Florida: Triathlon Capital of the World

Let's run that title around the brain one more time - "Florida - Triathlon Capital of the World."

Could it be? Could an essentially flat, horrifically hot, humid, stretched-out peninsula lay claim to a sport that started in Hawaii, exploded in California, and raced from nowhere to world-wide prominence and an Olympic lead-off slot, in just a shade over 20 years?

I think so.

Start with not one, but two, half-Iron-length triathlons: Great Floridian and Ironman Florida. One, a national championship, the other with a field about as large in its first year as any Hawaii has ever hosted.

Then we add one of the largest and oldest Iron-length races, Gulf Coast, and the second-largest international distance event, St. Anthony's. For depth, we'll go with something like five separate triathlon series, including one staged at Clermont's Waterfront Park - which, in all likelihood, has staged more triathlons than any other venue on the face of the planet.

Not enough?

Fair enough.

How about the world's largest,and determinedly craziest, triathlon club - the St. Pete Mad Dogs? We can't forget a quaint little race, Cypress Gardens, celebrating its 21st staging in 2000, and a whole slew of races well past puberty and rapidly approaching voting age.

Dare we mention a couple of tri-people (Hunter Kemper, Nick Radkewich and Gina Derks) short-listed for the U.S. Olympic team, one of the sports oldest Iron-guys (Jim Ward) and one of its toughest Masters, and most prolific racers, Joe Bonness.

Throw in year-round training, pools aplenty, a state surrounded by - and filled with - open water swimming venues, enough hills in the right places, lots of lightly-traveled roads and some knock-your-socks-off training facilities, and you begin to see that Florida's case ain't all that weak.

What may really set the Sunshine State apart is a cadre of diehard promoters, who have been putting on races, lots of races, since tri-fever escaped the Hawaiian Islands and infected the continental United States.

Tip your hat to the Big Three - Fred Sommer, Steve Tebon and John Boyle - and recognize that even they can't rest easy. As Olympic fever and Iron-insanity take hold, the ranks of those willing to stage first class triathlons continues to grow.

What follows is a collection of snapshots; a look at what makes Florida (for argument's sake) the Triathlon Capital of the World. Enjoy - then get off your butt and get out there tri-ing!

Empire Builders

It wasn't a very obvious decision in the mid-80s, when three promoters, with three very different visions, started operations in Florida.

Fred Sommer decided to turn the Central Florida outpost of Clermont into the national capital of triathlon. A pretty grand plan for a small town that can generously be described as the middle of nowhere.

Steve Tebon saw a modest, county park-based, summer triathlon series and envisioned a resort-based weekend full of activities.

And Jon Boyle saw a calendar with lots of holes in it and decided to fill them up.

Boyle still vividly recalls his first triathlon, the Winona Classic.

"That was the year the porch collapsed and all my timing equipment went out and the outboard motor on the boat died ..."

All these problems - and more - were caused by a relentless deluge that basically drowned the entire race. But, hey, those of us who were there had an absolute blast.

Which leads Boyle to the conclusion of his tale of woe, "...and so I kept doing it."

So did Tebon and Sommer.

Tebon has now produced well over 100 triathlons at resorts in Florida, Georgia and The Bahamas. Triathlons are just the cornerstone of his Publix Family Fitness Weekends, which also include in-line skating, running, open water swimming and kids triathlons. With a pro prize purse of $10-15,000 and eight televised dates, Tebon's Exclusive Sports Marketing has its triathlon endeavors running like a well-oiled machine.

Fred Sommer has certainly followed through in his grand plan to transform Clermont into Triathlon USA. The town's redeveloped Waterfront Park is the annual staging ground for races ranging from sprints, to the Iron-length, Great Floridian.

His CFT Sommer Sports provides race management and timing services for a growing group of events. USA Triathlon, the sport's national governing body, may or may not, relocate to a lavish new facility developed in Clermont by Orlando Regional Health Care Systems.

For all intents and purposes, Fred owns the hilly country roads all through Central Florida. His triathlons seem to have an open pass, but seldom does a bicycle race get permitted to use the same turf.

Both Sommer and Tebon have had their moments of doubt.

"Back in the early '90s, I came real close to just giving up. It gets to the point where you say, 'Why in the hell am I doing this?'" Sommer admits. "We were strictly entry fees for years, and selling sponsorships is still an uphill battle. We're not in downtown Tampa, Orlando or Miami."

