My Experience Representing Team USA at Winter Triathlon World Championships
by Sheri Schrock
High above the municipality of Sant Julià de Lòria, Andorra, over 200 elite and age group triathletes competed in the 2021 Winter Triathlon World Championships Andorra March 19-20. Andorra, with a population of 77,000, is a tiny (16th smallest country in the world by land mass), independent principality situated between France and Spain in the Pyrenees mountains. We raced where the road dead ended at 2037 meters at the top of a mountain.
In 2020, Team USA competed in only one world competition, the ITU Winter Triathlon World Championships in Asiago, Italy.Team USA departed Italy just as COVID was ramping up there.
In 2021, a month before competition USA Triathlon had not opened registration to that event.Just 28 days before the event, I found the start list published with GER GBR SWE RUS AUS FRA EST SLO athletes.I contacted USA Triathlon and expressed my desire to go. I knew of one other athlete, Larry Herold, who also wanted to go - despite anticipated travel hurdles.
At the end of this article I will describe how complicated it was to travel. There was no blueprint to follow in COVID times. We still marvel we made it there.
The 2022 World Triathlon Winter Championships Andorra are scheduled for Feb. 3-6.
The Winter Triathlon World Championships have been held annually since 1997.Sixteen countries competed in 2021.
Russia, Germany, and Norway have won the most Elite medals.In 2010 USA Elite athlete Rebecca Dussault took home gold.
The last few years Winter Triathlon Worlds has expanded its reach outside Europe.This is the fourth year that USA Triathlon sent an age group team.Last year Japan, USA, and Egypt were recognized as the newest teams.
The host country (Romania 2018, Italy 2019-20, Spain 2021) typically outnumbers all other entries in each age group, so year by year the competition pool varies.Other teams are small in comparison (i.e., Germany sent 17 athletes this year), so it is common to spend time training, conversing, and sharing meals with your competition.Every year I look forward to spending time with the German, Russian, Austrian, and British friends I have made, and we keep in touch throughout the year.
Since there’s a relatively small number of competitors, it is easy to cross paths with Elites.Germany’s elite athlete, Sebastian Neef, stayed at our small mountain hotel.He had a mechanical problem so Larry offered his own derailleur to Sebastian, since Elites race the day before us.I lent Sebastian vices, and we chatted while waxing skis.While sipping coffee at a street cafe, the Italian Elites stopped for a long conversation. A few years ago Pavel Andreev, 8x gold medalist - lent his bike to Reinhold Wolter, the oldest German competitor, who had rented a bike that turned out to be not up for the conditions.
Winter Worlds Is For Everyone
In 2018 two triathletes from southern California, Marc Mone and Kevin Elmore, added Winter Tri Worlds to their bucket list, never having skied or biked in the snow. After renting fat bikes and Nordic skis for a weekend in Utah, they qualified at USA Triathlon Winter Nationals and raced at Worlds.The following year two gals from Oklahoma, Vanda Edmondson and Terri Hayworth, had the same idea.
Last year, Egypt sent a team for the first time, after ski training on a snowy slope in a shopping mall.The Egyptians were the last competitors to finish - with big smiles and much fanfare from the rest of us! Winter Worlds is not only for Elites and podium seekers. Everyone that goes enriches the experience of everyone else.
“I was determined to do something most of my friends had never done,” said Vanda.“At first it was a bucket list adventure ... then I fell in love with run-mountain bike-ski! I talked my training partner Terri into tackling this crazy adventure with me.We’re both proficient at alpine skiing, but had only been on cross country skis twice — a practice session and the qualifying event in Minnesota.Okies do not have access to snow!"
“During the pre race meeting at Worlds we learned Egypt had a team of two young men. Giggling, I turned to Terri and said, ‘In order for this to be a win, we just have to beat the Egyptian men. I imagine they have skied about as much as two gals from Oklahoma!’ And with that, our task was before us.My mantra is, ‘We’re here to have fun, and losing is not fun!’ With that in mind, we had a grand time, even though the only people we beat across the finish line were the two Egyptian men!
“I don’t know how long the other Team USA members waited on us to finish the race so we could be in the team photo, but they did wait, and it’s a photo I will cherish forever.”
