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Homestays make triathlons family affairs

Area residents house, and form close friendships, with some of world's top athletes.

By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 26, 2002

Richard Allen was a 19-year-old neophyte pro triathlete from England who knew almost nothing about everything -- the race, the city, the country -- when he first trekked to St. Petersburg in 1995 for the St. Anthony's Triathlon.

So rather than shacking up in a generic hotel room for the week, he inquired for the first time about a "homestay." St. Anthony's officials obliged and matched him with local attorney Jim Sheehan.

It was a life-altering experience for both.

"He came, he stayed, we hit it off," Sheehan said. "He came back on vacation and brought his girlfriend. I went to England to see his house and visit his parents.

"My wife and Richard are great friends; Richard knows my entire family. I have kids that are right around his age, and they're all friends. It's been a real nice thing."

Allen enjoyed it so much he decided to live in St. Petersburg in 1996 and '97. Saturday is his seventh St. Anthony's, and this week is his fifth homestay with Sheehan.

"I was just getting serious (in 1995), just starting to travel around the world to races," Allen said. "It was all new to me, and everyone here was so friendly. I made a lot of friends.

"At first I was a bit dubious, you know, because you're going to be staying in someone's house and you don't know what to expect. But obviously, I'm still very, very close friends with (Sheehan)."

St. Anthony's, in its 19th year, is among the most prestigious races in the sport, the only one of the 11 on the World Cup circuit that takes place in the United States.

But thanks in part to homestays, the major international athletic event has retained the charm of a home-cooked meal, literally. The camaraderie, generated in part by homestays, has become a hallmark of St. Anthony's.

"It's a very enthusiastic triathlon community," said Simon Lessing of England, one of the world's preeminent triathletes and a newcomer to St. Anthony's. "People are keen to put up athletes."

Added Sheehan: "I think everybody feels that way in St. Pete."

Homestays routinely occur at major triathlons around the world, but the consensus among a handful of pros interviewed last week is they are more common, and better, at St. Anthony's.

"You get looked after, you're made to feel welcome, you're made to feel comfortable," Allen said. "They do the job properly."

Kathy Morgan has been the St. Anthony's homestay coordinator for eight years. She said home-stays have mushroomed in popularity thanks to word of mouth and the large pool of volunteers.

About 60 professional triathletes are matched with 50 locals this week. Only once in her tenure has Morgan been told of a bad homestay experience.

"It works because triathletes are a very friendly group," said Morgan, who finds the majority of hosts from among the approximately 900 active members of the St. Pete Mad Dogs, an organization she co-founded. "If they like it, they'll want to come back, and we try to keep them coming back."

A homestay provides numerous benefits for athletes. It can save money, provide companionship and relieve anxiety. Peace of mind is invaluable amid the swirl of stress before a big race, and the homestay can allay distractions.

For the hosts, mostly middle-aged professionals with a jones for triathlons, it's an opportunity to contribute to the triathlon community and befriend a world-class triathlete.

Can you imagine Pedro Martinez staying at your house when the Boston Red Sox are in town?

"It's not in every sport that you can spend a couple of days or a week with a professional athlete," said Philippe Spiteri, who is hosting Andy Gruetter of Switzerland. "You find out that they're regular people."

Many hosts become fans.

"I follow triathlon a lot more because I'm eager to see how (Allen) does," Sheehan said.

Shirley Bassett, the unofficial St. Anthony's homestay queen, has been hosting three or four at a time for the past 15 years. This year, three members of the U.S. men's national team are staying with Bassett.

Others prefer to have the same athlete when possible. Denise Wagner is hosting Sharon Donnelly of Canada for the second straight year.

"When you find somebody you connect with, you (can get matched up again), and Sharon and I connected really well," Wagner said. "I feel like it helps out. It's my way of volunteering, and there are some great people that come through.

"It's a super week."

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