The blue carpeting leading to the finish chute of the first Olympic triathlon last September will forever be etched into the minds of triathletes–a picturesque backdrop with flashes of Simon Whitfield and Brigitte McMahon outrunning competitors close on their heels. In a few quick moments on the opening weekend of the Sydney Olympics, triathlon broke through the finishing tape and jumped from its position as Olympic hopeful to Olympic veteran.
When I first got into the sport of triathlon in the ’80s, talk of achieving Olympic status had barely begun. A young high school runner, I was enticed by the Big Four battling it out in the lava fields of Hawaii without aero bars, brake cables exposed to the wind, and tube socks sticking out of running shoes. I finished my sophomore track season and a week later did my first sprint triathlon–I was hooked. The sport had a pull on me. No Olympic dreams for triathletes in those days, those were reserved for one-sport athletes; triathlon presented myriad challenges and opportunities all the same.
From the beginnings in San Diego during the late ’70s to the epic Allen-Scott dual in Kona of ’89 to the first sub-8 hour Ironman in the early ’90s and the turning of a new millennium and Olympic debut, triathlon has grown, evolved, and firmly established itself in the world of sport.
Is Olympic triathlon–a 1.5K swim with a dive start from the pier, a multi-loop 40K draft-legal bike, and a blazing, tightly packed 10K run–a different beast from the fledgling sport of the ’80s? No doubt. Does that make it any less of an awesome display of athleticism? No way.
Like any sport that has come of age, triathlon has done more than change over the years. It has evolved. Evolution is a natural process that implies neither good nor bad, but simply involves transformation. As evolutionary law dictates, that transformation leads towards increased diversity. And our sport in the 21st century is defined by its diverse manifestations, from its traditional roots to draft-legal Olympic triathlon to Ironman events, the X-Terra off-road series and beyond.
Along with diversity also comes specialty. And triathlon is being recognized as an entity all unto itself by new generations of competitors, many of which may have seen the sport for the first time through the camera lenses focusing on Sydney Harbor. No longer do young endurance athletes have to choose a single discipline to focus their Olympic dreams on. Swimming, biking, and running has been validated as a unified focus for future Olympians.
Evidence of this aspect of the sport’s evolution shows itself brightly in the up-and-coming talent coming through the junior development programs. Previously, triathletes came from a single sport background and were forced to choose a single sport to focus on in college, working triathlon around collegiate racing and training commitments. Ryan Bolton dedicated four years to a fine collegiate running career on his way to the Olympics. Many competitors in last year’s Olympic triathlon did the same, even if they were like Hunter Kemper and got into the sport at the age of ten, more or less establishing a background in triathlon rather than one of the single disciplines.
The number of athletes like Kemper, who cut their teeth in Ironkids races, continues to multiply. It is interesting to realize that by the time Kemper had left the junior triathlon ranks, he had already spent half his life dedicated to the sport. By the time of the Olympics, at age 24, Kemper had been racing and gaining triathlon specific experience for 14 years.
While collegiate triathlon scholarships are not yet a reality, many young triathletes that have grown up in the sport are choosing to focus on triathlon in college rather than putting it on hold for four years. And it is no longer a necessary part of a young triathlete’s development to make the choice between joining a collegiate swimming or running program versus going it alone in triathlon. This is an exciting transformation.
No program better exemplifies the future of collegiate triathlon development than the University of Colorado triathlon team. A student organized “club sport”, the team has grown by leaps and bounds from its humble start in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The CU squad owns six national collegiate team championships since 1994 and has had numerous individual champions on both the men’s and women’s side. The number of CU triathletes graduating to the pro ranks after college-or sooner-also continues to grow. And its reputation as the nation’s premier triathlon school keeps the program snowballing.
The 2001 CU triathlon team is ripe with young talent looking to build on the program’s legacy. Freshman Blake Ottersberg is one of the triathletes that came to CU to hone his skills. Ottersberg was the junior national champion in 1998 and has already raced in two world championships-Montreal in ’99 and Perth in 2000. Starting triathlons at age ten, Ottersberg says, “I have always been a triathlete.” And he is specifically focusing on triathlon as his collegiate sport, Olympic distance triathlon to be precise. Ottersberg says, “My main focus is qualifying for the Olympics, so the distance I almost exclusively race is the Olympic distance. The only deviance from that distance is sprint races.”
Joining Ottersberg on his collegiate team is freshman Lance Panigutti. Panigutti finished 48th at the ’99 world championships and 25th at last year’s worlds in Perth. He recently spent his spring break at national team training camps in San Diego and at the Olympic training center.
Keith Jackson, a junior at CU, started racing triathlons as a freshman in high school. And there’s no doubt that the triathlon program at CU played a part in his choice of college. “I transferred from Maryland about two years ago, partly due to this triathlon team,” says Jackson.
These are the young guns, Olympic dreams in sight, firmly focused on building upon their triathlon experience and doing so within a growing framework of collegiate triathlon programs that compliment the junior team development of USA Triathlon.
Triathlon as an Olympic sport is etched in the history books. And development of collegiate triathletes has taken on a whole new direction. As the sport continues to evolve, so will the opportunities for young talent to become increasingly engaged.