I just got back from the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. I got to take part in a mentorship program with the USA Triathlon office. I learn a lot about how USA Triathlon goes about coaching and managing the program that hopefully will bring medals in Triathlon at the Olympics for the USA.
I stayed at the Athlete Center where I got to meet some USA Olympians like Apollo Anton Ono. Remember him from short track speed skating? I also got to talk to one of our Pro triathletes and learn about his challenges in trying to make a living in the sport and dealing with all the politics, coaching changes and policies set out by USA Triathlon. Bottom line athletes have to perform at big races to get more financial support from the National Office. An injury, a flat, a bad race and you can be out for the following season. It is not easy to make it.
However, if you do well and you managed to get on the top level US team you are set. USA Triathlon not only pays for racing expenses but pays a salary and gives you all the resources you need as an athlete, lodging at the training center, meals, testing, doctors, massages, equipment etc. They can live the dream.
One of the topics discussed was how come triathlon is struggling for the USA at the Olympics. Granted I was not aware we were struggling. However the USA Olympic committee has high expectations of every sport, which I guess they should given that we are a super power. So if a sport does not get a medal at the Olympics then they are a struggling sport. And just in case you did not notice, we did not medal last time.
Draft legal Olympic style racing has an uphill battle in the United States. In European countries, Australia and New Zealand everyone knows about it. But in the US your average person even if they know about triathlon they only know about Ironman. Us as triathletes only pay attention to the draft legal racing every 4 years. This in my opinion has two repercussions. It makes it hard to find sponsors for draft legal racing and as many smaller sports it makes it hard to attract kids into the sport. For a sport to make it in the long run you have to have kids who want to do it. Every one thinks that the Kenyans have some sort of genetic advantage and hence that is why they win at running. Nonsense! The reason the Kenyans win is because every kid in Kenya dreams of being a runner for their national team. The competition is fierce. You do not even need good coaching when you can pick your national team from the entire Kenyan population that runs every day. If every kid in the US wanted to be a Triathlete it will be a no contest. But our kids on the average just want to play popular sports that are on TV often.
My proposal is to lobby whoever is in charge of high school sports and introduce aquathon (swim and run) competition in high schools and have state championships. Then eventually lobby for varsity level status in College. I think there is no chance of having triathlon in high school because of the inherent risk of cycling. No one wants to see high school kids get run over by a car. But swim and run is an easy sport to introduce. Then these same kids will pick up a bike later and hence create the pool from which our Olympians will come. If I was in charge I would be putting some effort there.
Our current approach to find our future stars is to identify swimmers who are not quite good enough to make an Olympic team in swimming and happen to also have the ability to run. Or elite level runners who can swim enough to stay in the swim pack. Then we have to convince them that they have a future in triathlon and they have a better chance at the Olympics in our sport. Then a coach can teach them how to bike which is not too hard if they have the engine. In draft legal triathlon racing the best riders rarely win as packs form and it is very hard to get away and build a gap before the run. Good runners just have to hang with the lead pack on the bike leg and then win the race in the run. The problem with this approach is that it is very hard to tell a kid to forgo a scholarship for college running or swimming to become a Triathlete. The more likely scenario is they start the sport after college and miss out on many years of triathlon development.
The other challenge is that there are not too many draft legal elite level coaches in the USA. No surprise of course. There are just not that many people racing it. Hence there is no market. Only coaches who do it as a part time gig and for one reason or another are not in need of making a living from it can do it. It is an uphill battle for sure. Coaching for draft legal triathlon is a different beast. I definitely know more about it now after meeting with the coaches and athletes at the US Olympic Training center.