SoCal school forms nation's first-ever high school tri team

Members of the new Huntington Beach High School triathlon team pose beneath the famous Huntington Beach pier  Credit: Courtesy of USA Junior Triathlon
Huntington Beach High School in Orange County, Calif., is known for breaking new ground with its sports programs.

Years ago it became the first high school in the United States to recognize surfing as a varsity sport, and its surf squad has since produced many of the sport's top pros, along with many championships.

It's no surprise, then, that HBHS is now at the leading edge of a movement to bring triathlon into national recognition as a high-school sport.

HBHS coaches Erin Rands, Laura Downey and Dee Fraser have taken up the mantle to form the first high-school triathlon team in the United States. The HBHS team is the first to operate under a new umbrella organization Rands and her co-founders have created, called USA Junior Triathlon (www.usajuniortriathlon.org).

The organization aims to fill a void in junior triathlon, and bridge the gap between the junior ranks and the Collegiate Triathlon Association and USA Triathlon.

"We hope to become like [high school] surfing, having a national organization and having high school leagues and a high school national championships," Rands said.

Naturally, starting a team and running a new organization has proved to be no small undertaking, but Rands, Downey and Fraser and the student athletes who have joined the team are making it happen bit by bit.

"I've never seen so many kids and parents so incredibly jazzed in my entire life," said Rands, 30, who has coached numerous sports at HBHS for five years and splits tri-coaching duties with Downey and Fraser.

"This is so much bigger than I could have ever imagined, and to think it all came from mine and the kids' boredom of running 'the mile,' doing traditional sports, and learning fitness info in the same stale old way."

The fledgling team drew 32 kids to its first meeting, and began training in early April. The team recently added to its roster the 2000 national junior champion, Randall Lewis of Provo, Utah. The 17-year-old senior is aiming for the ITU Junior Worlds in July, and ultimately, the 2008 Olympic Triathlon.

Besides the already-accomplished Lewis, only three of the HBHS team members have ever done a triathlon before, Rands said, and they are girls from other schools. The HBHS team is open to students from other schools, as long as those schools don't have a tri program. A handful of the team members are on the HBHS swim team, and the rest heard about triathlon through Rands' fitness-running class.

"I targeted kids [who] I saw had heart and desire, hungry for knowledge," she said.

In March, the coaches attended a three-day USAT coaching clinic at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. Training schedules are posted on the team's Web site, and the team meets several times a week to train together. Rands handles the run workouts, Fraser oversees the swim workouts and Downey covers the cycling.

"We have varied workouts," Rands said. "Some will be everyone working together, like in a pace line, but mostly they naturally divide up into about four or five packs. Each group, depending upon where they are, will do a different workout but with the same theme; say, we have a fartlek run day: everyone does 40 minutes total but some groups will do more sets than others, or have less or more recovery time it's tailored to individual need within a group workout."

Equipping 33 new triathletes with training gear remains a challenge, but donations are trickling in from the local tri community. Members of the Mission Hospital Triathlon Team and Orange County Triathlon Club have donated seven road bikes to the team, which is still in need of more bikes, jerseys, helmets and other gear.

"I was trying to figure out if we would be able to come up with 15 used road bikes and helmets that was if we were lucky enough to get 15 kids to come out," Rands said. "And now, I think: How in the world are we going to be able to get 32? But I guess it's a good kind of stress. The bad thing is living in a beach city, most of our kids don't even have bikes because they skateboard everywhere."

The team will jump in as volunteers this season at Ironman California in May, and will see its first competition at the Bonelli Express Triathlon on May 12 in San Dimas, Calif.

The Bonelli race's modest distance (200-meter swim, 7-mile bike, 2.2-mile run) will give them a taste of racing before the rest of their season kicks in this summer with stops at the Pacific Coast Triathlon in Corona del Mar, Calif., the Carlsbad Triathlon in Carlsbad, Calif., both in July and the Mrs. T's Age Group Nationals in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, in early September.

Thanks to a USAT scholarship, the team will also be able to send members to a development camp in Florida and participate in the Junior Sprint Nationals in Clermont, Fla., in July.

With those goals in mind, the team is still seeking donations especially for bikes and helmets and has put together a sponsorship packet to shop around to companies and shops within the tri community. Rands notes that all donations to the team are tax-deductible.

Since triathlon is not a school district-funded activity, the coaches are all donating their time and in some cases, their money to make the team work.

"None of us are getting a penny out of it," Rands said. "In fact we've all probably spent at least $1,000 each of our own money getting miscellaneous stuff for the kids, coaching certifications, and things like that."

As the team gets off the ground, HBHS tri coach Fraser is putting together a how-to manual to help other teams get started with their own teams and help USAjT grow.

"It will take time," Rands said, "but we think that [fellow Orange County high school] Newport Harbor and at least a few San Diego schools should follow our lead, as well as at least one or two in Colorado within the next five years or so now that we've done all the legwork on how to make it happen."

For more information about the team, visit their Web site at www.usajuniortriathlon.org

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