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photo: Paul Phillips/Competitive Image

Age-Groupers Soak in the Sun, Excitement of Historic San Diego

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SAN DIEGO, Calif. — More than 2,000 age group athletes representing 42 U.S. states and 16 countries took to the sea, streets and sidewalks of Mission Beach on Saturday at the ITU World Triathlon San Diego. The Olympic-distance and Sprint-distance races were part of a dynamic triathlon weekend in the birthplace of triathlon, with elite men and women duking it out for podium spots and in some cases, Olympic qualification.

“I’m so glad they brought world class racing back to San Diego,” said Tim Sheeper, 49, of Menlo Park, Calif. “Back in the 80s and 90s with the USTS [U.S. Triathlon Series] they had that. It’s wonderful. The whole atmosphere brings the level of racing up. Good energy and anticipation in the air watching these people compete for the Olympic spots yesterday and later on today.”

The elite races, which are draft legal, were a big draw for many age-groupers to make their way to Southern California. San Diego is just one of eight host cities for the International Triathlon Union’s World Triathlon Series, joining the ranks of Sydney, Madrid and Hamburg, among others.

“I came down solely for that reason [to watch ITU athletes],” said Dave Ference, 45, of Holladay, Utah. “I would have missed a great race if these guys weren’t racing, but I just wanted to be part of the electric environment of ITU and they didn’t disappoint. It’s world class.”

Athletes from age 14 to 90 were out on the course today, which started in Mission Bay and ended in the same finish chute as the elite races. Though the majority of the participants were from the United States, athletes from other countries made their way to San Diego to compete on this course.

“I always love to race and to have the opportunity for it to be in San Diego — that's why I'm here,” said John Hellemans, 59, from New Zealand.

Still a relatively young sport compared to others on the Olympic program, triathlon boasts an exceptionally rich history as evidenced by USA Triathlon’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Thursday. Two of the newest Hall of Fame inductees, Bob Babbitt and Scott Molina, got in touch with their roots when they toed the line at the historic venue.

“This was a wonderful race,” said Molina, 52, who now resides in Christchurch, New Zealand. “A bitchin’ course. I loved it.”

Another recognizable name on the race course was Susan Williams (43, Littleton, Colo.), who won the bronze medal at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games and now competes as an age group athlete. She completed the Olympic-distance relay with fellow Olympian Barb Lindquist.

“It’s really cool to be racing in San Diego where triathlon started,” said Williams. “That’s why I wanted to do it. It’s such a beautiful venue and the weather couldn’t be more perfect. You gotta love running on the beach. The bike course was hard but I love the hills.”

The hills were a challenge thanks to Mount Soledad, which had athletes climbing more than 600 feet over a 3-mile section of the course. The Sprint-distance course had one climb; the Olympic-distance race had two. Even local competitors found the bike course to be taxing.

“I live right by the hill and practice on it, but racing it is totally different,” said Cam Loos, 40, of San Diego, Calif. “The bike just takes it out of your legs. The run is pancake flat but you’ve got nothing left in your legs.”

Loos, who is a member of the U.S. Navy, won the men’s military division, which was one of three challenges offered to age group competitors. The other challenges were the collegiate challenge, which allowed athletes to represent their school’s team or club, and the Global Club Challenge, for clubs vying for the right to be called the best club in the world.

Whether athletes were participating in one of the team challenges or racing for individual glory, the race was an enjoyable experience. “The volunteers were great, the traffic control was awesome, the weather couldn’t be better,” Loos said. “It was a great time.”

Another athlete who deemed the venue spectacular was Paul Reback, the father of Laura Bennett. Reback completed the Olympic-distance race after watching his daughter clinch the final spot on the 2012 U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team on Friday afternoon. For him, this weekend has been about more than just his own swimming, biking and running, and he was pleased with the outcome.

“It’s been phenomenal,” said Reback, 71, of North Palm Beach, Fla. “Our whole summer and what we were going to do was focused on yesterday. The girls are going to have to do what they did yesterday in London. They need a good swim and get a pack like yesterday.”

Many athletes will return to Mission Beach in the afternoon to watch the elite men’s race, but their own race-day experiences in the very city that hosted the first triathlon 38 years ago will surely leave a lasting impact.

“The race brought me the idea to compete at the place where triathlon was born,” said Alex Pacheco, 41, from Mexico City, Mexico. “The course surprised me; I think that it was very technical and real interesting. It is something important to see how local athletes took some initiative to creating a new sport.”

Click here for results of the Olympic-distance event.
Click here for results of the Sprint-distance event.

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