Triathlon is a set of sports within a sport. That means swimmers mix with cyclists. Cyclists mix with runners. It’s supposed to be an egalitarian sport.
And we all have our flaws. It’s the rare individual that is truly exceptional in all three sports. More typically we hear people confess their relative weakness in one, two or three of the events it takes to complete a triathlon.
Given the native humility that is almost inherent to the sport, it is a bit surprising that some people seem focused on competing for attention and loyalty. Specifically, this seems to be true among individuals in triathlon clubs.
Let’s imagine there’s a club call Wonderful Tri. There are 80 members in the club. Some are accomplished triathletes while others are just novices. A set of four coaches caters to these athletes, prescribing workouts and leading swims and rides and runs.
In another nearby suburb is a club called Tri For It. That group is run by a multi-Kona athlete. Most of the team members are serious triathletes. They ride the best bikes and sport the best gear. Admission to the club is done by application only. There are 75 members in Tri For It. All of them have Ironman tattoos of one kind or another. To wear the Tri For It kit is a point of regional pride. It costs $1000 just to be a member of the club, and coaching is extra. Most spend $350 per month, or more than $4000 a year on coaching.
Finally, there’s a third club called WTF Tri. They’re a laid-back group of generally half-fit athletes who enjoy training and attending events together. Their club is run by a hang-loose board that runs the website and organizes sag rides for training rides and other events. Their social calendar is always full and their post-race party tent is one of the most popular places to visit after weekend events. WTF makes it clear that everyone is welcome. There’s only a small fee to join, and their team kit has a giant WTF on the front and the back. There are no official team shorts, so the team always has a colorful appearance everywhere they go. Their website has reams of videos of triathlon fails.
One day an athlete from Wonderful Tri joins one of laid-back athletes from WTF Tri for a group ride. They strike up a relationship and within a few weeks, the Wonderful Tri athlete jumps clubs to join up with WTF Tri. To the surpise of the Wonderful Tri athletes, race results turn out pretty much the same. “I can’t believe it,” the Wonderful Triathlete says. “I’m training half as hard and getting the same results.”
One weekend at a local bar, the Wonderful Triathlete and their WTF partner bump into a longtime friend from the elite Try Fot It. “C’mon,” they say. “How about joining us for a ride this weekend? We’re not as fast as the Tri For It group ride, but we can pull off and do some hard intervals together if you like. You can do all the pulls,” they tease.
So the three friends have a great time riding together. And the very next week, the Tri For It athlete decides they like the vibe of WTF and against the advice of all their friends, transfers clubs as well.
Word gets back to the Tri For It coach that one of her athletes is jumping ship to the upstart club with all those members. This sends a touch of concern through her mind. “What if 20 of my athletes go over there?” she worries. “I’ve got to put a stop to this.” The reasons are legitimate. The Try For It club is her sole source of income. Her coaches depend on her for income too. And all those sponsors want to see results.
So she sends an email goes out to all the Tri For It members. “All training done with other triathletes must be approved by your coaches,” the email says. This sets off alarm bells among several of the Tri For It athletes. Several of them secretly run and swim with triathletes from other clubs as well. In fact, several even date athletes from other teams and spend a fair amount of time hanging out with their club members after workouts. “It helps me wind down,” one of the top Try For It athletes admits. “Training is so hard, I like to have a beer or two with people who aren’t so intense about it.”
The Wonderful Tri coach gets wind of the email from the Tri For It coach and brings it up at a weekend Olympic Distance triathlon. “Hey, don’t be so worried,” the Wonderful coach says. “I’m not trying to steal any of your athletes. There are enough new people for everyone.”
But secretly, the Tri For It coach is concerned because sponsors have been demanding to see growth. The club has been stuck at 75 members for two years because whenever athletes come in, several drop out as well. “Keep away from my team,” the Tri For It coach blurts. “Or you may find some of your better athletes over on my side.”
Athletes from both teams overhear that conversation. Pretty soon the rumor mill is going full steam amongst all the teams.
Suddenly athletes begin making the jump from team to team. Then two coaches from Wonderful Tri and Tri For It go over and join the WTF team. Then WTF announces the formation of a WTF Elite Racing Team. And that same weekend, WTF sweeps the podium. When that happens, sponsors of the Try For it team call the coach to inform her that a portion of their sponsorship money will be migrated to WTF Elite. “We have to spread the support around,” they inform her.
Within weeks the local newspaper catches wind of all the triathlon controversy. A story appears on the front page with the headline, “Tri getting along, or not.” A series of triathletes are quoted anonymously in the article. The overall tone is patronizing, to say the least. The next week the editorial page of the newspapers fills with letters to the editor from people complaining that triathletes sound like petty, entitled, childish jerks. “And by the way,” one letter writer says. “Stay off our roads.”
One WTF triathlete named Willy does a social media post on YouTube. Sitting in his WTF triathlon kit in the front seat of his car, he opines: “I may be the least talented athlete out there,” he says. “But it sure seems like we all need to grow up a little around here. I mean, What the F*** difference does it really make what team you join? Aren’t we all just trying to do our best? This is all ridiculous.”
The video goes viral because it also happens to show Willy’s cat doing somersaults on the shelf of the rear car window. After 1,000,000 hits on his video, Willy gets a sponsorship offer from Tyr and starts his own media channel called Really WTF? On which he opines about all kinds of sports.
The moral of the story is that it’s just plain stupid to worry about triathlon club membership. If you’re not happy with a coach or a team, then go. Cut the damn drama and join another club for the right reasons. Leave as if you’re leaving a job. Don’t burn bridges even if those bridges deserve to be burned to the ground, trampled into the dust and sold on the Black Market as Satan’s Ashes.
Triathlon is supposed to be an egalitarian sport. Of course, we all know that’s not likely to happen as long as tribalism is allowed to rule the social, economic and competitive dynamic. Is the triathlon world really no better at this than the rest of society? Sometimes it would appear so.
Perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at how everyone views the sport of triathlon. So you might start by reading this here bloggishness. Seems like it’s headed in the right direction.