Selling sponsorships has always been Steve Tebon's strong suit, but even that can have its hazards. Just last season, he had one of the key executives from Publix attend an event for the first time.

After the swim start, they jumped in Tebon's car to check the bike course. Despite all the necessary pre-planning, the first major intersection they came to was totally unmanned. With race leaders, Dave Picciano and Stefan Larsen, bearing down, he made a quick decision and recruited the exec as a traffic cop/course monitor. The move turned a potential disaster into a huge bonus.

"He had a blast," Tebon recalls. "He couldn't believe how fast they were going."

Needless to say, Publix is still firmly in the ESM camp.

The success of Boyle, Sommer and Tebon has inspired others to get in the game. In Miami, Robert Pozo formed SBR-Multisport in late 1998 to put on a range of events, including bicycle time trials, duathlons and triathlons.

Pozo admires Tebon's salesmanship, but says frankly, "I want to build here what Fred Sommer's got in Clermont."

Of Tebon and ESM, Pozo makes the comparison, "They're a marketing company who use sports as a vehicle. I'm a sports company who needs sponsors to make a reasonable living."

In Broward County, James Moloschi's Adventurous Concepts is another start-up. This one is riding the wave of interest in adventure racing.

In only its second year, the ambitious Moloschi already has six off-road triathlons on the schedule, along with a bunch of adventure races, including a multi-day, cross-state race over the Memorial Day Weekend. Look for his off-road triathlon series to expand to at least two more venues in 2001 as the fun keeps coming.

The Crown Jewels

To be a great triathlon state, you need more than lots of races. You need great races, and Florida has a collection that would do most nations proud. St. Anthony's, Gulf Coast, the Great Floridian and Ironman Florida stand apart as races of national and international significance and stamp Florida as a key stop on the world triathlon circuit.

St. Anthony's Tampa Bay Triathlon has long carried the title of the country's unofficial season opener. Sure, there are lots of races that hit the start line before St. Anthony's April 29/30 weekend, but this is the first biggie; the one that draws age groupers and pros alike to show what they've got.

In 1999, the pros were split out from the main field and given their own race in a spectator-friendly, draft-legal criterium format.

The pro picture for 2000 is somewhat murky at this point. In addition to the juicy $30,000 prize purse, the 1999 event served as a qualifier for the Pan American Games. With the PanAms a non-factor this year, St. Anthony's finds itself stacked up against the ITU World Cup Championship in Perth, Australia, in its bid to get a top field. One American man and woman will get their ticket to Sydney punched at Perth and all competitors will vie for loads of ITU points.

On the other hand, a pro could sneak into Tampa Bay, pick up a quick $5 grand and still add a healthy supply of ITU points.

Look for a strong field of Americans to pass up Perth, race St. Anthony's and then make their Olympic bid, three weeks later, in Dallas.

Amateurs, as well, have lost some St. Anthony's incentive. In 2000, the race will no longer be an Ironman Hawaii qualifier, though there have been discussions with Ironman North America about awarding some slots to St. Anthony's age groupers for Isuzu Ironman USA Lake Placid.

Race director Steve Meckfessel thinks that any Ironman short-fall will be made up by the race's new affiliation with The Leukemia Society of America's Team in Training program, which will bring at least 200 athletes to the start line.

Any way you look at it, St. Anthony's is a class act and will roll right along. The total weekend program includes: the Elite race and the amateur race at the International Distance (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run); the Meek and Mighty races for kids and beginning adults; a weekend long sports expo; live music and great awards.

Two weeks after St. Anthony's, on May 13, the panhandle resort of Panama City hosts the first of its two mega-races, the 18th Annual Gulf Coast Triathlon. With a long tradition and a veteran set of race organizers and volunteers, Gulf Coast virtually runs on auto pilot, as long as the weather cooperates.

Race co-director Shelley Bramblett expects another sell-out - 1,750 individuals and 100 relays for the race, which this year serves as both the USAT Regional Long Distance Championship and the National Championship for Clydesdales and Athenas. Big tri-people rule! Yet another carrot for competitive age groupers comes in the form of some Ironman qualifying slots - 30 for Isuzu Ironman Florida and 10 for Isuzu Ironman Lake Placid.

While the Gulf of Mexico generally deserves its reputation for placid waters, spring storms that whip through the southeast have been known to churn up some sizable waves and brisk winds, turning the swim course into a considerable challenge and making the flat, flat ride much tougher than expected.

