By Christopher Cudworth with contributions from John Lorenz
Runners and cyclists who like to train where there is less traffic have long favored the roads in Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. There are long sections where bike and running lanes line the roads, perfect for training without interruption and distraction.
Near the tall main building at the center of campus, a group of athletes between the ages of 12 and 17 years old is running mile repeats on a cold December day. A wind from the west chills anyone standing still, but this group of kids barely seems to notice. In fact some are literally smiling as they round a sharp corner near the main campus building and head back the road to where their team director stands with a guest trainer, an expert on running form. The trainer watches each athlete, analyzing for flaws in biomechanics and form.
The runners are all part of the Multisport Madness Triathlon Team (MMTT) Elite Triathlon program based in suburban Chicago Illinois. Team director, John Lorenz watches as each young runner turns the final corner, heading straight for the finish so the form coach can have a good look at how they plant their feet, carry their arms and maintain good mechanics as they tire in the last quarter mile.
These are the lengths to which an athlete must go to excel at the elite levels of triathlon, where form and efficiency are keys to success in the swim/bike/run competition.
With kids ranging from age 12 to 17 involved in the day’s training session, there is some disparity in the pace of the group, but not in prospective talent. The younger runners show the same lightness in stride and eagerness to run as the older kids. They are all clipping along at a pace, yet none of them finishes heaving at the chest or looking fatigued in the least.
“Okay! Nice job!” Lorenz calls out as they finish and gather together as a group. Some swat gloved hands and smile at the feeling of a good effort.
“We won’t stop long,” Lorenz explains. “The wind is too cold.”
No one complains. Pink cheeks and watery eyes aside, these athletes gather back at the starting line eager to run again.
Multisport Madness Triathlon Team
These are athletes from the Elite division of the Multisport Madness Triathlon Team, one of the Midwest’s most prestigious triathlon development programs in the country. Its recent alumni include Lukas Verzbicas, Illinois state cross country champion and sub-4:00 miler, as well as Kevin McDowell, also an Illinois cross country and national triathlon standout from Geneva, Illinois.
Those two athletes are now training with the Elite Training Academy in Colorado Springs, but their example of success not only in high school sports but in national triathlon competitions provides inspiration for this new generation of tri-kids getting ready for the main competition season, which is late summer in the USA.
“Most of our kids run cross country with their high school because it doesn’t conflict with the triathlon season and prepares them for the rigors of the run portion of triathlon training,” Lorenz observes. At the same time, all of our triathletes spend the summer training for triathlon instead of participating in summer running with their high school program. “But we tell their coaches, ‘Look, we’re handing you an athlete in top flight condition come August. But they need about a 2-week break at the start of the cross country season in order to begin the rebuilding process towards the Illinois State Cross Country meet.”
Cross country flight
The truth of that statement was borne out in a Kaneland High School athlete, Victoria Clinton, who following a successful national scale triathlon season went on to win the Class 2A Illinois state title in girls cross country. Additionally, Joseph Suarez – Plainfield East sophmore, who joined the MMTT program after school ended last summer, just completed his cross country season as the second fastest sophomore in the state of Illinois (19th overall). Joseph recants, “when I won my first big invitational over Labor Day weekend in a sprint to the finish, I crossed the finish line and told my mom, Look what triathlon training has done for me.” There are few coaches at the high school level who would complain about that type of progress and performance. The only challenge comes in spring when many triathlon athletes elect to forgo the high school track season in favor of base building and cross-training, a key element of triathlon fitness.
“Our triathlon racing season also begins in early March with competitions down in Florida, for example,” says Lorenz. “And by early May some of the important races on the triathlon schedule definitely conflict with the high school track schedule. But if you want to be competitive at the national level you have to compete in these races to be ranked and recognized at a national level.”
Multisport Madness has learned through experience that its athletes often get injured in track and field, whether for reasons of too much intensity, lack of cross training or the force of track running. So the coaches advise against it. That does not make them favorites among high school coaches seeking much-needed distance talent to fill out their squads.
The latitude to compete outside the world of high school sports is nothing new these days. Club volleyball and soccer teams are proving grounds for athletes seeking to go on and compete in college. The sport of triathlon is seeing some growth in the area of college competition, but there is also a national development program in which young athletes live together and train in a sort of “enclave” environment so that their growth as athletes is diversified to the 3 events in triathlon yet specific in the individualized training and transitions necessary to succeed in the sport.
This open-faced-sandwich of competitive opportunities immediately broadens the perspective of young athletes. It used to be that high school sports were the pinnacle of youth competitions. But triathlon is not currently run even as a club sport in some states, especially northern latitudes where swimming outdoors in winter is obviously nuts, and cycling can be tricky on slick roads.
Winter training=summer results
Still, north country triathletes head indoors for daily pool training, and Multisport Madness athletes gather at a health club facility between the borders of Naperville, Aurora and Warrenville. Their bike training is held at the Endure It facility in Naperville with Erik Walter, head coach of the Elite program.
“Our kids really do come from all over the suburbs,” John Lorenz marvels. “I admire their dedication sometimes, driving an hour to practice one way while doing homework in the car. But they will and do improve with us. Our history as a club is proof of that – with over 25 individual national champions and winning the team national championship 7 out of the last 8 years.”
“We offer two levels for youth ages 6-19,” Lorenz notes. “The development team (ages 6 – 15) meets 3 times a week from March through August each year. The Elite team (ages 12 – 19) meets 4 to 5 times a week during the school year and then train 6 days a week during the summer with some days containing multiple sessions. And like I said, many of the kids compete in nationals in August and then recover and run high school cross country.”
When the athletes are asked what they like about being part of MMTT, the answers are quite similar. Heidi Stimac, the longest tenured MMTT athlete mentions, “The best part of being on MMTT is being able to train with such a talented group of athletes. Additionally, when you spend 3+ hours a day training and suffering together, these athletes are not just friends, they are family.” For Patrick Bieszke, second overall at the National Championships last year in the 13 – 15 age group, joining a triathlon team has been a new situation. Patrick previously did his training on his own. “Being part of MMTT has opened my eyes to how you can train for triathlon and have fun doing it. The bonding you experience with your teammates and how they propel you to push harder than you normally would are key benefits of being part of MMTT.”
The program faced a rebuilding year in 2012 in some ways. Its founder, Keith Dickson, decided to dedicate his efforts at a National level. Keith helped create the vision of the Elite Training Academy which allows elite level triathletes to go to school on scholarship while training full time as a triathlete. As MMTT enters 2013, the number of participants on the team has doubled from the prior year and the goal of rebuilding this powerhouse team is gaining steam. While things have changed over the past couple years, the current leadership team has never wavered from Keith’s mission. That includes training athletes together in a team atmosphere. “We are different from other programs in the United States, Lorenz indicates. Our athletes swim, bike and run together in their training sessions.”
Smiles all around
Now one can understand why these young athletes were smiling while running their repeats on a cold blustery December day. The team element of suffering with some of your best buddies creates a fun, motivating environment to succeed and strive to reach the success of the MMTT ancestry.
Grassroots youth programs are proving to be the supply line to building and sustaining world class athletes. That’s the original and simple goal of the Multisport Madness Triathlon Team.