Give them an Olympic dream and they will come

Jill Newman is a candidate to medal in the Olympic triathlon competition for the United States  Credit: Darren England/Allsport
Guess what? The previously unthinkable has become thinkable: The United States can medal in the Olympic triathlon.

In fact, the possibility of a gold medal exists, and the reason is because a group of formerly unknown American triathletes took up the daunting challenge and accepted a draining, protocolled World Cup circuit to go after the Olympic dream.

It hasnt been easy, and thats the primary reason theyve become so good. You can talk smack about the ITU points system endlessly; about how its unfair to make triathletes travel all over the globe chasing the points at draft-legal races in Japan, Australia, South America and Europe; about the nature and value of draft-legal races; but for those who decided they wanted to try to earn a space on the team, come hell or high water, their hardened lives, bent on survival, have sharpened them.

Heres a few reasons why American athletes have a chance at snatching podium-space in Sydney:

Youve taken their beatings, on the oppositions turf: Over the last three years, all of the current contenders have had too many days like this: You know that you need ITU points and a good ITU ranking, and you know you need experience racing in the Olympic format.

So you buy a ticket to a race in Japan, or Hungary or Australia. Maybe part or all of the ticket is subsidized by USA Triathlon (USAT), but not unless youve been putting hot finishes on the board.

Quite possibly, with a flinch of your heart, you hand the travel agent a Mastercard with no ones name on it but your own. This is rather painful, because to even dream about being competitive with the Emma Carneys and Miles Stewarts of the world, youve had to give up a stable income for either part-time income or, most favorable to their training, no income.

Paying sponsorships hard enough to come by anyway are especially difficult to snare when you face the uniform branding and equipment regulations imposed by the ITU.

You train your brains out: You practice transitions as if you were administering CPR. You pack your bike and drag it to the airport for the hundredth time. You arrive in another land where you dont speak the language, and depend on the other American athletes to help you figure out whats going on and where youre supposed to be, and what to do when you get there.

The race is a disaster: You get kicked in the chin during the swim. Stunned, you shake it off, and suddenly youre in the third pack. By the time you wobble into transition, the hunt for a fat wad of ITU points is effectively over, because the drafting pack long ago launched into warp speed, and the only person out there with you makes it clear theyd sooner lay down on the ground than take a turn pulling.

You finish in 40-something place, barely good enough to get you into the post-race food tent, and you know that the long flight home will give you plenty of time to examine your self-worth and your gasping checkbook. And to figure out which race is next.

The Americans that havent been broken by this process have grown extremely strong and extremely skilled. Theyve begun to realize that, on the right day when things click in their favor, they can beat anyone around.

Theyre willing to suffer, constantly.

If youre under the impression that all World Cup racing means cruising through the swim and the bike while waiting for the run, well, thats becoming less and less the case, and is certainly the exception on courses with a hilly and technical bike ride (much like the Sydney course).

Specializing in World Cup triathlon events now means learning how to hurt from the moment the gun goes off until you cross the finish line.

The first 400 meters in the swim has taken on the look and speed of a 400-meter freestyle, sans lanes. It doesnt stop there, because one bad move in the transition area and the youre already off the back. Its anaerobic, start to bloody finish.

Its more of a survival of pain tolerance than anything else, and the best Americans have figured this out.

Consider a typical race for Jill Newman, who was fifth at the Pan-Am games this summer and has a good chance of making the American team this spring.

Newmans race day starts early and cogently. If you should you happen to be staying at the same hotel as she and wake to the sound and screech of AC/DC coming from the next room, youre actually staying right next to Newman, who is winding up to a little Back in Black.

Later on, you can see Newman thrash her 5-foot-1, 108-pound body in the F5 tornado that is the trademark of World Cup racing swim starts. See Newman sprint full-bore into the transition area, and see Newman yell at women in her bike pack that are choosing to slack. See Newman run through the finish line, pop a couple hi-fives, collapse to the pavement and puke her guts out.

This is a brilliant time to recall that just a few years ago, she was a corporate lawyer specializing in mergers and acquisitions.

Newman didnt put her law career on hold for money; only love. Theyve raced against the best, and are finding ways to beat them.

Its a heartening thing to see: The Americans, and maybe Hunter Kemper and Jennifer Gutierrez are most emblematic of this trait, are deeply dissatisfied placing eigth, or seventh, or fourth or third. Or second. They want to win. They expect to be winning.

This dissatisfaction is a vital substance in Americas hopes to medal in what may be the one and only appearance of triathlon in the Olympic Games. And it would seem we have a nice, brimming bucketful of it.

Stay tuned for part two as we look at the number of other reasons why the United States has a good shot at bringing home hardware from the Olympic Games.

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