A couple of years back, a storm was so bad that a lot of racers had trouble making it to Panama City and Delta Airlines had to truck about 75 bikes to the race when planes couldn't take-off. Though the weather calmed by race morning, the seas were still rough and a number of athletes opted out of the swim.

Things have been much calmer the last couple of years, so mark Gulf Coast down on your calendar as a must-do if you're itching to PR at the half-Iron distance (1.2M swim, 56M bike, 13.1M run.).

Just as it takes profound persistence to finish an Iron-length triathlon, putting one on is an act of faith (or lunacy), that will call on every bit of a race promoter's willpower.

Certainly that was the case 10 years ago when Fred Sommer invited the world to go Iron in Central Florida at The Great Floridian. Just as he finally got the race over the hump, what happens? The World Triathlon Corporation, owners of the fabled Ironman series, drops a race right in his backyard in Panama City.

Not to worry.

While the Great Floridian's numbers dropped substantially to 700 in 1999, Sommer expects a rebound to between 1,100 and 1,200 starters in 2000, with the field limit fixed at 1,200. The 10th Anniversary race on October 21, has been designated the USAT National Championship at the Iron-distance (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run) and that, plus the almost inexplicable resurgence of Iron-distance racing, should bring a healthy field to the start line.

How healthy they'll be at the finish line in downtown Clermont is another question.

As Sommer says, "The problem with Clermont races is that they're tough."

Indeed they are. While Panama City offers a flat ride, the hills and heat of Central Florida make for a tough combination. You do well at The Great Floridian and you've earned the right to call yourself an Ironman, even if the race doesn't have the nifty little logo.

The race that does have that little logo, Ironman Florida, takes place November 4 in Panama City. Ironman North America communications director, Shane Facteau, credits Shelley Bramblett and the rest of the Panama City crew for the success of the race in 1999, its first year.

"We used them all, they were the biggest reason for choosing Panama City to host the race."

For her part, Bramblett says there was no community resistance to adding a second huge event.

"We all thought it was great. Anything that helps promote Panama City as a family destination is welcome. Triathlon tends to attract a very nice upper class group of people, the kind of people we want to come to Panama City."

With a veteran race organization in place and a flat, fast course on offer, there were no first year jitters for Isuzu Ironman Florida as 1,545 athletes started and a remarkable 1,474 finished the inaugural event.

If you want to join the crowd, don't hesitate. 1,400 slots have already been filled for the first qualifier for the 2001 Ironman Hawaii and the doors will swing shut soon.

The Basics

"Everybody else does their race backwards," says Steve Christman of the Cypress Gardens Sertoma Triathlon.

When you're gearing up for your 21st annual race, you can afford to chuckle about your oddball run/bike/swim order.

Probably the third oldest continuously held triathlon in the world, Cypress Gardens retains the small town charm of the attraction that hosts the race. And, it's a great value.Your $35 advance entry fee gets you the race, a towel and a T-shirt and entry to the park.

"We've lost some people because we stopped providing beer," notes Christman. "This year, we're going to have a band, beer, maybe even some Hooters girls."

What more could you want?

Kicking off the Waterfront Park season is the 17th Annual Great Clermont Triathlon, the one that started it all in Triathlon Town USA. A one-third mile swim, 20-mile bile and 5-mile run, it's enough to let you know you were in a race. And with all the amenities of a CFT Sommer Sports production, you'll be right happy about it.

Return to the roots at Camp Winona for the 16th Annual Winona Classic. Just finding this out-o- the-way venue can be an adventure, but you just gotta dig the lakeside, post-race pancake breakfast.

Wanna party? Nobody parties with more enthusiasm than the St. Pete Mad Dog Triathlon Club; so you just gotta know the bar is going to be raised pretty high at the Mad Beach Mad Dog Triathlon in Madeira Beach. 800 party animal/triathletes took up the Mad Dog Challenge, but our guess is some of them were wimps cuz they only went through eight kegs of beer. This year look for more beer and a wailing rock-and-roll band at the post-race party.

Wanna party some more? Don't miss the annual stop of the Coca Cola Triathlon Series in Abaco, The Bahamas. Kalik, the beer of The Bahamas, will be much in evidence through a long Labor Day Weekend.

Seems lots of Mad Dogs attend this one and they throw their own party just when you think you can't party any more.

