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Meeting the Challenge

Dave Orlowski isn't one to back down from a challenge. In 1978 he competed in what became the very first Ironman triathlon to determine who was the best athlete - swimmers, cyclists or runners. Almost 35 years later, he is still challenging himself. This time he is on a quest to compete in and finish every Ironman event within a five-year period - all while battling Leukemia.

Photo Credit: Dave Orlowski

Knowing that the three toughest endurance events in Hawaii were the

Photo Credit: Dave Orlowski

Photo Credit: Dave Orlowski

Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the Hononlulu Marathon and the Oahu perimeter bike race, U.S. Navy Commander John Collins decided that those events would be the gauge that would measure who was the fittest. “John said, ‘We’ll end this debate. We’ll put all three events together and whoever finishes will be called an Iron Man’,” Orlowski recalls. “It wasn’t a race – it was a personal challenge.”

Using a borrowed bicycle and wearing cut-off jeans, Orlowski finished third out of the fifteen participants who competed in that first race (12 of them actually finished). “It’s not that the Marines are the toughest people in the world, they brainwash you to make you (believe), ‘You know what? (I) can do it’,” Orlowski says jokingly of his experience in the military.

In the years that followed, Orlowski left the Marines, moved away from Hawaii and eventually settled in Milwaukee where he served as police detective. He did not participate in another Ironman event for almost thirty years.

Photo Credit: Dave Orlowski

Photo Credit: Dave Orlowski

To mark the 30-year anniversary of that first Ironman event, Orlowski was invited back to Hawaii in 2008 to compete again. Even after a long lay-off, he still had the drive to compete. “It’s a determination in yourself to accomplish something,” he says about his decision to return to triathlon.

After finishing his second Ironman thirty years after his first, Dave set his sights even higher. “Each time you learn something about yourself. When you get to (one) level (and) you say to yourself, ‘I’ve done that, I know I can do the next level.”

The next level for Orlowski was to accomplish something that no one else has done in the Ironman series. – finish every Ironman event within a five-year period.

Orlowski went from the longest layoff between Ironman finishes to very short lay-offs between events. His schedule has been so tight that he is participating in events that are only a few weeks apart. “I was very passionate about what I was doing. That first year I started back I considered myself obsessed,” he says about his training and race schedule.

But in January 2010 his goal to complete his personal challenge almost came to an abrupt end when he was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphatic Leukemia. Knowing what Orlowski was trying to accomplish made breaking the news to him even more difficult for his doctor.

Fortunately, Orlowski’s cancer was diagnosed at an early stage. He has not needed chemotherapy as of yet, however he meets with his physician regularly between races and his blood cell counts are closely monitored. He will begin treatment after he reaches his goal and is expected to fully recover. The camaraderie and the experience of being active keep him going. “I feed off of other people,” he explains. “I feel relaxed out there in the swim; I enjoy the bike ride; but I hate that run,” he says with a laugh.

His approach to triathlon has changed from when he first returned. “Now it’s not about being obsessed and worrying about time. It’s about living a healthy lifestyle,” he says. While Orlowski is pursuing his personal goal, he is also using this opportunity to help others fight cancer. He regularly participates in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training events as well as other bike rides and running events that raise awareness and funds for cancer research.

Having finished twenty-three of the thirty-one existing Ironman events as of November 2012, Orlowski is well on his way to accomplishing his goal. He’ll have eight more races to finish before his self-imposed deadline of October 2013.

Meeting his personal challenge is helping Orlowski overcome cancer. “When I cross that finish line, it’s still an accomplishment for me. It’s something I can carry in my life. I can put cancer (behind me). There aren’t many hurdles in my life that I don’t think I can’t overcome, just by knowing I have this fighting attitude to fight to get to the finish line.”



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