A Morning In The Minors
A look at the rarely-publicized world of World Triathlon Continental Cup racing—where young (and very fast) athletes travel the globe for Olympic points and very little money or attention.
It’s 4:55 a.m., and transition is just opening. There’s no long line of triathletes waiting to get in, because there are only 61 people in American Austin Hindman’s entire race this morning. Hindman is racing the 2022 Americas Triathlon Cup Long Beach, but if you think a small field means a slow field, you’d be wrong.
Hindman is a former national high school cross country and track star with a mile PR of 4:04. The other men he’ll be racing on this foggy morning are similarly fast: The spread between the winner and 30th place in the sprint-distance, draft-legal event is about two minutes. The winner’s 5K split? 14:41. That’s a 4:44min./mi. average pace. How many triathletes—even long-course pros—can run one mile at that pace?
And yet, almost no one in the U.S.—or even in tri-crazy Southern California—knew the race horn went off on a chilly, foggy Sunday morning in front of few spectators beside coaches, family, and friends.
We shadowed two up-and-coming American draft-legal triathletes, Austin Hindman and Gina Sereno, who—despite some international-level acclaim and staggering athletic background—are climbing the anonymous ranks of the relatively unknown world of continental-level racing.
Though Hindman often has to travel to far off places like Europe or South America to chase points, this time he only has a short flight to Long Beach from where he lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. “Probably the weirdest place I’ve raced is Puerto Lopez in Ecuador. Mostly because it was just such a small town and it made for a really interesting pre-race prep week.” The downside in Long Beach? An early morning start with little to no fanfare attached to the pro-only event.
For draft-legal athletes like Hindman, sponsors are few and far between, often relying only on the support of their national federations—who reserve most funding for the top-tier World Triathlon Series racers—friends, family, or youth teams. “It’s definitely not easy to get sponsors. I think getting the exposure to be noticed can be pretty difficult in draft-legal. There’ve been so many incredible people who have helped and supported me with their time as well as helping with finances for travel and gear.”
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Like other former runners at his level, he’s had to fine-tune his swim with the help of programs like USAT’s Project Podium for high-school standouts. “The Olympics have been a dream of mine since I was a kid, so in triathlon it’s draft legal that is the pipeline to get there.” Hindman would incredibly exit the water in sixth place, putting him in the lead group for the draft-legal bike.
World Triathlon racing often boasts the most international field of any tri format. For an event with only $1,500 going to the winner, Olympic hopefuls traveled to Long Beach from far-off places like Colombia, Argentina, Japan, and even Syria for a shot at slowly climbing the world rankings.
Hindman’s background is in national-level running; he ran a 4:04 mile and 8:43 3200m while in high school in Missouri. “I went to University of Missouri to run my freshman year, and they were extremely supportive of my triathlon aspirations. But when the offer came to move to Arizona and train for triathlon full-time, while still finishing up school at ASU [through Project Podium], it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Despite running well, with a 14:55 5K split, Hindman ended up in fifth place behind winner and countryman Davis Bove—a college standout runner from Louisiana State University with a 3:57 mile PR. “It wasn’t the result I wanted,” said Hindman, who would walk away with $500 for his efforts and move up in the World Triathlon Rankings six places to 75th overall. “Draft-legal can be pretty unpredictable, which makes it really challenging. Anything can happen and there’s almost always something in the race that doesn’t go as planned.”
Like Hindman, Gina Sereno came from a successful running background, but while her tri results sheet is far shorter, her running resume is much longer. Sereno graduated from the University of Michigan’s storied cross-country and track program in 2018 with staggering PRs in the mile (4:36) and 5K (15:49).
“Running in college and being a professional triathlete couldn’t be any more different. Life as a runner was easy—there are so many more things to do when preparing for racing in tri. Preparation and traveling are so much more.” In terms of support, Sereno works full-time as an assistance engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab and doesn’t have a single sponsor.
“USA Triathlon helps with one-off, ad-hoc travel and expenses to some high-level races, but they have provided me with coaches and mentors.” Sereno only has 28 starts on her draft-legal resume, but like Hindman she has traveled as far as Germany, Portugal, and Japan to chase elusive points.
Despite being governed by World Triathlon (formerly the ITU), continental-level events are often more on-the-fly than their glitzy World Triathlon Series older siblings. On Sunday, fog rolled in between the men’s and women’s events, making a last-minute course change across multiple languages confusing. “In track, you usually finish pretty close to your seed times, but in triathlon there are any number of outcomes. I’m drawn into draft-legal racing because you need to prepare for anything.”
The one-loop swim for the men was changed to a two-loop swim for the women with buoys closer to shore for visibility. When the gun went off, 47 women from eight countries—including Japan, Bermuda, New Zealand, and more—plowed into the fog. With the help of her coach, Olympian Barb Lindquist, who also recruited Sereno to take up tri out of college, Sereno was 10th out of the water, less than 20 seconds down from the leader.
“I started out by seeing what I could do. I didn’t come from a swim background, so I wasn’t sure how well I’d do in the sport.” Sereno was brought into the sport by USA Triathlon’s Collegiate Recruitment Program—the same program that recruited former runners and triathlon Olympic medalists Gwen Jorgensen and Katie Zaferes.
Sereno won Sunday’s event by two seconds, with a 16:45 5K split (averaging 5:23min./mi.), marking her second World Triathlon win at the continental level. Just over her shoulder, only two seconds back, was Mexican 16-year-old Jimena Renata De La Peña Schott—potentially the next generation of draft-legal stars.
For her efforts, Sereno would take home $1,500 in prize money and move up seven places to 70th overall in the world. Sereno also becomes the seventh-ranked American woman on the points list, but still literally thousands of points behind familiar names like Taylor Knibb, Taylor Spivey, and Summer Rappaport. On Monday, at 8 a.m., Sereno will head back to her full-time job at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, before traveling to Spain the following day to race a World Triathlon Cup in Pontevedra.