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St. Anthony's Triathlon reaches the big time

This year's event is the first World Cup triathlon on the mainland United States.

By PETE YOUNG

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The St. Anthony's Triathlon has gone big time. Big, big time.

The nice local race in the newfangled sport developed into an elite triathlon in the 1990s. Now it's a major international athletic event. Officially.

This year St. Anthony's is a World Cup race, one of 14 on the International Triathlon Union schedule. It is the first World Cup triathlon on the mainland United States (there have been two in Hawaii). Today, St. Anthony's reaches the pinnacle.

"In 1999 and 2000, (St. Anthony's) more than demonstrated it was ready to move up to host a World Cup," International Triathlon Union executive director Loreen Barnett said.

America is regarded as the birthplace of triathlon, and now the top American triathletes will have a World Cup race on their home turf.

"It's really exciting. Back when I was doing the (St. Anthony's Meek & Mighty race for kids) in the late 1980s, you never envisioned this happening," said Hunter Kemper, a 1994 graduate of Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs and the top U.S. Olympic finisher last summer (17th). "It became a Pan American (Games) qualifier and was a (ITU) points race last year, so it has just kept on building up. Now it's a World Cup race, and that's the highest level of racing that we do.

"For me, it's especially nice because I am so close to my hometown. A lot of family and friends will be over here tomorrow cheering me on."

From humble beginnings in 1984 as the Tampa Bay Triathlon at Fort De Soto, St. Anthony's has grown to become one of the world's premier races. The $60,000 purse is double last year's.

"It is the first World Cup race ever on the continental United States soil and we view this as pretty significant at USA Triathlon," USA Triathlon board president Mike Highfield said. "It's an extraordinarily spectator-friendly course and an excellent venue for showcasing our sport.

"It's been difficult on our athletes to have to go all over the world and never be able to race at home to secure (World Cup points). ... We hope to build on the start that we have here this weekend."

Last year, the St. Anthony's field, while containing numerous world-class triathletes, was watered down and dominated by Americans because the World Championships were the same weekend in Australia. This year, all eyes of the triathlon world are on St. Petersburg, and the quality of the field competing in today's pro races is exceptional.

Virtually all top Americans are entered, including Barbara Lindquist, Jennifer Gutierrez and Laura Reback, and many top internationals, including men's Olympic champion Simon Whitfield of Canada and women's Olympic silver medalist Michellie Jones of Australia. Jones won St. Anthony's five years in a row (1994-98).

"This event has come a long way," said Whitfield, who competed in one of his first pro races here in 1996.

How good is the field? The 2000 St. Anthony's women's champion and fourth-place Olympic finisher Joanna Zeiger is in good form and back to defend her title. Yet there are nine women seeded ahead of her.

"This is always an exciting event for me. This was my first pro race in 1998," said Zeiger, who will compete in her fourth straight St. Anthony's. "Now that it's a World Cup race, with people coming from all over the world, there will be a very high level of competition."

Kemper has been competing in St. Anthony's since he was in middle school, but he never has been more excited.

"The Olympic champ is here and a lot of the top guys from around the world are here," said Kemper, the No. 7 seed. "What more could you ask for?"

St. Anthony's Triathlon

WHEN: Today-Sunday.

WHERE: Downtown St. Petersburg.

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