The Air Pacific flight from Los Angeles to Auckland stopped for a 3-hour layover in Fiji at dawn. MIsportOnline photo.

The final leg of a journey which began nearly 6 years ago began an hour late when a tornado warning shut down all flights out of O’Hare Airport last Sunday evening.

At 3 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, bleary-eyed, goofy with fatigue and craving a long, hot, much-needed shower, Laurie Walsworth from Muskegon, Mich. arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, site of the ITU Age Group World Championship Triathlon.

She had qualified for the world championship once before, in 2006, but was forced to watch from the shore of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, her elbow broken, her arm in a sling, as hundreds of other triathletes competed in a race she then though she would get only one chance at in her lifetime.

Laurie Walsworth, from Muskegon, Mich., will compete in the ITU World Championship Age Group Finals on Oct. 22 (Oct. 21 in the U.S) in Auckland, New Zealand.

Given the setbacks which followed, it seemed more certain each year that the 2006 world championships would, indeed, be her only shot to compete against the best in the world.

When she qualified again in Burlington, Vermont in August, 2011, she signed up for these world championships never really quite believing she would actually make it all the way to New Zealand.

On Oct. 22 (Oct. 21 in the U.S.), thanks in part to help from her employer, Mercy Health Partners, Walsworth will swim 750 meters in the cold (58-degrees) South Pacific waters of Auckland harbor, bike 13.1 miles up and down the city’s steep hills and run 3.1 miles along the waterfront.

Where she finishes is not at all important. Being here at all means everything.

Mob scene

This is the largest ITU (International Triathlon Union) race in history. In addition to the world’s top pros (Olympians included) 3,001 of the best amateur triathetes from more than 60 countries will compete for age group titles. (You can’t toss an empty gel pack 5 feet in downtown Auckland without hitting an age group triathlete from somewhere).

Auckland airport at high noon Tuesday was a testament to the fact every triathlete from all corners of the world think exactly alike. Intent on arriving with enough time to adjust to the massive time differences between New Zealand and just about every other point on the globe, a mob of something like 500 athletes descended on Auckland airport at the same time. Just as the line to clear customs threatened to back up out onto the tarmac, a New Zealand government official declared half the crowd honorary Kiwis and diverted them into the “New Zealand passport holders only” line.

The long wait for luggage got longer still as anxious athletes waited nervously for straining baggage handlers to slide their bike box into the terminal. Their first lame jokes about the delay turned to gallows humor first and then to silence.

Natural High’s wonder-working master mechanic Jamie.

Luggage filled with clothes was ignored when it arrived. No one relaxed until their bike arrived. At least one bike vanished without trace somewhere on its way across the Pacific. One more athlete will watch the race of her life from the sidelines. (There is not a spare race bike to be had for love or money in all Auckland this weekend).

New alliances

Walsworth teamed up with Marie and Doug Freeland, new friends from Littleton, Colo., met on the flight over, to charter a shuttle van and cut in half their transportation cost from the suburban airport to downtown Auckland.

Jet lag

Pungent from non-stop travel and 36 hours in the same clothes, athletes cleaned up and then, rather than hitting the sheets, wobbled out onto Auckland’s streets, trying to reset their body clocks to the local rhythm. (Marie stumbled badly before she caught her second wind, breaking three of her toes while still in her hotel room. She will race Monday, regardless).

Athletes train at The Parnell Baths, a salt water pool kept the same frigid temperature as the waters of Auckland harbor.

An early dinner, then to bed, dreaming of a training swim in the frigid salt water at the Parnell Baths on Wednesday, followed a day later by a guided ride ‘round the tortuous, hilly bike course amidst freeway traffic all driving down the wrong side of the road.

Some assembly required

For Walsworth, it was a ride made possible only by the meticulous work of Natural High Bike Shop mechanic Jamie (closely supervised by the shop’s dog, Frankie).

Natural High Bike Shop dog Frankie and Walsworth ready for Walsworth’s training ride in Auckland on Thursday.

Jamie navigated every unexpected glitch while reassembling Walsworth’s time trial bike with a grin and  a breezy, “No worries, mate,” sending her out onto her course ride with a perfectly set up (thanks also to specs supplied by hometown mechanic Eric Moe of Breakaway Bikes, who packed her bike for the trip).

Home again, home again

Shuttle van drivers, hotel staff , the guys at the bike shop and even Auckland’s bus drivers have all  taken to the ITU World Championship crowd as if they were all prodigal children finally returned home.

For most of age grouper, the long journey is over: The goal is in sight.

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