The Kids Are All Right

It's almost axiomatic that the core group of active triathletes is aging.

"The high school kids and 20-29s just aren't there now," opines Alta Vista's John Boyle. "The big age group is 40-49. They're the same people who were doing triathlons 15 years ago, they're just older now."

While that certainly appears to be the case at most races, the good news is that opportunities for tri-talented kids in Florida has never been better.

Race directors are including youthful age groups or, better still, putting on kids-only races.

A few schools have triathlon clubs and some of Florida's top triathletes, like Olympic hopefuls Hunter Kemper and Gina Derks, trace their tri-roots back to secondary school exposure.

And, wonder of wonders, USA Triathlon has put together some promising programs to keep the pipeline full of new participants, even as the rest of us dodder off into senility in our Speedos and running shoes.

Long time Florida triathlete Cyle Sage, works with USA Triathlon as Athlete Development Director. In his best bureaucratese, Sage describes his role as "designing, developing, implementing and evaluating athlete recruitment and training programs..." or something like that. Mainly, his role is to put together models for exposing kids to the sport that can be repeated across the country.

It's a big job, but Sage is the kind of guy who will just go out and do it no matter how tough the task.

Going back to gov-speak, Sage says that he is working to put together regional coaching networks from the base of USAT's 350 certified coaches - "who will volunteer to serve as points of contact and present the sport in middle schools, high schools and colleges. We want a network of people in place so people who are interested in the sport will know where to find help."

An example of his on-going programs is an after-school program at John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg. Last year 30 students from the program participated in the Meek & Mighty triathlon at St. Anthony's. This year the number is expected to be 80.

He also works to put together summer programs networked with local triathlon clubs, where the kids can have structured mentoring and training.

"The USOC has said that it will use the USAT plan as a model for the other National Governing Bodies high performance markers," Sage says, adding with a strong hint of satisfaction, "that's pretty big stuff."

Kids looking for a good time in triathlon won't have to travel far, as there are races all over the state, highlighted by the USAT Junior National Championships at, where else, Clermont's Waterfront Park on July 16.

Held in conjunction with race #2 of the Clermont Triathlon Series, Jr. Nationals should give us a first look at our triathletes for the Summer Games of 2008 or 2012. There are kids races at shorter distances at all the Clermont Series events.

Kids also can jump into the game at the Toll House Sprint Kids events held during the Publix Family Fitness Weekends. About 55-60 kids take part at every stop along the way as the tour winds its way through Florida.

Already in the books for the year is the Teen Tours of America Kids Triathlon, which took place in March on the campus of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

South Florida tri-kids still have plenty of opportunities as Snyder Park in Fort Lauderdale hosts the Kids BEST Triathlon Series with events in April, May and June, the latter a USAT Regional Championship.

Other hot spots for kids include the aforementioned Meek and Mighty at St. Anthony's, the Mighty Kids race held the day before the Mad Beach Mad Dog Triathlon in May, and the Amerikids Youth Triathlon in Jacksonville on Labor Day Weekend.

Pick a Series, Any Series

What's your flavor? Do you like to match yourself against the same course over and over to measure improvement or do you prefer to wander, nomad-like, from resort to resort, swimming, riding and running your way to nirvana? Either way, Florida's got you covered in 2000 with great races in classic locations.

By just about any measure, the Clermont Triathlon Series rules the roost. At the very do-able sprint distances of 1/4M swim, 11M bike and 3M run, this summer series at Waterfront Park could close out at the course max of 1,200 entrants every time.

USA Triathlon has named it the race of the year in both 1997 and 1999 and the crowd keeps coming back for the whole package - cool T-shirt, excellent post-race party and division for novices, fat tire bike and Clydesdales/Athenas.

By contrast, the state's oldest series, the Coca Cola Classic Triathlon Series keeps rumbling along, hitting locations from the Florida Keys to The Bahamas and Georgia.

With a boatload of sponsors, the whole carnival is known as the Publix Family Fitness Weekend and includes the Lean Cuisine Ocean Mile swim, the Buttoni 5k run, the Toll House Sprint Kids Triathlon and the Nestea In-line Skate 5K.

Want to sponsor something? They'll make up an event just for you. In fact, Friendship Dairies has come on board to sponsor special, first-timers divisions at between three and six of the races.

The whole package includes coaches who will conduct pre-races explanation sessions for the newbies, escort them right to the start line and cheer them all the way through the race. There's even a special section of the website just for the beginners.

