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Florida leads national boom in triathlons

Training clubs, races promote swimming, biking and running.

By JOHN SCHWARB, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 14, 2002

Nicole Carr and husband Wes had to move back to St. Petersburg. Seattle was nice for a couple years, but the dogs in their heads would not stop barking.

The St. Pete Mad Dogs, the world's largest triathlon club, lured the couple back to Florida. They're not likely to go anywhere again soon.

For a triathlete, there may not be a better state to call home.

Saturday, Clermont hosts the 12th annual Great Floridian Triathlon, held at the sport's Ironman distances of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run. Three weeks after, Panama City hosts Ironman Florida. Come April, the wildly popular St. Anthony's Triathlon in downtown St. Petersburg fires up again.

Along the way, dozens of triathlons of all sizes and distances will take place around the state.

"Look at the abundance and quality of competitive races," St. Anthony's race director Steve Meckfessel said. "Look at the great weather, the population base with a lot of athletes. It kind of perpetuates itself."

Just go to Pass-a-Grille on Wednesday night, North Shore Pool on a Tuesday or Thursday night and almost anywhere around St. Petersburg on a Saturday morning.

All those swimmers, runners and cyclists? Mad Dogs.

"It's one of the reasons we moved back," said Carr, who first completed a triathlon five years ago and returned to St. Petersburg in January. "It's a great way to meet people."

And a great indicator of how well the relatively young sport is faring in Florida.

* * *

USA Triathlon was founded in 1982. According to the organization, the word "triathlon" came into regular use just eight years before, in the San Diego Track Club's newsletter publicizing the Mission Bay Triathlon.

Since then the sport has grown by leaps and bounds, with the Hawaii Ironman seen annually by 50-million on television and triathlon earning a spot in the Olympics. (The popular Olympic distance, used at St. Anthony's and many other races, is a 0.9-mile swim, 24.8-mile bike and 6.2-mile run.)

Of USA Triathlon's 29,886 registered members in 2001, 2,925 were Floridians. Only California (3,881) and Texas (3,555) had more.

Some 1,300 of those registered triathletes will be in Clermont this weekend for the Great Floridian and the Great Floridian half-triathlon.

Fred Sommer, president of Central Florida Triathletes/Sommer Sports, which runs triathlons and other athletic events, has seen the growth of the sport through the Great Floridian alone. In the event's early days, fewer than 100 athletes participated.

"The level of competition has definitely grown," Sommer said. "Five, six years ago, there were only a handful of Ironman races in the world. Now, there are 11 in the continental U.S."

At the opposite end of the triathlon spectrum are sprint races, another growth area. With swims of less than a half-mile, bicycle rides of 12-15 miles and runs usually around 3 miles, athletes eager to get into the sport need not toil through the same rigorous training required of Ironman races.

CFT/Sommer Sports runs several sprint races in Clermont each summer and the St. Petersburg Triathlon, which Sept. 8 had nearly 800 participants in its second year. Sommer said the event should grow by 50 percent or more next year.

Though the strongest triathlon demographic remains 30-39 (and about 71 percent male), more younger athletes are joining in.

Brent Sunnucks knows it, though he admits he'd rather not have more competition. The 15-year-old Admiral Farragut freshman finished first at the St. Petersburg Triathlon in the 15-19 age group and was ranked 16th in the nation last year in the 15-under category by USA Triathlon.

One might not think triathlon would be popular among teenagers, but Sunnucks knows otherwise. He is a swimmer for his school and knows other high school swimmers and runners who are taking up the multisport.

"Even though some people wouldn't think there would be, there is a lot of competition," he said. "Every event I go to seems to get larger and larger."

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