Triathletes compete in memory of Louie Bonpua, who carried Olympic torch before dying of leukemia

Sunrise at Crissy Field yesterday felt sadly familiar to a group of triathletes preparing to plunge into the frigid Bay waters.

Many had gathered in the same spot, at the same time, a week earlier to cheer on a dying teammate who mustered the strength to walk with the Olympic torch just hours before he lapsed into a coma from which he would never awake.

It was because of their leukemia-stricken friend that the group returned yesterday, to remember him with the first annual Louie Bonpua Triathlon.

"He was such a light," said teammate Sandra Forrest, 35, of San Francisco, who at Bonpua's request brought Krispy Kreme doughnuts to him in the hospital.

"One of the first things I would do is look for him. He would definitely be bitching about this weather," said Forrest, smiling but shedding quiet tears in the steady, cold rain. "It would be so much better to see his goofy grin."

The informal, Olympic-distance race a practice run for July's Ironman USA in Lake Placid, N.Y., which is four times as long was originally called the Wayne's World Triathlon for head coach Wayne Spaulding.

After Bonpua's death Tuesday, organizers changed the name and committed to making it an annual event.

In all, 64 men and women from the so-called Iron Team swam nearly a mile, biked 27 miles and ran 6.2 miles. They were joined by at least that many volunteers and friends.

As part of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training program, each athlete raises at least $7,500 for the cause in return for training from former Olympians.

Bonpua, 37, of Milpitas, who was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia in the fall of 1997, joined the program about three years ago. In August, he completed his first Ironman triathlon (Ironman Canada), after finishing nine Olympic-distance races.

Along the way, he made friends and changed lives.

Yesterday, participants said Bonpua's death underscored the reason they train 18 hours a week and dive into the 54-degree Bay waters at 8 a.m. with smiles on their faces.

"It was easier for people to get up this morning in the rain and the cold," said Tina Fujikawa-Kinney, 29, of San Ramon, a volunteer coach. "It's for Louie."

Before the triathletes scattered, her husband, Paul Kinney, 31, read a poem that had comforted the couple when her father died of leukemia.

"Miss me a little but not too long/ And not with your head bowed low./ Remember the love that we once shared./ Miss me but let me go," he read in part.

Moments later, chants of "Louie, Louie" rose from the shivering swimmers, whose colorful bathing caps dotted the beach.

"It doesn't feel like he's gone," Fujikawa-Kinney said.

Her husband agreed. "He definitely changed a lot of people's attitudes," Kinney said. "You don't take each day for granted any longer."

But Bonpua was gone, along with the clusters of people that invariably formed around him, drawn by his unfailing optimism, sense of humor and penchant for playing practical jokes.

His spirit was bigger than his slight frame, and despite his illness, it seemed he would always be there, Forrest said.

In fact, many said they believed Bonpua was able to stay alive long enough to carry the torch by sheer willpower.

The previous Thursday, he had been in a lot of pain, said teammate Marc Lauzon, 40, of San Francisco, and couldn't walk without assistance. But when last Saturday morning rolled around, Bonpua arrived in an ambulance wearing his running shoes.

"He had a beaming smile on his face. The whole way, he was just soaking in the cheers," Lauzon said. "There was something very mystical about it all."


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