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|U.S. triathletes have had little success breaking through at the Olympic level.|
It's just before 8 a.m. on a sunny May day in California's San Fernando Valley. Parents in Kona T-shirts watch their teenagers set up gear in a parking lot arranged to resemble an ITU transition area, complete with baskets for each kid's belongings. Among the 35 bikes on the racks are some serious rigs -- a Cervélo S2, a BMC SR02, a Fondriest TF2 -- and one '90s-era Fuji beast. A woman who's likely a racer's mom runs around in spandex trying to squeeze in a brick workout before the start gun goes off.
This is the scene at the Los Angeles-F1 Youth and Junior Elite triathlon, one of five national draft-legal, super-sprint events open to teen triathletes. Many of the entrants are at this event because race director and coach Ian Murray has recruited them from their high school swim and cross country teams with a simple proposition: He's looking for Olympians.
"We need a pipeline to identify talented kids early," says Murray, who modeled his series after former pro and coach Jim Vance's original F1 event, held in 2010 on San Diego's Fiesta Island. "We need to get them to feel the sensation of draft-legal triathlon so we can create those future medalists."
No organization is more concerned with producing the next U.S. Olympians than USA Triathlon (USAT). They see the F1 series as an initial step toward getting young athletes involved in the sport and identifying talent early. In that series, athletes as young as 13 can get a taste of what draft-legal racing is all about -- no prior experience or recruitment necessary.
High school athletes shouldn't be surprised, however, to find a volunteer recruiter, better known as a regional athlete development coordinator, or RADC, at a big swim meet or cross country race.
"The RADCs are aware of high school results for swimming and running," says Andy Schmitz, USAT's high performance general manager. "But they work hard to foster relationships with high school and college coaches. We don't want to be seen as predatory."
And therein lies the trickiest part of developing U.S. teenagers into future Olympians: navigating the world of high school sports.
"It's a delicate balance," Schmitz says. Many high school athletes swim, and run cross country and track, leaving only the summer for triathlon and making periodization difficult because they never get a break.
"Generally, it'd be good if they were to prioritize either swimming or running in high school and spend the remainder of the year in a triathlon program," Schmitz says. That way, teens could build the fundamentals, like riding in a pack, required to excel in the draft-legal format.
The trickiest part of developing U.S. teenagers into future Olympians: navigating the world of high school sports.
But at this point in the development of the sport, it's not that easy.
Take the case of high school sophomore Dillon Nobbs. The 16-year-old is exactly the type of athlete USAT is looking for. He's a talented swimmer and runner who clocks in at just more than 53 seconds in the 100-yard freestyle and runs 1,600 meters in 4:17:57. No doubt, he's a campus superstar who likes the challenge of excelling in various high school sports. Dropping one to focus on triathlon would be hard; he raced the 1,600 at a regional track meet the day before winning the May LA-F1 event.
USAT understands that high school athletes enjoy belonging to their teams and is working with coaches to turn triathlon into a club sport with that group environment.
"In 2008 we launched a grant program for 19-and-under high-performance teams that develop draft-legal capabilities," Schmitz says. The $11,000 grants awarded over four years are intended to help coaches develop such teams. Currently, there are 22 teams in the program, including Murray's Los Angeles-based Team TTS and Vance's San Diego-based TriJuniors. Several members of both teams raced the LA-F1 event, which resembled a high school swim meet with teammates in matching tri suits huddled together at the start of the race.
"The draft-legal format builds the team dynamic," Vance says. "We teach kids how to group ride -- road riding skills they can take with them beyond junior racing."
Once teens feel comfortable with their bike skills, there are more draft-legal racing opportunities open to them in the form of the Junior and Youth Elite Cup series in which athletes can score points toward competing in the Junior Elite National Championships and earn a bid to the ITU Junior Triathlon World Championships.
Getting to these events, however, involves extensive traveling for most athletes and their families, so junior athletes looking to make their mark on the triathlon world don't have to stick to draft-legal racing. Instead, they can compete in the more plentiful sprint-distance, non-drafting Talent ID events held throughout the U.S., knowing that USAT checks the results of these races regularly.
All of that effort to race as a teen doesn't come without rewards. There is, of course, the potential to become the next U.S. Olympian. There's also the possibility of earning a college scholarship. Currently, top juniors can score one of two academic scholarships awarded annually for the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs while training at the Olympic Training Center. Nobbs hopes to become one of those lucky juniors when he graduates from high school in 2014.
Other schools, including Marymount University in Washington, D.C., are looking into starting similar programs, says Schmitz, and are putting in the effort to make triathlon an NCAA women's sport.
"We have a nation of over 350 million people, and we certainly have the ability to be among the best in the world," Schmitz says. With only one medal after three Olympic Games thus far, the U.S. has a lot more potential and much of that potential, Schmitz believes, is in the junior triathletes.
"With a shift to shorter, faster racing, the younger athletes will start coming into prominence," Schmitz says. "Our objective is to sweep the podium. We certainly have the depth of talent, we're growing the depth of coaching, and there's no reason we can't be among the top countries in the sport of triathlon."