Larry described his experience: “I’ve been fairly competitive in summer triathlon since 2018, but this was my first Winter World Championship - and only my ninth day ever on Nordic skis.
“On a downhill ski trip to Colorado in February 2020 I got some skate skis and gave it a ‘tri.’ I loved it and signed up for Winter Nationals in Minneapolis the following month - days two and three on Nordic skis.
“One year later and there I was, armed with a stack of documents and wearing everything I could find with a USAT logo, striving to look official and get to Andorra as smoothly as possible.”
Every day Larry and I marveled at how lucky we were to be in Andorra representing the US.We were so grateful to folks at USA Triathlon and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee for going out of their way to get us here. We didn't know until the last moment whether we would make it. Some of my German friends were surprised to see me here, as we registered at the last moment.
I had two COVID tests before traveling, a third at packet pickup the day before our race, and a fourth to return home.
The course is short. The age group course length is based on the Elite course, and about half the distance. Each discipline is weighted evenly.Whereas at USA Triathlon Winter Triathlon Nationals the bike course is relatively long, that is not the case at Worlds. Larry (40-44 AG) podiumed in 52 minutes.I am one of the oldest athletes and my finish time was 1 hour, 16 minutes.
It’s Winter! Throw Away Your Map
Typically the run, ski, and bike course are on ski trails.Because snow conditions change on a daily basis, parts of the course may change too. Both the ski and bike courses we previewed the afternoon before our event were not the exact same courses we ended up racing. During the bike leg of our race, we didn’t realize the course had changed until we practically rode into the tape blocking our practiced route.
Typically we run on snow.In Romania part of the run course overlapped the ski course.In Italy we ran a steep hilly ski course.In Andorra we started on a ski course, then ran through a grassy pasture and a wonderfully soft pine needle forest.
Almost everyone at Worlds rides a mountain bike, not a fat bike.My first winter tri worlds was in Romania and I rented a mountain bike. It snowed heavily the week of the race and the groomer was broken.I sure wished I had my fat bike! The following year I flew my fat bike to Asiago.The week leading up to the race the snow was soft and ungroomed and my fat bike excelled! The night before our race they groomed the course. Now mountain bikes were faster. I learned a lesson. Now I race with mountain bike tires.
I enjoyed racing on single track mountain bike trails at USA Triathlon Nationals in Anchorage this year - so fun! At Worlds we typically bike on a ski trail.
This year Worlds was held later than usual, and it was quite warm in the afternoons creating icy, slippery bike conditions each morning. Since the race starts at 11 am and the course is shaded by pine trees, these are the conditions we needed to deal with. Larry commented, “I rode 45NRTH Wrathchild tires. At 2.6 they had enough width to minimize tracking in areas of soft snow - compared to something in the 2.2 range - and the studs were marvelous on the turns and accelerating.” I wished I had studs too! Then the night before our race, they groomed the course for the first time, and I was fine with the tires I had.
In Romania four years ago we received new snow, and the piston bully was broken so the course did not get groomed the week leading up to the race. Russian Paratriathlete Vova Solodovnikov was skiing on classic skis which broke in the ungroomed snow. The groomer was fixed two days before the race.
Last year in Asiago a wind storm blew debris onto the ski course, and the debris froze into the track. Not wanting to groom the debris further into the course, they waited all week for warm weather so they could blow the debris off the course. That left frozen, ungroomed dirty snow for us to practice on the week leading up to the race. Like magic, the track was groomed perfectly the day before the race.
The weeks leading up to our event in Andorra had warm afternoons causing snow melt. By the week of competition a mile of ski loop leading in and out of transition had turned to mud.
Larry said, “My first impression upon arrival was watching large dump trucks haul snow up the mountain.Friends back home were complaining about triathlons being cancelled, and here I was, half a world away on the side of a mountain watching truckloads of snow being hauled up a mountain to ensure our race went forward.There was no way the local organizing committee was going to let us down.”
In three days they hauled enough snow to recreate a half kilometer return to transition. However they did not have enough snow to create an outbound lane.
Two days before our race ITU was still pondering where to start the ski course. It was finally announced during our briefing that we would run up the mountain over 1/2 kilometer carrying skis, poles, and ski boots to the snow! No one complained. We would embrace the challenge. At least we get to ski!
