At Team Octagon Elite, Setbacks Spur Growth and Reinvention
After losing their title sponsor in the COVID pandemic, Team Octagon Elite is out to prove there's still a place for elite amateur triathlon teams in the sport.
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After competing for the Timex Multisport Team and then the Suunto Elite Team for over a decade, age-group triathlete Trista Francis now has a new role: team owner and manager of Octagon Elite. When title sponsor Suunto retracted their support during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Francis was contacted by their team manager, Tristan Brown, with hopes she would carry on the legacy of a team that started in 2001.
“Tristan said that he was going to step down, but that it would be really sad if this team went away,” Francis says. “I was like, ‘I am going to do it’.”
The seed was planted, and Francis’ biggest question was: Is there still a place for elite amateur triathlon teams in the sport?
“I am learning that there is,” Francis says.
In January of 2022, the team was launched. The team is comprised of 24 of the top age group athletes in the country, including many of the former Suunto Elite members. Over fifty percent of the members are coaches and others have careers as chiropractors, personal trainers, physical therapists, and dietitians. “It is not just about winning, we want our team to have reach into their community,” Francis says.
In their first season, Octagon Elite had incredible success, with 12 athletes competing at the Ironman World Championships in Kona early October.
Samantha Mazer, ten time Ironman finisher, has been on the team since 2013. Over the last ten years representing Timex, Suunto and now Octagon, Mazer has felt the magic of this like-minded group of athletes.
“A lot of us have been together for many many years on several different teams at this point in our triathlon careers,” Mazer says. “I think we all recognize first and foremost that creating a second family is of the utmost importance over anything material. On top of that, our team leaders always manage to find a new crop of athletes to join the fold that instantly see this, become a part of this, and really embrace it as the year goes on. I don’t think you can find that on most other triathlon teams, and that’s what really makes Team Octagon special.”
Francis hopes to build the team roster to 30 members in 2023, but she admits the first year in this new role has had a huge learning curve. While she previously was a coach and sponsored athlete representing the team, now she has taken on new tasks such as writing contracts, negotiating deals with sponsors, recruiting and staffing Octagon with powerhouse people.
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“Anyone who has been successful in business knows you have to surround yourself with the right people,” Francis says. She credits the early success of the team to her assistant manager, Caleb Whittle, who previously held the role of the Senior Marketing Manager at Suunto. “Caleb has been extremely critical in moving the team forward,” Francis says. “He really believed in what this team could do as a brand.”
Additionally, Trista’s daughter, Daphne Johnson, is Octagon Elite’s Content Manager. Johnson has taken over social media obligations in addition to other tasks to help build their brand. While this is a piece of moving forward successfully as a business, Francis believes that is only one piece of the puzzle.
“We do have great social followings and engagement, but what this team does best is boots on the ground partnership where we are in the communities and where we are in with the people,” Francis says.
As Francis prepares with her team for their second year, the support of sponsors has been pivotal. She has also been delighted by the blending of old and new athletes to create Octagon Elite’s team in 2022. Between their team camp earlier this year in Clermont, Florida, and their trip to Kona for the World Championships, Francis says they really are like a family.
One of the new members of the team, Nathan Zarlengo, is a father of three and is overjoyed to be a part of this group of athletes. “Being a part of Octagon Elite Team has been an incredibly humbling and motivating experience,” Zarlengo says. “Considering how many extremely talented athletes there are in this sport it is an honor to be selected as one of the 24 members. The men and women that make up this team are top age group and pro level competitors but more importantly are great overall humans, leaders in their communities and are finding ways to help this sport grow. This motivates me to be a better athlete and person on and off the course.”
While all the athletes have big goals on the racing front for 2023 and beyond, where they really shine is in their individual communities.
“I think age group athletes are a little more approachable,” Francis says. “They are at local events, and masters swims and immersed in their communities and brands want to invest in that. We still stand very different from everything out there.”