Having observed the world of elite Olympic distance racing up close and personal for the past four years, I am convinced the U.S. has the potential to develop a consistent stream of world-class triathletes. The people we seek exist; problem is, we have no working program for identifying those with the right stuff.
Right now, we tend to take whoever shows up on our doorstep. Sometimes that produces real quality (look no further than the current women’s team), and sometimes it doesn’t (check out the other gender). But I think there IS a way to change that, which is why I’m asking for your help.
In my view, the best candidates will share the following three characteristics:
1. The ability to swim REALLY fast. Not PRETTY fast - REALLY, REALLY fast. If they’ve hit one of the following targets at some time during their swim career, sit up and pay attention: WOMEN: 1:48 for 200 yard free, 2:02 for 200 meter free, 4:17 for 400 meter free, 4:46 for 500 free, 9:50 for 1000 free, or 16:30 for 1650 free. Example: Sheila Taormina hit 2:01 in the 200 meter free and 4:13 for the 400 meter free as she approached (at age 27) the 1996 Olympic games. MEN: 1:39 for 200 yard free, 3:54 for 400 meter free, 4:20 for 500 free, 9:00 for 1000 free, or 15:20 for 1650 free. Example: Andy Potts, now a member of the USAT resident team and a name you are going to hear a whole lot about in the next couple of years, swam 15:00 for the 1650 while at the U of Michigan in the late 1990’s.
2. The POTENTIAL to be a solid runner. This in turn involves issues like body type and the efficiency of one's natural running form. Good women distance runners generally have moderate to slim builds and fall in the 5'2" to 5'10" range, while men follow the same build and fall into the 5’5” to 6’0” spread. Exceptions exist, of course, but we need to play the percentages. NOTE: Taormina is at the bottom edge of the height range, at 5' 3" and 115 pounds while Becky Gibbs (a 10-time NCAA All-American swimmer at LSU) is at the top. A background in running will provide some guidance, but isn't a prerequisite. An in-person visit and workout will be important. Example: After finishing his swim career at Michigan, Potts went out for outdoor track; two months later, he ran a mile in 4:18.
3. The willingness to bust one's butt. Athletes who were not terrifically motivated, but succeeded in college on natural talent are unlikely candidates for success as elite triathletes.
Where do we find this type of athlete? That part is easy – they’ve already been recruited to major college swim programs. Here are 27 of the top programs in the country: Alabama, Arizona, Auburn, Brown, Cal Berkeley, UCLA, Cincinnati, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada Las Vegas, North Carolina, Northwestern, Penn State, Rutgers, South Methodist, Stanford, Southern California, Texas, Texas A&M, Villanova, Virginia, Wisconsin. And here’s where I need your help. I’d like to find a person to monitor each of these programs, and report back with tips on athletes who fit our profile.
Do you live in or near one of those campus towns? Or are you a graduate of one of those institutions and remain a big time fan of its teams? To be a good talent scout, you’ll have to attend some practices, talk to the coaches, tell them what you have in mind. Be sure to emphasize that you are only interested in athletes who have completed their collegiate eligibility – otherwise the coach might think of you as a rival. Of course, its perfectly o.k. to SCOUT those who still have eligibility remaining. And be sure to pick the coach's brain about candidates who may have graduated within the last five to seven years. Potts, for example, had been out of school for nearly three years when we “found” him.
In fact, without intending to do so, the forum has already started down this path. A couple of weeks ago, someone posted a note about a swimmer at the U of Michigan who had gone 23+ for the 50-meter free and 2:07 for 800 meters on the track. I followed that one up, and learned she was a sophomore named Tracy Egnatuk.
I checked with Tracy’s swim and run coaches and found she had not yet shown any aptitude for distance. Then I talked to one of her teammates from high school, and discovered Tracy actually did the Waterloo (MI) Triathlon last summer. An inspection of the results showed she finished third in the 17-19 age group with a time of 1:47 for the 0.5 mile swim, 16 mile bike, 5 mile run course. The women’s overall winner was Megan Smothergill, who was a good (but not great) swimmer in college and is a good (but not great) age group triathlete now. Megan outsplit Tracy by 2:30 in the water and ended up beating her by 14 minutes overall.
In other words, Tracy probably doesn’t have what we are looking for . . . but there will be others who do. I’m willing to act as the central clearing house. If you find someone with potential, post it on the forum – and send me a copy as well (firstname.lastname@example.org). Who knows – when the world champions are crowned in 2006, maybe we’ll all have a little smile on our faces.