It’s Winter Triathlon - you never know what to expect! Sport teaches us to embrace and even relish challenges. This is what brings true personal growth. To me taking up a challenge is more rewarding than competitive success. Winter Triathlon never fails to provide opportunities to adapt and persevere. It’s for those who thrive on adventure!
27 Spain (Ironman Spain hosted this competition)
2 Czech Republic
Larry and I both medaled!
Out of 16 countries, USA tied for 5th place with only Larry and I competing. In 2022, I hope we field a much larger team from athletes who qualified in Anchorage.
Larry described the end of his race: “I got to the ski, completely exhausted but ready to push through to the end. On an uphill portion of lap two, my inexperience caused me to jam my pole on the inside of my ski and trip myself, loosing precious seconds - remember this is my ninth day on XC skis. By the time I got to the last portion of the ski, a downhill, I knew I just had to go for it. A ‘grip it and rip it’ speedy descent to a blind corner at the bottom of the hill had me narrowly avoiding a collision with two officials walking on the ski course. Here’s where Sheri would say ‘Hey, it’s winter tri!’ A sprint to the finish had me celebrating with Spanish athletes who finished ahead of me, but how far ahead?
“In order to socially distance we had a staggered start, so everyone had the same questions, ‘Who won? Where are the results?’ It was hours later at the award ceremony that I found out I earned third place, just seven seconds ahead of fourth. It was an indescribable experience filled with joyous emotion and a sense of patriotism to stand on the podium next to two amazing Spanish athletes and know that I was bringing home bronze for the USA.”
At my own first Winter Worlds in Romania I had no expectations. I had no experience on the Winter World Stage. I had never ridden a mountain bike and was riding a rental that was a size too large. ...and I won. I tried to repeat this the next year and the next ...but every year it's a new competition and a new challenge.
Last year I finished third. My German friend Marianne was significantly faster than me on the run, and she also beat me on the bike, so I did not expect to finish ahead of her this year. Winter conditions might produce ideal course conditions - or not. In northern Minnesota I often bike in crappy conditions. That might have been to my advantage because this year I won. I certainly did not expect to.
Why Winter Worlds Is My Favorite Race
I get to hang out with my friends from around the world. Yes, some of us compete against each other, but that's over in an hour. The rest of the time we're sharing stories and meals. Marianne from Germany and I are in the same age group. We celebrate if she wins and we celebrate if I win. No matter what, we celebrate.
Larry said, “Between workouts I enjoyed meals with my teammate Sheri and the German team. Over the last year I had forgotten how gratifying it is to spend time with fellow athletes, and this time spent together in Andorra was like icing on the cake.”
Vanda said, “At the Parade of Nations in Asiago the locals cheered for Team USA. They were Italian and they were cheering for us! ‘USA! USA!’ It was such an honor.
“After the race all of the nations celebrated each other’s podium finishers like they were from their own country. Wow, what an exhilarating experience! That’s the epitome of sport, and it’s what we experienced at Winter Worlds. The camaraderie and sportsmanship we experienced with other country’s athletes and our team transcends any previous world stage events I have been involved with.”
From the moment I landed in Bucharest for my first Winter Worlds four years ago, I felt adopted by the German Team. I was the first American to arrive, and I didn't know the ropes. Four years later, sometimes I still don't.
Unlike other world events, USA Triathlon does not send a coach along. For the last four years if I had a question, I consulted with Hans-Peter Grünebach, one of the German competitors. He has a lot of experience at these events and knows the officials. Lucky for us, he is keen to share his knowledge. We are fortunate to have such a good friend. Our team would be a bit lost without him.
How Difficult Was It to Travel?
How Many Documents Is Enough?
I bought my flight before registering for the event, knowing the price would increase the longer I waited.That departure date became my deadline.
I knew I needed to obtain a Letter of Invitation from the President of the Andorran Triathlon Federation and complete a Sanitary Form showing my negative COVID result in order to pass through Spain. That was just the beginning of a pile of documentation I would amass.
