This is not to suggest that the United States actually has a solid developmental infrastructure in triathlon. It so happens, though, that the three athletes who earned spots on the mens Olympic squad in April and May are indeed core products of the limited developmental programs that do exist in the U.S.
Amazing athletes in their own right, the trio are also symbols that indicate how much stronger the United States might become in triathlon with greater support for up-and-comers.
Two of the three, Hunter Kemper, 24, and Nick Radkewich, 29, were exposed to triathlon through IronKids as boys. IronKids is an annual series of short triathlons for kids aged 7 to 14 years.
Regional events take place throughout the country and then an IronKids National Championship brings together top regional finishers from each competitive division. Radkewich defeated Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong to become an IronKids National Champion in 1985, at age 14, and Kemper won five consecutive titles between 1986 and 1990.
After IronKids, Radkewich and Kemper were brought under the nurturing wing of USA Triathlons National Teams program. Originally focused on ensuring triathlon race directors (back when it was known as the Triathlon Federation), USA Triathlon shifted its focus toward elite athlete development after triathlon was granted Olympic status and the organization became the official national governing body of the sport.
Ryan Bolton, 27, the third Olympic Team member, was also gathered into the National Teams fold after being exposed to triathlon as a teenager.
All three of these young men have participated in USATs resident program at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. There they received free room and board, coaching, and management, and enjoyed access to the finest available training partners, facilities, physical therapists, testing equipment and other resources.
They also received travel subsidies that allowed them to compete in World Cup events and other important races across the globe. As their Olympic status indicates, none of them has wasted the opportunity.
Without a doubt, Radkewich, Kemper, and Bolton would not be where they are today without their immense talents, but each owes a portion of his success to the programs that have supported him, as well. And in sending such well-cultivated triathletes to Sydney, these programs have a chance to reward themselves, for if even one of them should win a medal there, interest in the sport could skyrocket in the United States.
Lets take a closer look at the men who will represent the United States in the inaugural Olympic Triathlon, on Sept. 17 in Sydney.
The Comeback Kid: Ryan Bolton
Although Kemper and Radkewich have received more attention, Ryan Bolton is cause for just as much excitement as his Visa commercial co-starring teammates, if youre a fan of American triathlon. Of the three, Bolton seems to have the most unrealized potential as a triathlete, yet even so his best results are about as good as theirs.
Two years ago, Bolton was climbing steadily toward the most rarefied echelon of short-course triathletes when illness dealt him a major setback. In 1998, the then-second-year pro posted several terrific results, including sixth-place and fourth-place finishes in World Cup races. But while training in Australia the following winter, Bolton got sick and stayed sick.
It was absolutely discouraging, he said. I was laid out for two months straight, and even after that I couldnt complete more than two weeks of solid training before I fell apart again.
Boltons doctors, who had no idea what ailed him, prescribed a protracted rest. Consequently, he started only six races last year and was his old self for none of them.
Rest was the right prescription. Bolton has returned to form, winning this years St. Anthonys International Triathlon and finishing fifth (third American) in the Olympic Trials in Dallas to earn a trip to Sydney, where chances are he will be even stronger.
Born and raised in Gillette, Wyo., Bolton has been a lifelong runner, swimmer, and Olympic dreamer.
Ive dreamed of going to the Olympics from the time I first heard about them before I even knew what sport I would do, he said.
Bolton earned 11 varsity letters in running and swimming in high school and was All-America in cross-country at the University of Wyoming. He won a silver medal in the ITU Triathlon World Championships amateur category in 1993, while still in college. Based on that result alone, you cant count him out for a medal in Sydney.
My chances are as good as anyones, he said. Im healthy. Im confident. And Im hungry.
The Boy Wonder: Hunter Kemper
Kemper is very close to becoming the first American triathlete since Mark Allen capable of winning a big race. The third-year pro finished eighth in last years ITU Triathlon World Championship and moved up to seventh this year, just 37 seconds off the winning pace.
Having double-qualified for the Olympic Team by placing as the top American at Aprils World Cup Sydney and by winning the Olympic Trials race in Dallas, theres now only one question on his mind: how to shave off that last half-minute and move up those last few spots against the same competition in September?
Its going to come down to the run, Kemper said. The person with the fastest run split is going to win the gold medal. I had the fifth-fastest run at the World Championships this year, so Im knocking on the door. If I can shave 20 seconds off my 10K time and I think I can Ill have a chance to win.
Kemper has been working on his run for some time.
It was by far his weakest discipline as a childhood triathlete. He ran cross-country and track for four years at Wake Forest University specifically to improve his running enough to become a pro triathlete after graduating. It worked. After grinding through two years as a JV also-ran, he achieved a sudden, major breakthrough that culminated in a second-place finish in his conference at 10,000 meters.
A self-admittedly reluctant trainer, Kemper is motivated by one thing: the thrill of victory.
During those two hours of racing in Dallas, I was just loving it, said Kemper of his Olympic Trials triumph, where he trounced not only the best Americans, but a handful of international stars such as Venezuelas Gilberto Gonzales and Australias Chris Hill. That feeling is the whole reason Im in this sport.
Not that hes blind to the other rewards winning a gold medal might bring him. I would like to stick with the sport until Im able to say Im in it for the money!
The Pioneer: Nick Radkewich
For me, making the Olympic Team wasnt about the opening ceremony or the uniform or any of that, said Nick Radkewich. It was about getting on that starting line and testing myself against the 50 best triathletes in the world.
Radkewich has been trying to get himself onto that starting line since the days before triathlon even became an Olympic sport.
I always assumed it would get in someday, he said. "People used to talk about it even years ago, and I just felt that it would happen, and I would be there.
A true pioneer in the sport, Radkewich was not only the first IronKids National Champion in the senior division, but was also the very first triathete in residence at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., back in 1994.
As a child in Orlando, Fla., Radkewich swam and ran competitively. He earned All-Florida status in cross-country, track, and swimming in his sophomore, junior and senior years of high school.
As Kemper would do after him, Radkewich elected to focus on running in college with the hope that it would make him a better triathlete later. At Notre Dame University, he set running PRs of 14:24 for 5K and 30:14 for 10K. By then he was determined to become a professional triathlete.
In 1998, his sixth season as a pro, Radkewich had a breakout year, winning five of 13 races and establishing himself as Americas great medal hope for the Olympic Triathlon until his friend, training partner and admitted rival Kemper emerged the following year to snatch a share of that mantle.
Im not going to lie to you in races, we want to kill each other! Radkewich said.
These days, Radkewich is pioneering again. Under the direction of his coach, Michelle Blessing, the 1998 USOC Triathlete of The Year does track work at altitude while taking in supplemental oxygen in an attempt to get the best of two disparate training worlds.
It works, he said. My times are even faster than they were in college, when I was only running.
Like his Olympic teammate Joanna Zeiger, Radkewich intends to compete in the Hawaii Ironman just four weeks after the biggest race of his life in Sydney. His long-term vision is to open a franchise location of his sponsor Jacks Coffee and, as he puts it, get fat hanging out and making cappuccinos.