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photo: Erik Schelkun/USA Triathlon
More Opportunities for Young Triathletes
This weekend, more than 1,200 Olympic-distance, 120 draft-legal and 160 Mixed Team Relay athletes from around the country will gather in Tempe, Ariz., for the biggest event in collegiate triathlon. Over the past 10 years, the USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championships have grown by more than 130 percent — welcoming new talent to the sport each year. This thriving championship event is a prime example of an even larger trend: the growth of youth triathlon in the United States.
As triathlon becomes more established in the developmental stages, the sport is reaching more and more athletes at a younger age. From youth-focused series like Splash and Dash to the expanding network of knowledgeable USA Triathlon Youth & Junior Certified Coaches and clubs, there are more opportunities for kids to get involved with triathlon and continue with the sport throughout high school, college and beyond.
“The most exciting thing about youth triathlon today is the sense of opportunity,” said USA Triathlon Junior/U23 Program Manager Steve Kelley. “I hear from many athletes who are truly excited about the opportunity to compete for a spot at the Youth Olympic Games or parlay the hard work they’ve put in from an early age as swimmers or cross country runners into an NCAA or collegiate triathlon experience.”
Youth is the fastest-growing segment of USA Triathlon, increasing from 13,745 annual members in 2006 to more than 62,000 in 2012. USA Triathlon-sanctioned youth events have also expanded exponentially from 193 in 2004 to 1,046 in 2012.
“It’s taken a decade to build this foundation and a pathway for young triathletes, and there is much work to be done, but the feedback I hear is very optimistic about kids sticking with the sport into their teens and 20s,” Kelley said.
2014 Youth Triathlon Milestones
“All we’re trying to do is help grow the sport and reach kids who would have never thought about doing triathlon through normal channels,” said Mark Mason, who hosted the first U.S. high school triathlon in Northern California earlier this year, and also founded the first high school triathlon team and conference in 2011.
Mason hopes to continue growing the sport at the high school level and eventually turn it into a California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) sport just like track, cross country and football. His team is a great precedent for other schools as the USA High School Triathlon Conference encourages growth across the country.
Many of Mason’s athletes came into the sport with low self-esteem, were uncoordinated or had never swam before yet they quickly earned Mason’s respect.
“These kids are awesome triathletes,” Mason said. “This team is one of the hardest working teams I’ve ever coached. They picked it up really quick, and their self-esteem is off the charts now.”
He works to find a balance with his triathletes, focusing on fun, camaraderie, good health and self-esteem, as well as working hard and learning new skills.
Programs and Goals
Kelley also emphasizes striking a delicate balance with young triathletes and the importance of gearing training principles to each age group and athlete.
“For the youngest triathletes, ages 8 to 14, the aim is exposure to the sport versus specialization. … Encouraging youngsters to adopt healthy habits, believe in clean sport and feel a sense of accomplishment is important at that age,” Kelley said.
USA Triathlon’s High Performance program serves teenage and developmental elite athletes across the nation with the goal of developing well-rounded athletes capable of success at the highest levels of competition. The High Performance staff work on maximizing talent identification, helping to develop some of the best junior triathletes in the world.
“Our junior women won three world championships in 2013 in three disciplines: draft-legal sprint, non-drafting sprint and XTERRA. That is not by accident,” Kelley said.
These developmental programs have helped open new doors for young athletes.
“NCAA women’s triathlon is possible because we have primed the pipeline with an emerging class of very talented young women who have already demonstrated that they are capable of varsity-level Division I performance on par with running and swimming,” Kelley said.
Youth Triathlon Exposure
Caitlin Begg got involved with triathlon 10 years ago and founded YoungTri in 2011 to create an expansive, interactive network of young triathletes. She was a junior in high school at the time and could already see how valuable the youth demographic is to triathlon.
“Our ambassadors and members have shown me how much of a difference triathlon can make in a young person’s life,” said Begg, who is now a sophomore at Harvard and has seen a big shift in triathlon from when she first started. “From hearing stories from members and watching the NCAA initiative pass, I have noticed a huge increase in the sport’s popularity.”
Begg sees many examples of young triathletes spreading the positivity of the sport and encouraging others to get involved. She looks forward to meeting some YoungTri members at the USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championships this weekend to share in the strides they’ve made in their personal triathlon experiences and that of their communities.