I would be flying into Barcelona. Larry and I surmised we needed official clearance to travel through Spain, but there was no blueprint what steps to take. I contacted the Embassy of Spain, Washington DC, …who told me to “contact the consulate of Spain in Chicago in order to request a special travel permit” …who told me to contact a different division, …who told me I “must obtain an authorization from the Spanish Council for Sports” which is based in Spain. A day ticked by with each step.
I contacted the Spanish Council for Sports via their online portal and never heard back. It was now 3 days before my scheduled departure.
United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee Gets Involved
At this point Tim Yount, USAT Chief Sport Development Officer, got involved and enlisted help from the Olympic Program Senior Manager at USA Triathlon - who wrote me a letter of endorsement and put me in touch with the Manager of Government Relations at the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee in Washington DC. She had a contact at the Spanish Council for Sports and was able to rush my request through.
Twenty-four hours before my scheduled departure I received a message from the Spanish Sports Council, here translated: “We send emails to the Spanish border police to enable transit through the Barcelona airport in the direction of Andorra.”
I packed my bike and skis and drove 4 hours to the airport. It would soon become clear why I needed documentation.
Delta Is Not Convinced
I checked in at Delta International in Minneapolis. The gate agent searched through my documents for a stamped document from the Spanish Embassy or Consulate - the same organizations that pointed me to the Spanish Council for Sports. She didn’t trust that the Spanish Sports Council had authority. In fact she told me that if a passenger (me) arrives overseas and is not allowed through, the gate agent who sent them gets fined.
I called the Manager of Government Relations at the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee and was relieved when she picked up the phone.
Soon I received this:
Thank you for the call and for connecting me with the gate agent. I have emailed the Spanish Sports Council, Spanish Embassy in DC, and Spanish Consulate in Chicago requesting their assistance to provide a document matching the airline agent’s description within the next hour. I will be sure to keep you posted as soon as I receive a reply.
Despite not being able to round up the requested document in an hour, having Jen back me up built momentum. The gate agent consulted a host of managers and eventually got the go ahead to send me - with a very stern warning that if Spain turned me down I would be sent back home, on my dime.
Amsterdam requires a COVID test within 4 hours of flying so I had to squeeze in yet another COVID test ($100 fee) before heading to the gate.
Should I Board!?!
By the time I arrived at the gate passengers were boarding. I didn’t know what to do. I could wait another day(s) for another document, but my bike and skis were already aboard. I thought it wise to consult with Tim but couldn’t reach him. My husband picked up and said, “Just go - you’ll figure it out there.”
So I did.
Passport Control in Amsterdam marched me to their Immigration Office where I handed over my stack of papers. The controller checked over each page several times and after 20 minutes I was awarded a stamp. Off to Barcelona!
Upon arrival in Barcelona I showed my Sanitary Form and Negative COVID result. Then I grabbed my bike and skis and marched through “Nothing to Declare” - without even showing my passport!
I rented a vehicle and drove about 3 hours to Andorra, climbing high up a spectacular canyon. At the border I handed over my passport and waved my pile of documents. A young man laughed as he tried to ask me in English, “Do you want a stamp?” I replied, “Of course!” This stamp was harder to get than the VISA I needed to take the Trans Siberian Railway across the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
I didn’t expect such scrutiny leaving the United States nor in Amsterdam. I was anticipating it in Spain - where I breezed through the airport and drove across the border into Andorra.
My friends on the German team beat me to the small mountain hotel we all stayed at. They passed through Austria, Switzerland, France, and Spain, and no one bothered to look at any of their papers.
The journey is always worth it. The harder it is, the more rewarding.
Larry and I were blown away by the personal attention we received from USAT and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee. Thank you to everyone who went to bat for us. We are so grateful. You all went above and beyond anything we could have imagined.
Thank you for the opportunity to represent USA at this World Championships.
How to Qualify for Winter Worlds
USA Triathlon Winter Triathlon Nationals will be held in Anchorage, Alaska, in January 2022. The run course drops down to the bay, the bike course includes fun single track, and the ski course is on Kincaid’s world class trails. In 2021 we skied a super fun roller coaster section!
To register for the 2022 USA Triathlon Winter Triathlon National Championships, visit the Tri-Flake website here.