When it comes to Olympic triathlete development, what works?
This article was originally published in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
Olympic medals are the metric of success for national triathlon programs. It’s a bit of a cruel metric, especially at times when Lady Bad-Luck spills oil on a corner of the bike course. Nonetheless, over the course of four Olympics, the folks who seem to be doing it right are Switzerland at four medals (two gold), and Australia at five medals (one gold), plus Great Britain if you grant bonus points for Alistair Brownlee being the first odds-on favorite to actually deliver a gold medal.
Is there something these countries’ national federations are doing right? Is this a story of successful talent identification programs?
Looking to the International Triathlon Union’s junior racing program, each of this year’s Olympic gold medalists is a previous junior world champion—Brownlee in 2006, and Spirig in 2001. In fact the other two steps on both the men’s and women’s podiums in London were filled by former under-23 world champions. This was not the case in 2000, 2004, nor in 2008, when both genders’ Olympic podiums were completely absent of any youth champions.
Two points can be made from this observation. The first is a point about history: In previous Olympiads, a champion’s junior eligibilities would arguably have ended before triathlon was an Olympic sport with appropriate youth-development and championship programs. Now, triathlon has been Olympic long enough that current gold medalists would have seen it as children. We should consider the ITU youth series a success.
Yet a second, sobering point is that a junior world championship title is no guarantee of a future Olympic medal, considering that many prior champs have left the sport. Injury and burnout are typical culprits. Britain’s Hollie Avil, the 2007 junior world champion, retired earlier this year in public-forum-blasting fashion. Remember Canada’s Kirsten Sweetland? The 2006 junior world champion was once strongly considered the next big hope for Triathlon Canada but has battled injury for five consecutive seasons and as of June announced an indefinite healing hiatus on her website. Spirig actually fought injury in the mid-2000s, and she took time to focus on her law degree before returning to triathlon full time. The 2005 world champion, American Steve Duplinsky, virtually disappeared after 2006. Here’s hoping fellow American Lukas Verzbicas, 2011 junior world champion, follows Brownlee’s footsteps rather than Duplinksy’s in the wake of his own devastating July 31 crash.
These stories raise an issue: Perhaps more important than simply identifying the talent is figuring out what to do with it.
To that end, many national federations have created formal, funded youth training programs that go beyond just races or camps. For example, Australia’s National Talent Academy, new in 2012, is a year-long program for 10 selected athletes that includes training support as well as a team race trip. The Spanish Triathlon Federation places strong emphasis on proper supervision of youth development, evidenced by so far successful integration of top youth athletes into elite ranks. Other federations have struggled—Triathlon New Zealand has many youth triathlons that are very popular, but hasn’t figured out how to retain the athletes as they grow older and need to choose a focus out of their typically broad athletic portfolios.
Meanwhile USA Triathlon is finally viewing the pitfalls of the collegiate athletic system, with its eligibility rules and Title IX-driven funding woes, as a potential boon for triathlon. Recruiting collegiate swimmers and runners and providing them with support and possible funding is probably a much more fruitful strategy than trying to get triathlon into the NCAA as an “emerging sport,” which is likely to happen but for women only. It should also be more successful than funding a long-term residency program at the Olympic Training Center, considering that only one of the five London team members, Hunter Kemper, was a full-time member of that program in his preparation for making the team. 2012 Olympian Gwen Jorgensen, a collegiate runner and swimmer, represents the direction that USAT’s development program is heading.
Nevertheless, if the London gold medals are any indication, USA Triathlon should not put all its focus on teaching collegiate 20-somethings to be triathletes. With the right long-term support, teenaged champions become Olympic champions.