Miami's Key Biscayne suddenly emerges as a competitor to Clermont in the "most triathlons" derby as six races are scheduled for the scenic urban course.

The Coca Cola Classic Series returns to the Key in April, along with the standby Huntington's Disease Triathlon in August and the Second Annual Hurricane Classic in September.

The big kick in the numbers comes from the SBR-Multisport Key Biscayne Triathlon Trilogy Series, which will run in May, June and July. Look for the Trilogy to emulate the Clermont Series in every way possible - grass roots appeal, quality production, and, hopefully, growing entry numbers.

Speaking of grass roots appeal, the Beaches Fine Arts Triathlon Series returns to Ponte Vedra at the mellow distances of 1/4M swim, 12M bike and 3 mile run. Look for these events in May, June and July.

If you like the Beaches Series, you might want to give the new Crystal River Series a try, with events in May, June and July. Both series are produced by Alta Vista Sports.

Last year Alta Vista did the July 4th race in Crystal River, and everybody was so happy with the experience that they decided to expand into the series mode.

As the name implies, the Crystal River makes for a beautiful mile swim around an island and the flat roads in the vicinity insure that you'll groove to the 15-mile ride and 3.3 mile run. Try this series and experience a return to a small town, Norman Rockwell America while you tri your heart out.

Off-Road Triathlons: Gettin' Dirty Wid It

Okay, so maybe off-road triathlons aren't the next big thing. That mantel is still held by sprint adventure racing, but this cross betweens conventional tri's and adventure races is certainly the next fun thing.

Start (or finish) with an open water swim, romp around the woods for a while on your mountain bike, and then go back in those woods for your run. That's the basic formula but, of course, nobody wants it to be that easy.

At an Adventure Triathlon 2000, you're likely to have to deal with some serious climbing obstacles along the way. Sand and Stone will ask you to traverse a slime pit with the aid of a fixed rope and then, after multiple swims and runs, demands that you leap from a 14' foot platform and swim another 200 yards to reach the finish line.

While it technically doesn't make the cut, due to the omission of an aqueous segment, York Somerville thinks enough of his Next Generation Off-Road Duathlon Series in Brooksville to label the tough course - "Hell."

Here's what you need to know. Adventure Triathlon Series 2000 takes place in South Florida, alternating between the venues at John Lloyd State Recreation Area in Dania, and Oleta State Recreation Area in North Miami Beach.

Promoter James Moloschi ran his first race at John Lloyd in 1999 and about 15 people showed up. History buffs will note that this equals the number of diehards that competed in the first Ironman, way back in 1978. By the end of the '99 season, Moloschi's numbers were up to about 85-90 per race.

He says, "Our first events drew traditional triathletes, but as we moved to Oleta, we got more adventure racers. We never got too many mountain bikers, though. I don't think they like to run."

Expect to swim a little over a half-mile, ride 10-15 and run between three and five at an Adventure Triathlon Series 2000 event.

Although Moloschi admits, "We don't always know the exact distances."

And, you should expect to carry your bike through water or push it in unrideable terrain. Plus, there will certainly be something to climb such as a cargo net or a wall.

There are five more Adventure Triathlon Series 2000 events left on the calendar. Check out the site at www.adventurousconcepts.com or call 954-520-8089.

The Naples Area Triathletes have already wrapped up their winter campaign of the Sand and Stone Triathlon, but look for the four event series to start back up this December in a working rock quarry in Naples.

The distances go about half-mile swim, six on the bike and three on the run. Lots of fun on a course that changes every time.

Call Joe Bonness at 941-598-2426 or e-mail to IronJoe3@aol.com.

The Next Generation Duathlon Series is also all wrapped up until December.

Wimps will opt for the Heaven course, tough guys and girls should start training now for Hell.

"People walk away from Hell knowing they did something hard," says promoter York Somerville. "The run is a one-mile loop, but it's a kind of running most people around here have never done. There's a lot of climbing, some of it that you use ropes to get up. The bike loop is two miles, most of it climbing and interesting single track."

But don't get the idea that this is a three-mile race. Try running four, cycling twelve and running two more. Ouch!

There's also a Team Hell event, which relays can do in a tag-team format at the same distances. And the Heaven course, on a completely different-and mellow - circuit, is a mere two/six/one.

Contact York Somerville at 727-527-8869 or e-mail to york@ij.net.

Discuss This Article