resilience needed in her to remain dedicated to triathlon all while protecting her two kids and husband from the effects of the war in Ukraine and running a successful online business despite economic difficulties as a result of the political unrest.
Now, we will dive into how Juliya’s fearlessness in preparing for the Ironman World Championship paid off on race day.
Adjusting to Kona: Overcoming Challenges
Juliya and her husband arrived in Kona, Hawaii about a week before the October 14 race day.
“There is a 12-hour time difference between Ukraine and Hawaii,” Juliya says. “The first four days I was completely jet-lagged and was waking up at 3 a.m. and hardly got any sleep.”
After four days, Juliya was able to adjust her sleep schedule to the time zone in Hawaii and finally get some rest.
Unlike Ukraine, Hawaii is nearly always sunny, warm and humid.
To acclimate, Juliya did some training swims, rides and runs to get used to the high salinity of Kona Bay, where the swim is held, and the heat and humidity of the Queen K Highway, where the bike and run courses are in the week before the big day.
The Kona race course is especially challenging on the bike and run because of how exposed it is. There is no shade anywhere on the course and athletes are entirely exposed to the high temperatures and roaring winds known to whip on the western coast of the Big Island.
Racing with Purpose: The Ukrainian Spirit
Everyone who makes it to the start line of an intimidating endurance event generally has a bigger “why” for doing the race than to simply say they completed it.
For Juliya, that “why” was to show the true resiliency of the Ukrainian Spirit.
“When the war in Ukraine started, for me, every race I did, I had the same mindset: showing the Ukrainian spirit,” Juliya says. “I felt extra motivation to finish every race, to not give up, and to appreciate the fact that I was lucky enough to start each race and to be alive because so many Ukrainians did not make it out of the war alive.”
Even when Juliya had food poisoning at Ironman Sweden in June 2023, she fought for every step and ended up qualifying for Kona by embodying the Ukrainian spirit of never giving up and appreciating each moment that the day brought to her.
“I started to appreciate simple things much more due to the war,” Juliya says. “Getting to go to the Ironman World Championship was even more special because of my situation. I went into race day with the mentality that I’m already lucky, no matter how the day goes.”
No Limits on Race Day: Juliya’s Mindset
Race day at the Ironman World Championship in Kona is unlike any other Ironman across the globe. There are native Hawaiian people who sing traditional Hawaiian blessings and run down the swim start chute to begin the day. There are helicopters and drones flying overhead as you tread water to begin the swim. The air is electric.
And yet, even in that kinetic atmosphere, it is easy to let doubt creep in. There are thousands of capable athletes surrounding you and the unknown elements of the Big Island can cause anxiety. Those who are able to remain open to what the day brings, find the most success in Kona. Juliya had the perfect mentality on race day.
“My goal for race day was to finish strong, no matter the time,” Juliya says. “I wanted to make my country and family proud – and most of all, I wanted to be proud of myself.
After a solid swim and bike, Juliya faced some cramping and exhaustion on the run. Despite this, Juliya remembered her “why” and willed herself to an incredible finish time of 12 hours, three minutes and 53 seconds. That finishing time placed her 145th out of 264 finishers in the 35-39 age group.
“There were difficult moments during the race, but honestly, I didn’t feel for a second that I would not finish, or that I would give up during the race,” Juliya says. “I have been working on that mentality for the last two years as a result of the unrest in Ukraine and my dedication to training.”
Ironman Triumph Amidst Adversity: Finish Line Moments
Additionally, Juliya’s husband was able to meet her directly at the finish line. This is a privilege reserved only for professional athletes and age group athletes with a special designation. Being able to celebrate her Ironman triumph amidst adversity with her husband made the day more memorable.
“It was so special to have my husband at the finish line,” Juliya says. “To represent Ukrainian athletes at Kona was even more special than the idea of competing in a championship itself. To me, I have reached the dream of my adult life.”
Beyond Kona: Juliya’s Continuing Journey
Juliya raced Ironman California just a few weeks after Kona and placed eighth in her age group. Despite qualifying for the 2024 women’s Ironman World Championship, Juliya plans on racing an ultraman. This type of race is often the distance of two or more Ironman races combined into one race. Upon completion, Juliya will be the first Ukrainian woman to do so.