The History of Triathlon - Part I: Learning to Swim

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On September 25, 2009, the sport of triathlon celebrates its 35th birthday. In April of this year, the international organizing body for the sport, the International Triathlon Union (ITU), celebrated 20 years.

A sport that was born as an alternative activity for San Diego Track Club members has grown to a family that includes the iconic Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, three inclusions in the Olympic Games and countless events of varying distances around the world. Currently, the ITU is looking for more inclusion world-wide as it offers Sport Development programs to help countries get involved and get more flags represented on the start line of the Olympic Games.

So just how does a quirky club sport turn into the fastest growing sport in the world? Mix equal parts of challenge, fun, colorful characters, passion, power struggles, television, backroom deals and a push for Olympic inclusion. But it all began with a couple of guys looking to organize a new event.

In 1974, Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan, decided to put on this new type of race as an activity for the San Diego Track Club. Their newsletter that year read:

Run, Cycle, Swim: Triathlon set for 25th

The First Annual Mission Bay Triathlon, a race consisting of segments of running, bicycle riding, and swimming, will start at the causeway to Fiesta Island at 5:45 pm September 25. The event will consist of 6 miles of running (longest continuous stretch, 2.8 miles), 5 miles of bicycle riding (all at once), and 500 yards of swimming (longest continuous stretch, 250 yards). Approximately 2 miles of running will be barefoot on grass and sand. Each participant must bring his own bicycle. Awards will be presented to the first five finishers.

In modern terms, this is the first time the word "triathlon" was used in print. Organizers took the name from the fact there were three sports and in a similar vein of the established sports of pentathlon, heptathlon and decathlon.

It was common in the early triathlons to have swimming as the last event. It seemed logical to swim at the end of the race in order to cool off. However, as more competitors enjoyed the experience of a triathlon, it became obvious it was unsafe to finish with the swim leg. People experienced cramps and accumulated fatigue during the swim, making for dangerous conditions. Today, most triathlons are staged in a swim, bike, run sequence; although a few exceptions do remain.

As the 1970s progressed, triathlons were becoming more popular on the west coast of the United States, and their popularity was extending north to Canada, as well as other select locations.

The Early Years of Ironman

It was at the awards ceremony for the 1977 Oahu Perimeter running relay race that U.S. Naval officer John Collins laid down a challenge for others to compete in an event that combined three of Oahu's toughest endurance events into a single event. He combined the Waikiki Rough Water Swim, the Around-Oahu Bike Ride and the Honolulu Marathon into one race that was 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling and capped off with 26.2 miles of running.

On February 18, 1978 his challenge was accepted by 15 men and Ironman triathlon was born. Only 12 of the 15 starters finished that first event, with Gordon Haller crossing the finish line first with a time of 11:46.58.

In 1980, it was ABC's Wide World of Sports broadcast that brought Ironman and triathlon into mainstream media. Anxious spectators watched Julie Moss crawl towards the finish line, while Kathleen McCartney ran past her for first place. It was real life drama made for television, viewers and athletes alike became hooked on the sport.

Triathlon Gets Organized

The sport of triathlon was gaining positive press and momentum worldwide. As it often happens, along with the explosive growth came problems. There were poorly organized races, dangerous courses, a lack of uniform rules and events in multiple countries claiming to be the "World Championship" of various distances.

This spurred several countries to organize national federations. Triathlon Federation USA, or Tri-Fed, was born in the U.S.A. in 1982 (it would later become what is now USA Triathlon). Just north, a fellow named Les McDonald was the driving force behind establishing the first provincial federation in British Columbia in 1983, and then the Canadian Federation in 1985.

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