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Giant Houses, Private Chefs, and Pro Connections: Inside the Amateurpros of the Zwift Academy

Free gear, training camps, and an "idealized pro experience" - but for age-group triathletes. What exactly comes with a slot in the Zwift Academy, and how does the whole deal work?

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As she gave a tour of the Zwift Tri Academy house in St. George, Utah, Sarah True lost count of how many TVs there were. There was one in every bedroom, the living room, the sitting room, by the pool table, another next to the kitchen. Did the in-house movie theater count, too?

“It’s like your idealized version of what a pro experience would be,” she says.

As in: No actual pro triathletes live like this. No actual pro triathletes have a movie theater in their rental house—or a ping-pong table, pool, basketball court, and backyard mini golf. More like #vanlife, Motel 6, a homestay, or a couch.

But that’s the appeal of the Zwift Tri Academy. The program, run by Zwift since 2018, gives six amateur triathletes the full luxury treatment, including a training camp with wind tunnel and metabolic testing, free gear (yes, a bike) from sponsors, and the decked-out house with full support for world championship race week.

“We get treated better than the pros,” jokes Eric Engel, who was part of the team selected for 2021—a team that finally got to race the 2021 Ironman World Championships in May 2022 in Utah.

Is all that better-than-pro-treatment a good thing, though? And what’s the goal?

RELATED: The Rise of the Professional Age-Grouper

How the Zwift Academy Works

Normally, the Zwift Academy includes a selection process through the fall and winter, with a team of six athletes announced in spring. That year’s squad then gathers for a semi-traditional team camp. Gear’s handed out, bike fits are done, and workouts are overseen by team advisors—Olympians Tim Don and Sarah True. All of that support is aimed at producing six peak performances in Kona in October.

Because of the pandemic, however, just as the 2020 team was about to be announced, COVID hit. The finalists were put on hold.

“We had to just kind of hang out and wait,” says Kristen Yax, who was eventually picked for the 2021 team after going through the workouts in late 2019, gearing up again for the time-trial tests in 2020, and then putting together a video after she was one of about 40 athletes to make it through the final round.

“I think it’s helped and given me a different perspective,” Yax says of the whole experience. She had her best 70.3 performances after becoming a part of the team.

After the delay, the Zwift Academy is back on its regular schedule for 2022. In May, just days after the 2021 team racked up podiums in St. George, the 2022 team met up at Specialized headquarters in California for a weeklong camp. (A timeline that was exhausting primarily for the Zwift staff involved in organizing both events.) Camp involved so many people, consultants, and moving pieces that Craig Taylor, who heads up the program for Zwift, had to maintain an updated color-coded daily schedule for every athlete, broken down by half-hour chunks.

The six new athletes arrived from Australia, the U.K., Norway, Germany, and Seattle. They received their custom-painted bikes, matching kits and helmets, recovery boots, Whoop fitness trackers, nutrition packages, and new wetsuits. They went through bike fits and wind tunnel testing to perfect their position, and basic sweat and metabolic testing to fine-tune their nutrition plans. This is all Part #1 of the Zwift Academy experience.

Part #2 is a WhatsApp group for the team to share tips, advice, and workouts. They also get insight from Don and True. (The two Zwift-sponsored pro athletes who serve as advisors have changed slightly some years.) Even just being able to ask what a world champion thinks about a certain gearing or about when to stay aero helps provide little tips to take off the pressure, says Engel.

“We’re like a little family kind of,” Yax adds.

Part #3 of the Zwift Tri Academy is the part you’ve probably heard about: that fancy Ironman World Championship race week house. Along with all the bells and whistles, the real key is the personal chef and mechanic. Logistics and everything are taken care of for the athletes, even minimizing media commitments, so all the athletes have to worry about it is their performance.

The goal? Podiums, age-group wins, and inspirational content aimed at and coming out of what is still the flagship triathlon of the year: the Ironman World Championship.

Meet the 2022 Zwift Academy Athletes

After the original 2018 inaugural Academy team, Zwift faced criticism for hand-picking athletes who were already at the top of the elite amateur field and simply making them more elite. Athletes like Ruth Astle, for instance, took the overall age-group win at Kona while part of the Zwift Academy and then turned pro, taking fifth at the world championship in St. George in May.

Since that original team, Taylor said they’ve made an effort to select more of a range of athletes—though there are certainly still many previous Kona qualifiers and some athletes with goals to take overall titles, like rowing world champion Lars Wichert who’s on this year’s Zwift team. But you also have athletes like 56-year-old Kangsub Song from South Korea, and Karrie Stewart, a Boeing engineer who opened a bar with her husband and did her first triathlon in 2019.

RELATED:Lars Wichert is on the Cam Wurf Plan for Triathlon Dominance

The 2022 Zwift Academy athletes, who will compete in Kona in a few weeks:

  • Lars Wichert: a former Olympic and world champion rower and current Ironman age-group world record holder (8:12:42)
  • Gro Henge Jermstad: a Norwegian who’s first triathlon in 2013 was Norseman and who won the 45-49 age-group at Ironman Copenhagen last year to qualify for Kona
  • Emily Freeman: an elite swimmer who took 5th in the 25-29 age group at Kona in 2019
  • James Martin: an Australian hoping to break into the pro ranks, who won his age group at Ironman Australia earlier this season
  • Neil Eddy: a PE teacher in Cornwall who is also the ITU Long Course age-group champion and took second in his age-group at Kona
  • Karrie Stewart: a former aerospace engineer turned bar owner who did her first triathlon in 2019

How to apply for the Zwift Academy

The Zwift Academies actually cover running, cycling, and triathlon—but each version is tailored to that audience. The cycling academy delivers a pro contract at its end. The running academy operates a marathon training program and picks a group of athletes with a range of marathon goals. The triathlon academy is a bit in-between.

“It’s not just for the elite of the elites. You just never know if you’ll get picked,” says Yax, who has a kid and a full-time job as a college psychology instructor.

The info:

  • The Zwift Academy Tri workouts for next year’s team run Oct. 24 to Nov. 20. There are six structured workouts created by coach Dan Plews.
  • All athletes who want to be considered must also do the final bike and run tests.
  • There is typically an additional application process at that point, and then the finalists are contacted and have to submit a video.
  • Get more info at zwift.com/academy

RELATED: How Does A Triathlete “Go Pro?”