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Flooding in downtown Des Moines has forced the 2008 Hy-Vee Triathlon and World Cup to West Des Moines
Flooding in downtown Des Moines has forced the 2008 Hy-Vee Triathlon and World Cup to West Des Moines
photo: Delly Carr / ITU

Triathlon Qualifier Tries to Stay Afloat


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In 10 days, the third and final qualifying race to select the 2008 U.S. Olympic triathlon team will be held in Des Moines, Iowa. With the third (of three) spots up for grabs for both the men's and women's squads, it is guaranteed to be a battle, particularly on the men's side where 2004 Olympian Andy Potts, 31, and two-time Olympian Hunter Kemper, 32, are tied in qualifying points.

Due to recent flooding in Iowa, however, race organizers are quickly trying to find another venue for the swimming leg - the first stage of the 1500-meter swim, 40-kilometer bike, and 10km run event.

Race organizers for the June 21-22 events - which include the Hy-Vee Triathlon for age group athletes, youth elite and junior elite races, and ITU World Cup - have been forced to relocate the race site to the campus of Valley Southwoods Freshman High School in West Des Moines. The event was moved out of the city so that city officials could devote their full attention and resources to flood-related issues.

For the age group, youth and junior races, the move has also resulted in a change in format to a duathlon (run, bike, run). Race officials have not yet eliminated the swim for the elite athletes. That decision will be made on race weekend as the water quality is measured.

At 2:30 Central time on Thursday, the race organizer Bill Burke, reached via cell phone said, "Moving a World Cup of this size, you can't just do that on a moment's notice. I've been to every lake in town [looking for a viable site]. Right now, I'm standing in a private lake trying to figure out: how am I going to get people in or out of the water here? It's on a residential street, surrounded by houses. I haven't even had water samples done yet," he said.

The original plan was to hold the swim on Gray's Lake, just outside of downtown Des Moines.  "The transition is 17 feet under water; it's impossible" Burke said today. 

Flooding isn't the only problem.

The alternative to Gray's Lake was to have been Easter Lake, but Burke said, "it's over 2,200 bacteria level and staying there because the Raccoon River flooded its banks.

"The bacteria levels are sky high because the rain isn't stopping and even if it did, if the city and state officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tell me I can't let people go in there, what am I supposed to do? Go against their wishes?" he asked rhetorically.

Plan C was the lake in Raccoon River Park, but as Burke said, "it's nine feet above normal flood stage." And all three bodies of water are being fed by the Raccoon River.

"I don't want this to be a duathlon," Burke said. In that case, athletes would alternate running, biking, and running, the same way a 2004 Olympic qualifier in New York City was changed in 2003 after rain runoff into the Hudson River led to high bacteria levels.

At press time, USA Triathlon and the USOC were trying to determine whether Olympic selection criteria would be altered in case a triathlon is not held.

"I plan to keep racing until I hear otherwise," said Sarah Haskins, who is vying for the last women's berth. 

If the selection criteria remain as written and the June 22 race in Des Moines were to become a duathlon and remain an Olympic qualifier, the swim-less format would likely be most detrimental to Potts, one of the stronger triathlon swimmers in the world.

"But if I can't find another place," Burke said, "there will be no alternative."

Despite changes to location and race format, all activities will take place as scheduled during the weekend. Course maps are expected to be approved and released by Friday. Prize money for the elite race will be awarded as planned regardless of the race format.

Comments from USA Triathlon

"Hy-Vee and the race director Bill Burke are doing everything they can to host a swim, bike, run triathlon for the elites. The safety of the water for the athletes is the most important factor though. Hopefully the water is ready for Sunday so that the athletes can complete a third race in the Olympic team selection process," said Scott Schnitzspahn, USAT sport performance director.

"This is a time of incredible hardship for the residents of Des Moines and its surrounding areas. Our hearts go out to all those impacted by the flooding. In times of tragedy, sport has often played a critical role in providing a necessary distraction for the community to allow them to embrace something good in a time of need," said USA Triathlon Executive Director Skip Gilbert. "We are grateful that Hy-Vee has taken such efforts to continue to support this race weekend and to use a multisport event to provide the community with that needed distraction. We also thank Bill Burke and his race team for their efforts to find a race course that thousands of athletes can enjoy."

Aimee Berg is a freelance writer working with the USOC on