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Elite Triathlon Academy Making Strides

The Elite Triathlon Academy program in Colorado Springs is showing some promise for producing 2016 Olympians.

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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.

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“I can envision UCCS, being a pioneer, would want to maintain their pioneer status and support the women’s movement,” Schmitz says. “What I envision happening is the athletes that are there would have the opportunity if they were still eligible under NCAA standards, you know from the standpoint of receiving prize money and whatnot, but athletes who chose to embrace the NCAA varsity status, to transition to that platform, the ETA as it were would remain first and foremost to support the men in the program who won’t have that opportunity of an emerging sport. And then from a secondary standpoint to support the women who have already accepted prize money and wouldn’t be eligible under NCAA standards. I think it becomes a game-changer.”

If triathlon does become an emerging sport, Schmitz sees the benefits stretching beyond just the athletes themselves. “[It would] also create a way for us to further the professionalism of coaching, Olympic pathway coaching in the U.S.,” he says. “We’ve really grown a number of individuals who are capable, quality, elite-level, draft-legal coaching in the U.S., and to find a way for them to reap the rewards from the dedication that they’ve put in to actually get a full-time job coaching a team at the university level I think will be huge in the taking the sport to the next level.”

ETA athletes are recruited through USA Triathlon’s Junior series, which is made up of essentially a season opener and then four Junior cup races. “All the best athletes are coming through that pipeline,” Schmitz says. Coach Doane is responsible for determining whether the ETA will accept any new recruits this fall, or if they’ll wait until fall 2014 to accept a new class of student-athletes.

While the program has only gone through two full school years so far, there is a plan in place for what athletes will do after they graduate from the ETA: “One of the key focuses for us as we move forward as a national program is to have centers of excellence. If you look at the Olympic medalists—really the top 10 finishers on both the men’s and women’s side—over 90 percent of those athletes came from what we call a daily training environment. They were in environments where they were being coached hands-on by a coach every day. There’s been a tradition or a history of our [U.S. Olympic] athletes in the past where they’re being guided by a great coach, but they’re being coached over the Internet, somebody who’s writing a workout plan for them, and maybe it’s somebody who’s a little bit more advanced in their career. I think Hunter [Kemper]’s a great example—Hunter’s been doing the sport for so long, but he’s being guided by Cliff English, and they have a great relationship and rapport, and he feels like he can do it from afar. But a lot of our younger athletes, as the sport grows older—we’ve only been in the Olympic Games now four Olympiads. So the further along we get, the more mature our sports get, the more we have to fight tooth-and-nail for every advantage. And we feel it’s really important for our next generation of athletes to be in an environment where they’re being coached by a coach hands-on, and working with high-caliber athletes. So what Gwen Jorgensen did was to go join an Australian coach and his squad; or what Matt Chrabot has done to go join Darren Smith. … So we’ll help pair up the athlete with the coach we feel is an appropriate pairing for them to guide them the rest of their professional career in the sport of triathlon. … They won’t have to leave the Springs, but if they want to stay in the sport, we want them to go somewhere where we know they’re going to be getting the world-class coaching and the daily hands-on support they need to be successful.”

Overall, Schmitz says there are definitely things to “hang our hats on in terms of the Elite Triathlon Academy.” He believes the 2016 Olympic Games would be a very realistic yet aggressive target for ETA athletes to race. “I think the important part for us is we’re getting athletes to come in and stay in the sport of triathlon, and receive an education.”

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