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How Does A Triathlete ‘Go Pro?’

There are different ways to qualify for an elite license—but none of them guarantee you'll make a living as a pro triathlete.

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Training all day in picturesque locales. Starring as the face of big brands. Receiving free products. Competing at an elite level, on an international scale, for a living. Sounds amazing, right?

Having the ability to race as an elite athlete is an incredible opportunity. But, as most professional triathletes will attest, being a pro isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be, even if their social media feeds might portray otherwise. Getting your elite triathlon license, or what’s commonly referred to in our sport as a “pro card,” doesn’t necessarily guarantee you will make a living, or any money, in the sport. However, it will allow you to race against the best in the world.

What does it take to be a good pro? A new study broke down the numbers on the top elite triathletes.

How to obtain an elite license in the U.S.

How does a triathlete become a professional in the first place? The answer is different depending on where you live and the type of event you compete in—non-drafting or draft-legal.

USA Triathlon elite qualification is based on a number of criteria. The most common method is to finish in the top three in the amateur field of a qualifying race, which means a race with a corresponding pro field and a prize purse of $20,000 or more. Another way to qualify is by finishing within 8% of the winning elite time in three USAT sanctioned events, within a year, that offer a purse of $5,000 or more. A third method is by finishing in the top 10 overall at the World Triathlon Age Group World Championships or in the top 10 overall amateur field at the Ironman World Championships.

The minimum age for elite athletes is 15 years old. However, those aged 16-19 can compete in the USAT Junior Elite Series. There’s also a collegiate elite license available for NCAA athletes who don’t want to jeopardize their eligibility by competing for prize money.

Once an athlete meets the elite qualification criteria and applies for a license, he or she will maintain eligibility for three years. Athletes must renew their license each year and can extend their eligibility by submitting a race result where they finished within 8% of the winner’s time at a sanctioned event with a prize purse of at least $5,000. When an elite license expires, if renewal criteria aren’t met, or if an athlete chooses not to renew as an elite, they then are no longer eligible to race in the elite field and may return to racing in the amateur or age-group field.

In 2019, USAT recorded 477 active elite licenses. In 2020, the number dropped slightly to 460 and, in 2021, the number was 471.

Project Podium athletes train as part of their regimen on how to become a pro triathlete.

Different elite triathlete policies in different countries

Whether racing non-drafting events with Ironman, Challenge, or Clash, or racing draft-legal events on the World Triathlon circuit, athletes must present proof of elite status from their national federation, and each country and federation has different rules for earning that elite status. In general, it tends to be a bit more challenging to obtain an elite license overseas than it is in America.

For example, in Australia, an athlete can get an elite license in three categories: Open, Long Course and Multisport (Non-drafting), or U23 Development (Drafting). The qualification requirements for those categories are steep. A few examples include being selected to the U23 (drafting) or Junior World Championship team; winning the age group race at an Ironman, Ironman 70.3, or Challenge event; or placing in the top five age-groupers overall and being within 5% of the overall fastest age-group time at various world championship races.

Triathlon Canada requires elite athletes to maintain an International Competition Card (ICC) in order to represent Canada at events sanctioned by World Triathlon. This process includes a mandated medical exam for race clearance and compliance with anti-doping and various code of conduct policies. Qualification criteria for long-distance includes different methods like being a Canadian champion overall or being within 1% of the winning finisher’s time; a top three finish at the World Triathlon Long Distance World Championships; or qualifying to compete in the pro category of the Ironman or Ironman 70.3 World Championships in point rankings.

Long-distance elite criteria for British Triathlon might be the hardest to achieve and includes options like being the overall age-group winner at the Ironman World Championship, 70.3 Worlds, or Challenge Championship, or being the first athlete to finish on the podium (who isn’t already an elite) and being within 4% of the overall winner’s time at certain races. Famously, Lucy Charles-Barclay was once denied an elite license by British Triathlon.

Ironman and World Triathlon

Both Ironman and World Triathlon require an athlete to have an elite license, or recognition from the athlete’s home country.

One major difference is that Ironman is private race company, not a governing body. Just like with most race organizations, Ironman requires athletes to have an elite license issued by their respective national federation. That then allows an athlete to register for, and obtain, an Ironman pro membership, which costs $900/year and includes entry to any Ironman race. Athletes must also submit to anti-doping controls. While any athlete (pro or amateur) can be subject to in- or out-of-competition testing, pros registered with Ironman must submit paperwork acknowledging their close contacts and agreement to doping protocols. Ironman also runs its own anti-doping testing pool that pulls from its pro members.

As the governing body for the sport, World Triathlon’s protocols are slightly different. Everything is done through the national federation, and an elite athlete is required to represent his or her country. This means that an athlete can’t just sign up for a race, like with Ironman or Challenge, but must submit entries through his or her governing body. The athlete’s federation then submits entries for races like Continental Cups, World Cups, and the World Triathlon Championship Series.

World Triathlon racing, in general, is draft-legal, with the focus on WTCS racing and the Olympics. Most countries have separate draft-legal pathways to earn an elite license, many of which are focused on juniors and athlete development.

RELATED: By the Numbers: Who Makes a Good Pro Triathlete?

Making money as a pro triathlete

Having an elite triathlon license doesn’t guarantee an income in the sport. It simply allows an athlete entry into races that have prize purses. The reality is that for the majority of elite triathletes, the cost of equipment, coaching, training, and travel far outweigh any prize winnings or sponsorship dollars that are earned. Many pros have full or part-time jobs that provide additional income. This supplements triathlon income generated through prize money, sponsorship dollars, appearance fees, bonuses, social media following, coaching, speaking, clinics, and writing.

Most pro races do offer prize money. Often, the largest chunk goes to the winner and the amount awarded dramatically drops off as the placings get lower. For example, from February to July 2022, Ironman has 35 races with pro purses on the schedule ranging from $15,000 at 70.3 Dubai to $100,000 at Ironman Lake Placid, and $750,000 at the Ironman World Championship in St. George. On the surface, it might seem like a lot of money, but consider the breakdown. The winner of a race with $15,000 in prize money will take home $2,500; fifth place only gets $500; and sixth receives nothing. The winner of a $100,000 race receives $15,000; fifth receives $4,000; and tenth receives $1,000. Even at the Ironman World Championship, winning gets you $125,000 (though that doesn’t count the sponsor bonuses, which at Kona can be more than double the actual prize earnings on the podium), and 15th in the world gets only $3,000—likely less than they spent getting to the start line.

The PTO addition

With the advent of the Pro Triathlete Organization (PTO) and a number of new race formats, like Super League, there are additional ways for elites to earn money. The PTO has added a world ranking system that ranks elite non-drafting triathletes. Those rankings determine year-end bonuses and qualification for additional PTO events, like the new U.S. and Canada Opens.

The PTO rankings calculate a score for any large long-course race, and those scores are based on a system that uses an “Adjusted Ideal Time” once a race is complete to factor in all course changes and conditions. For the purposes of calculating year-end bonuses, athletes are then ranked based on the average number of points they have earned for their three best races within a 12-month period.

Read a full breakdown of how the rankings work.

This system has enabled the PTO to pay out $6 million to over 200 professionals during the past two years, including at the well-funded Collins Cup. The most recent $2 million year-end bonus was paid to athletes at the end of December based on their rankings. Interestingly, for the top 20 long-distance professionals, 70% of all their prize earnings last year came from the PTO. In addition, 18 professionals earned over $100,000 in 2021.