By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 2001
It's not that we've slowed down. It's that the rest of the world has caught up to us.
Just as some baseball players in Japan and Latin America have risen to the level of the best major-leaguers in our national pastime, the rest of the world is matching -- and surpassing -- us in another American invention, the triathlon.
Last year the swim-bike-run sport made its Olympic debut, with the International Olympic Committee setting the distances of .93 mile (1.5 kilometers) in swimming, 24.8 miles (40K) in cycling and 6.2 miles (10K) in running. The best the United States could do at Sydney was Joanna Zeiger's fourth place in the women's race and Hunter Kemper's 17th in the men's.
Much of the best of the world will compete Saturday in the ITUSt. Anthony's Triathlon World Cup on a two-lap swim course, eight-lap bike course and four-lap run course along St. Petersburg's downtown waterfront.
"Europe has become the driving force in triathlon," said Libby Burrell, the newly installed national teams director for USA Triathlon. "One big reason is that in so many countries cycling is such a big thing. And because triathlon includes cycling, it's very natural to them. And, of course, there are girls running around in swimsuits."
Kemper -- a star distance runner at Wake Forest, two-time national champion and silver medalist at the Pan Am Games -- is a member of the growing group of professional triathletes.
"In Europe, there's a huge club system," he said. "In those countries, triathlon is a big deal; the competitors in those countries are superstars. Over here, you're probably not going to turn pro. But it's getting better for someone like me. GNC Pro Performance pays me a base salary so I can do this for a living, focus just on triathlon."
Many colleges have track teams and swim teams. Some have cycling teams. Few have triathlon teams, "so we have to scout and recruit athletes from other sports," said Steve Locke, executive director of USA Triathlon. "It's tough to find people at the upper level of three different sports."
"The first thing you look for is good endurance and people in the technique sports, of which swimming is the most technique-laden," Locke said. "So, if you're a good swimmer, you've got a leg up at the outset. I think you can learn over a period of three years to become an excellent cyclist. And if you have the engine and the body type to be a good swimmer, you're probably going to be a good runner as well."
The United States -- the American women, anyway -- took the first steps toward returning to prominence this month in Japan at the International Triathlon Union's first two World Cup events.
American Laura Reback won the women's race April 15 at Gamagori; Barbara Lindquist, Siri Lindley and Reback finished 2-3-4 behind Loretta Harrop of Australia on Sunday at Ishigaki. The top American man in each race was Andy Kelsey, 27th at Gamagori and 18th at Ishigaki.
"We already know what (talent) we've got, and I think we have an enormous amount of potential," Burrell said. "It hasn't always shown up. ... Maybe we just need to tweak the program here and there, but we have no more excuses. We have to be on the rostrum in the men's and women's events in Athens (at the 2004 Olympics)."
Saturday's race is the season's third ITU World Cup event. Points go toward establishing entries for the world championships. World rankings in turn lead to Olympic eligibility.
"Up to 80 percent of the people who will toe the line in Greece will be racing Saturday," Burrell said.
Kemper, the U.S. Olympian, is scheduled to race Saturday. He is the top-seeded American man, seventh overall. Five-time ITU world champion Simon Lessing of Great Britain is No. 1. Among the women, Lindquist is seeded No. 2 behind five-time world championship medalist Michellie Jones.
There is much more to why the rest of the world has caught -- maybe passed -- U.S. triathletes. Some of it can be traced to the International Triathlon Union's decision to make drafting legal in cycling. Just as in auto racing, cyclists create a vacuum behind them. A competitor can ride in that space, in effect pulled along by the leading cyclist.
When triathlon was born in the mid 1970s, it was a non-drafting sport.
For years in the United States, drafting was against the rules; in many races it still is. A cyclist has to remain at least two bike lengths behind the one ahead. Passing and falling back are permitted; side-by-side riding is not. The results can be long strings of cyclists jockeying for position.
Drafting creates packs of cyclists, wheel to wheel and pedal to pedal. The benefit: excitement. The drawback: If a cyclist doesn't pedal fast enough, he or she is left out of the first pack and, with cycling alone being less efficient, has to fall back to the second pack, greatly reducing the chance of winning.
"When (triathlons) went to drafting," Kemper said, "it changed the whole philosophy, that the bike wasn't as important, that the focus was on running. I don't think a lot of American men bought into the system. ... When ITU said, "We're making this a draft-legal sport, and we're going to make it a spectator sport and exciting for the Olympics,' I think most everyone around the world took hold of that. There was a lot of old-school stuff here. ... Now I think we're just trying to catch up."
Said Zeiger, the best American triathlete at Sydney: "I prefer non-drafting races because triathlon is such an individual sport. But I understand the necessity for drafting. In World Cup races, people are coming out of the water so close together, it would be very difficult to monitor a non-drafting race, especially in the men's race. You can have 30 guys come out of the water together; it'd be impossible to break things up.
"And it is more exciting for the spectators. But in so many cases, it comes right down to the run. You have to have a good swim, get out in front. It changes the whole dynamic of the race."
St. Anthony's was Zeiger's first professional race, in 1998; she competed in the '99 and '00 events as well, "so I have nostalgia for this race," she said. "Plus the fact that it's a World Cup (event) and will be so competitive this year makes it that much better."
WHAT: A weekend of triathlons for professionals and amateurs.
WHEN: Professional -- Women, noon Saturday; men, 2:30 p.m. Meek & Mighty (novices and youths) -- 15 and older, 8 a.m. Saturday; 11-14, 9 a.m.; 7-10, 10 a.m.. Age groups -- 7:30 a.m. Sunday.
WHERE: The professional and age-group events start at The Pier in St. Petersburg. The Meek & Mighty starts at North Shore Pool, 901 North Shore Drive, St. Petersburg.
COURSE: Professional and age groups -- Olympic distances, .9-mile swim, 24.8-mile bike, 6.2-mile run. Meek & Mighty -- For 11 and older, run 1 mile, bike 5.4 miles, swim 200 yards; 7-10, run 1 mile, bike 3.6 miles, swim 100 yards.
AT STAKE: Professionals compete for a $60,000 purse and International Triathlon Union points in the World Cup series. Overall and age-group awards will be presented in the other categories.
REGISTRATION: Closed for the professional and amateur (age-group) events. Call (727) 825-1271 for Meek & Mighty registration ($40), which is accepted up to the start of the race.
INFORMATION: Call (727) 825-1271 or e-mail Triathlon@Baycare.org.