When 17-year-old triathlete Kira Ellis was still racing in Ironkids events, she was already dreaming of the Olympics. Now, she is slowly turning that dream into a reality.
Kira Ellis pauses mid-sentence and laughs when she hears a loud commotion coming from downstairs. We’re sitting at the dining table of her home, escaped from the triathlon team reunion happening below us. Both of our parents used to train and compete for the Fitness First triathlon team together and it’s been years since our families were last together; neither of us can recall when it was, but it was surely at a race we were attending to support our parents. Now, perhaps close to a decade later, many of the people at the reunion downstairs — laughing so loudly they interrupt our conversation — no longer compete. Now, it is Kira’s turn.
“It’s funny, because as a kid, when I did Ironkids, the goal was, I want to do the Olympics. And until now, I want to do that,” she tells me.
“But—” she pauses and takes a moment to reflect. “It’s just surreal. Now, I’m closer and closer to getting to that point.”
Kira has been immersed in the triathlon world her whole life. Born to two triathletes, she grew up going on road trips with her parents to Subic Bay, watching them compete in swim-bike-run events often. It wasn’t long before she was getting in the action herself, joining triathlon races in the youngest age group possible — the category for kids between the ages of six and eight. As a kid, she already gained a sense of what competition and success feel like, frequently besting the other racers in her age group and making it to the podium. She was always competitive, and from then on, she continued racing until she was too old for the kids’ age groups and had to race with the older triathletes. (She would still win.)
Many kids with active parents are often pushed into sports while growing up, but Kira is able to identify the line between just going with it and making the commitment to become an athlete herself. “I think lockdown played a big factor in [choosing to commit to triathlon]. Because I was thinking about it, like, should I continue? And I did because I really do enjoy the sport, and that’s when I decided I should stick to it.”
Having solidified her commitment and passion for the sport, Kira Ellis is now 17 years old and competes for the Philippine National Triathlon Team. She represented the flag in the recent 2023 Southeast Asian Games as the youngest triathlete on the team and brought home a gold medal. Now, she is currently preparing for the upcoming 2023 Asian Games where she will, again, be the youngest on the team. She trains every single day, and on top of this, balances her school work and college applications. Given the heavy workload, I had to ask, “How do you stay motivated?”
She didn’t need to give the question more than a moment’s thought. “Triathlon has just been my life,” she says. “I breathe triathlon.”
Getting back to racing
Kira Ellis considers herself lucky. When the pandemic hit and nobody could predict how long every lockdown was going to last, she felt very fortunate to live somewhere outside the tightness of Metro Manila. She lives in an area that boasts a lot of space and a lot of nature, and it was easier to get out into the street to bike or run. “We were in the house a ton [during the lockdown], so any chance to go outside, it was like a sense of freedom,” she expresses.
This, as she mentioned, played a huge role in her decision to pursue triathlon. So throughout the pandemic, this is what she would do — take to the outdoors, swimming, biking, or running. But apart from the space she had to do all these, another reason Kira feels very lucky is the fact that both her parents are die-hard triathletes too. In fact, her mother is a triathlon coach herself and acts as her personal trainer. With this, even during the lockdowns, it was almost as though she had both her teammates and her coaches with her at all times.
But still, the pandemic felt long, even for Kira, and restrictions still prevented her from racing for some time. When the world was finally starting to slowly open back up, one of Kira’s first races back was in the National Age Group Triathlon (NAGT) Series held in Subic in 2022.
Her NAGT 2022 race was not only among her first since the lockdown ended, but it was also her first sprint distance race, her first time competing in the Junior Elite category (she is truly no longer an Ironkid), and she was the youngest racer at 15 years old, racing against triathletes three to four years older than her.
She finished in first place.
It may sound like an unexpected outcome, especially as she was coming from the lockdown and entering a new race category. But anyone who has known Kira Ellis since she was racing as a kid knows that she is quick and is a force to be reckoned with. And following this incredible comeback performance, others started to take notice. “NAGT was the race where I got elected into the national team,” she shares.
Kira’s first-ever race for the Philippine National Triathlon Team was the Subic Bay International Triathlon (SuBIT) a few months after her NAGT victory. They say you never forget your first, and this was definitely a memorable one for Kira, though not in the best way.
“I didn’t have a good race, that one. It was quite bad because I got COVID before. I had just recovered and I had a couple of weeks to get back…Somehow I won, but it was by default because there was a mix-up with the courses, so it wasn’t the best, but it was a good learning experience.”
Walking away with a medal and new experiences to go with it, just a few weeks later, Kira was given the opportunity to race in her first international competition with the national team at the 2022 Asia Sprint Triathlon Championship in Korea. Once again, she was the youngest female participant in the event, as a 15-year-old racing alongside some of the best triathletes in the world, some of them Olympians.
“It was really hard but so fun at the same time,” she recalls with a smile on her face. This was Kira’s first-ever elite racing experience — an opportunity she received after just two sprint events in her career — and it would be far from her last.
Taking on the region
Kira Ellis cannot be underestimated for her age. She may be the youngest member of the Philippine National Triathlon Team, but she is now already a Southeast Asian (SEA) Games gold medalist.
Kira competed in two events in the 2023 SEA Games, her first regional competition — the duathlon, which consists of a 5-kilometer run, a 20-kilometer bike, and another 2.5-kilometer run, and the mixed team relay (MTR), which consists of a 500-meter swim and 2.5-kilometer run.
The duathlon was Kira’s first individual event in the SEA Games, and it was definitely a first to remember. “For some reason, during the bike, my gears weren’t shifting,” she shares. “I don’t think I understood what was happening in the moment because I just came off of the run, and all I was thinking was, bike fast, just keep pedaling and keep going. So I’m pedaling and I was thinking, why am I not moving? And then two girls pass me.”
