Honoring Mari With Every Step

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Kelly Miyahara, left, and Marisela Echeverria share a moment while competing in 2011 with the charitable organization Team in Training. (Photos courtesy Kelly Miyahara)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor

It would seem that Kelly Miyahara has enjoyed a near-perfect life for the past several years. Her job takes her around the world to exciting and exotic locales, she is fit and active, and she’s on one of television’s most popular and enduring programs.

“I still can’t believe this is my job and my life,” said Miyahara, who is currently finishing up her eighth season as a member of the Clue Crew on the longtime quiz show “Jeopardy!”

A native of Southern California who grew up in several areas of the country, Miyahara, 34, is carving a name for herself in an entirely different realm, hoping to compete alongside world-class triathletes. She has set out to win a slot in this October’s Ironman World Championship, one of the world’s most prestigious endurance events, in Kona, Hawaii.

Her calling for this event, however, is far more than merely a physical endeavor.

“We made a deal to go together, although we never, ever thought it would happen,” Miyahara explained, describing a promise made between herself and fellow competitor Marisela Echeverria.

While watching the broadcast of the 2011 Kona competition, the two teammates decided the event was one well beyond their reach, although Echeverria thought Miyahara’s TV notoriety might provide a way in.

“This competition is really for elite athletes,” Miyahara told The Rafu last week. “Mari insisted on teasing me about the available media slots. She got the idea because a local KTLA TV anchor, Chris Schauble, had done it before, so in her and my coach’s eyes, so could I.

“So, I told her, ‘Okay, if you go, I’ll go.’ But she said, ‘No, I won’t ever get in because I’m not on TV, but if you go, then I’ll go to cheer you on.’ Deal.”

Miyahara is a finalist in the annual Kona Inspired contest, the winner of which earns a berth to Kona. Entrants created a 90-second video to tell their stories, keeping in focus the Ironman mantra, “Anything Is Possible.” Public voting determines who gets to compete in Hawaii.

The contest offers one of very few ways that non-elite triathletes may compete at Kona. Miyahara is hoping for ballot support in order to become one of the lucky seven winners. Votes for her video, titled “For Mari,” can be submitted every day at www.konakelly.com, now through 11:59 p.m. EST on June 27.

Should she make the cut, Miyahara will travel to Kona without her training partner. While training on her bicycle along Pacific Coast Highway in 2012, Echeverria was struck by a bus and killed.

Miyahara is currently finishing up her eighth season as a member of the Clue Crew on the popular quiz show “Jeopardy!”

“I hope to finish her Ironman dream at Kona,” Miyahara explained. “I want to fulfill our deal, and there’s no better time or place to do it.” Kona takes place this fall on Oct. 12 – 365 days after Echeverria’s death.

The teammates met while participating in Team in Training, a nationwide organization that helps athletes train for endurance sports in exchange for help to raise funds for a worthy cause. It was Miyahara’s first experience in full triathlons.

Ahead of Kona, she has paid tribute to TNT by helping to raise more than $30,000 for the The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society over her last three seasons.

Miyahara has been training extensively around her demanding “Jeopardy!” schedule, and not without the physical toll taken while preparing for a race that includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112 miles of cycling and a full 26.2-mile marathon. She suffered a fractured spine and dislocated shoulder in 2011.

Those incidents followed a knee injury she sustained in high school, after which doctors told her she’d never run again. The knee has since been repaired but may not withstand the rigors of triathlons much longer.

“According to my doctor, my new knee is ready for retirement from distance running,” Miyahara said.

While she was a solid athlete in high school soccer and softball, Miyahara didn’t play competitive sports while at the University of Washington. She graduated with a business degree and was off to work in France. She is a former Seattle Japanese Community first princess, but had no plans to enter the world of television. She considered applying to serve as an instructor in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, but instead returned to Europe to to be an English teacher in French elementary schools.

It was at the behest of her parents, avid “Jeopardy!” fans Wanda and Paul, that Miyahara – who was working in Los Angeles as a customer service manager at Nordstrom – entered a nationwide search for Clue Crew members.

“They said, ‘It’s really very much you,’” she recalled. “I looked into it, submitted a video, and was invited to one of the auditions.”

She soon found herself among nine finalists, taking part in mock commercial events and delivering clues on camera, all the while somewhat stunned to be a part of the elite group.

“I felt so out of place,” she recalled. “There were models and actors … then me.”

When the call came, Miyahara said, it was like a dream, but for now, she’s focused on completing the unrealized goals of the partner she affectionately calls Mari.

“This all now really depends on voting by the public,” she said. “I want to share her story and keep her memory alive. I hope I’m given the opportunity to do so. If we make it to Kona, I hope to cross that finish line for Mari, in honor of the one-year anniversary of her passing. What better way to remember and honor her at that time?”

To vote for Miyahara’s video or for more information, visit www.konakelly.com. Votes can be submitted through 11:59 p.m. EST on June 27. To follow Miyahara’s journey, you can find her on Twitter @kellymiyahara.

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