After an admittedly slow start to the Elite Triathlon Academy program in Colorado Springs in 2011, the ETA is hitting its stride at the end of its second year and showing some promise for producing 2016 Olympians.
“I’m happy with where we are,” says Andy Schmitz, USA Triathlon’s high performance general manger, who oversees all the Olympic and athlete development programs for USAT. “I think we’re definitely at a point where we’re looking back at the last two years and redefining what the organization means, and what we would do to be successful going forward. But I think a lot of good has been done in our sport to further the collegiate aspirations in our country.”
The Elite Triathlon Academy (ETA) began in 2011 as an opportunity for young athletes who are interested in pursuing triathlon to continue to race it throughout college. The program, funded by U.S. Olympic Committee dollars, allows a handful of athletes to attend undergraduate classes full-time at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs while training for triathlon at the Olympic Training Center. Due to triathlon not being recognized as an NCAA (and thus college-supported) sport, young athletes were leaving triathlon for four years to take advantage of track and field or swimming scholarships at major universities.
The original idea stemmed from a noticeable trend in Olympic triathletes. “I think a lot of the athletes that came from the previous generation—like Steven Duplinsky, who went to go run at Stanford, and then even further back, the athletes like Hunter Kemper or Andy Potts, who ran at Wake Forest or swam at Michigan, have sort of evolved quite a bit,” Schmitz says. “Right now, you see athletes training younger—the Brownlees and Mario Mola and others from different countries. … There seems to be a trending downward of the age, where instead of the Hunter [Kemper]s and the Simon [Whitfield]s and the Bevan Dochertys who are medaling in their 30s, I think we’re going to see a younger age group represented in the Olympic Games.” As far as developing young U.S. athletes, “we didn’t provide an opportunity for them to stay in the sport, and either advance their progression or not slow down their progression,” he says.
Currently the ETA has six student-athletes: Erin Jones, Avery Evenson, Luke Farkas, Johanna Gartman, Ryan Bice and Kevin McDowell—all of whom have started to see some racing success. For example, in 2012, Jones earned her elite card and logged a top-10 pro finish at the Toyota U.S. Open Triathlon in Dallas. And then in April she won the USAT Collegiate National Championship Draft-legal Sprint in Arizona over fellow ETA athletes. Farkas has also shown promise, having nabbed the USA Triathlon Junior Elite National Championship title and finished as the runner-up at the draft-legal sprint race in April. “He’s really someone who’s just been tearing it up in his first year in U23,” Schmitz says. “Super strong swimmer, biker, and we’re working on his run, and he had a really strong performance.”
McDowell earned a silver medal at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in 2010 before Hodgkin’s lymphoma sidelined him in 2011. Now cancer-free, he’s working to get back his fitness, and anchored the mixed relay team at collegiate nationals (the team won by a margin of almost three minutes). “I see him being a big player down the road in the sport,” Schmitz says. “He’ll be a force to be reckoned with in the future.”
The ETA team is led by coach Mike Doane, who replaced Romas Bertulis at the beginning of the year. Starting June 1, Chris Baker took over as the new team manager and assistant coach, and he’ll be coordinating not only the ETA but also the collegiate recruitment program, which has brought athletes such as Gwen Jorgensen and Kaleb VanOrt into triathlon.
Schmitz says that they won’t want the ETA team to drop below six athletes or grow to any larger than 12 athletes, with 10 athletes idealistically. Going along with that is the possibility of women’s triathlon becoming an NCAA emerging sport, a decision that will be voted on in January.