Unfortunately, Kira’s bike chain was slipping as she went through the 20-kilometer course, and even though she came out of the run leg in first position, poised for a podium finish or even a win, the mechanical issue proved to be a struggle. “I was thinking that [a podium finish] was a possibility, and then when minor things happen, it kind of messes with your head, so during the whole bike, I was kind of down.”
Despite her tough race experience, Kira still crossed the finish line fifth out of 12 racers — not bad at all for a SEA Games rookie — and walked away with a good learning experience. “It taught me to not let small things get to your head. It’s not over until it’s over,” she says.
Luckily, this was not Kira’s only event of the SEA Games, as she also teamed up with her teammates to compete in the mixed team relay. For this event, every member of the team has to finish both the swim and the run before the next member can start their leg. She was lined up as the second out of four members to go.
“The first guy to go, Justin, he gave me a massive lead. But, I couldn’t draft anyone,” Kira recalls. The water conditions at the SEA Games in Cambodia were not the best, as the waves were very choppy, as she remembered. And with a huge lead, she had to take on the swim alone. “I couldn’t draft anyone, and at one point I was wondering, am I even moving? But luckily, I didn’t lose the lead. In that moment, all you’re thinking is, don’t let them catch you. So that was our plan — make the lead bigger and bigger and bigger.”
And they did. Team Philippines finished the event with a lead of a minute and a half.
“We were so happy, we were screaming. When I came home, I think I was just overwhelmed. I couldn’t believe it, and everyone was congratulating me, and it just hit me after that.”
Staying on track
Kira Ellis may look naturally gifted for triathlon with her powerful strokes, strong pedals, and big strides — swimming, biking, and running truly suit her — but what cannot be taken away from her is how much hard work she puts in to bring the results she aims for.
As a senior in high school, she is facing a hefty workload, balancing academics, college applications, and on top of all this, her triathlon training. In fact, when we were chatting in her dining room, she was taking a break from studying for her SATs. “Right now, my schedule switches depending on school and what race I’m training for… But I train every day, no days off.” Even on Sundays, she still goes out for a bike ride in the morning before using the rest of the day to rest or catch up on her other commitments.
“Everything I do practically relates to training I guess because it’s like my everyday life. Eat, sleep, breathe, triathlon. All of my choices kind of relate to whether or not it will be good for my sport.”
But Kira isn’t immune to the days every athlete will sometimes wake up to — the days where you aren’t feeling your best. “There are times when I wake up and don’t really want to go to training, but I try to be open with my coaches about how I’m feeling because it’s not necessarily that I don’t want to train, it’s more like I don’t have the energy for it. As long as I tell them, they kind of work around it. But other times they say, ‘No, you have to do the workout.'”
“Sometimes,” she says with a smile on her face, “My mom will be like, ‘No, you’re fine.’ She knows.”
Luckily, even though Kira competes in an individual sport, she has a whole roster of people she can count on for support, including her family and her teammates. “I actually grew super close with my teammates,” she says. “They’re like older siblings for me. Before races, I ask them things like, ‘Do you think it’s a good idea if I do this in the race?’ and things like that, and they’re always super helpful.”
Apart from her teammates, a huge part of Kira’s foundation as an athlete is her parents, who are not only supportive but also understand the sport on a profound level, having competed in major races themselves.
“I feel like that’s something that has motivated me through everything. Your parents doing the sport, they also understand how it works and what you think and what you go through. They know what they’re doing so you have that trust dynamic. They’re always there, and they understand how much I love the sport, and I know how much they love the sport.”
Kira’s hard work and the support she receives all work hand-in-hand as she strives for her biggest goal yet: to reach the Olympics.
Dreaming of the world
Right before the pandemic hit, Kira Ellis was still competing in Ironkids races at 13 years old. Now, she is 17 years old, a SEA Games gold medalist, and is preparing for her first-ever Asian Games. Given the age limit for the individual races in the continental tournament, she will be competing in the relay as, once again, the youngest member of the team. Her training has been a challenge as she preps for the Games, she shares, but she is looking forward to representing the Philippines on an even bigger stage this time.
“I’m getting closer and closer to the [Olympics]. The fact that I qualified for the SEA Games was already like, oh wow, that’s one check off the list. Then I just have to improve and improve.”
Although Kira’s main goal as an athlete is to compete in the Olympics, she says that she still focuses on whatever race is next, taking baby steps, and what motivates her is getting to see her results after every race. “I get motivated every after a race. You get your times and you reflect on them, and you look back and you see you improved in this or that, and then it makes you feel better about yourself and you think, now I’m getting closer.”
Race after race, result after result, Kira is indeed getting closer and closer to her goals, one step at a time. Back when she was still competing in the kids’ race categories, she already had the idea of the Olympics in her head. But now, this dream becomes more of a possibility with every finish line she crosses.
“Now that I think back on it,” she reflects, “I never would have expected this.”
Speaking to Kira Ellis again after all these years — the last time we spoke, I don’t think she was even competing in the oldest age group of Ironkids yet — she feels so far away from that little girl I used to watch at kiddy races, as she now talks to me about applying to Universities that have great triathlon programs and facilities that will help her achieve her Olympic dream. But at the same time, she is also still just that little girl, who swims fast, bikes fast, runs fast, and then finishes on the podium.
The only difference is that now, she is no longer just racing for herself — Kira Ellis now races wearing the Philippine flag.
Images from Doray Ellis and from Kira Ellis on Instagram.