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Posted: August 15, 2005

Triathlon: Will 2005 be another winner for Peter Henning at Kona?

By Lynne Bermel
Lynne interviews Peter Henning, Senior Vice President of Ironman Television in Lake Placid (photo: Steve Bower)

From when it first aired as part of ABC’s Wide World of Sports to the 2-hour prime time special on NBC today, millions of viewers around the world have been drawn to the Hawaii Ironman. For many, it is the crowning achievement in the most challenging one-day test of athletic endurance on the planet.

More than the winners, it’s the human interest angle that has caught the attention of the masses and caused such a huge spike in ratings, says Peter Henning, Senior Vice President of Ironman Television. “Ever since Julie Moss’ dramatic crawl to the finish, audiences have been captivated by the stories that show the triumph of the human spirit.”
Mark Allen and Dave Scott race neck in neck in the 1989 Hawaii Ironman

Over the years, the lens has caught the extraordinary efforts of Dick and son Ricky Hoyt, the 8-hour epic battle between Dave Scott and Mark Allen, the heartbreaking comeback of former professional triathlete Marc Herremans after a paralyzing bike accident and the finish of legally blind competitor, Richard Holcomb. In 2004, it was female amputee Sarah Reinersten, Tracey Richardson, a mother racing for her children battling cystic fibrosis and firefighter and reality-TV star Ryan Sutter.

And the show has been rewarded for its efforts, receiving 38 Emmy nominations and winning 15. In the process, it’s beaten out such heavyweights as NFL football, the PGA tour, the 25 year history of ESPN and the Kentucky Derby. “It’s almost batting 500, which is impressive.” says Henning, who joined the Ironman production crew in 2000 following 30 years of broadcasting and producing TV sports of all kinds, including Eco Challenge and 21 Iditarods.

“In the Ironman, age groupers and stars come across like ordinary people. You can identify with them,” he says.
Father-and-son team, Dick and Ricky Hoyt. (Photo Credit: http://www.hmea.org/hoyts1.jpg)

“It’s likely the only sport in the world where more people are interested in who finishes last than who finishes first. I don’t mean to take anything away from the people who finish first; they’ve set the standard. Without them, everybody else wouldn’t have anything to measure themselves against. But what gives Ironman its wide appeal is that there are so many stories about people overcoming all kinds of challenges, whether they’re physical, mental, or family-related.

Henning actually began his current career track as a motorcycle cameraman covering the Tour de France in 1992. He’s been up close and personal with Lance Armstrong. “After that, Ironman asked me if I’d produce the Kona race. I said: “Let me do it on a freelance basis and we’ll see afterwards if I like it and you like me”. It worked it out.”

“I’m a nut on details and logistics,“he explains. “I love setting up complicated shoots, like in 1998 when we did the Eco challenge in Morocco. We set up 21 cameras going all over the desert. That wasn’t easy. The next year we did it in High Death in Patagonia, South America. We don’t have as many cameras in Hawaii so we have to make sure that each camera that we do have is in the ideal position.”

Henning was always attracted to sports that test the limits. “I always found myself drawn to sports involving man against nature, like mountain climbing, scuba diving, all that adventure stuff. I always had a passion for it.

When I covered my first Ironman, I was blown away.” Did he ever try to race one himself? “No, thanks, a 5K is pretty much the limit for my running. When Ironman first hired me, I told them: “You keep the athletes out of television and I’ll stay out of your race.”

So he stays behind the camera, mainly as director. While the NBC crew concentrates largely on the human interest features, Henning and his team work on putting footage of the race together. Then the crews work to meld the two together, producing award-winning results.

So it’s back to the Big Island this October. Peter Henning hopes this will be yet another Emmy-winning production as the lava fields cough up exciting battles and stories that touch the human heart.

The 2005 Ironman World Championship will air on NBC on Saturday, November 12, 2005 at 4:30PM.

Lynne Bermel, a former world-ranked pro Ironman competitor, is a senior marketing & PR consultant living in Ottawa. She is also a freelance writer and TV sports show host. You can reach her at :lynnebermel@rogers.com.


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