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Why The U.S. Lacks Olympic Medal Contenders

USA Triathlon speaks to why the culture in the U.S. hasn’t produced more Olympic medals in triathlon.

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USA Triathlon speaks to why the culture in the U.S. hasn’t produced more Olympic medals in triathlon.

Since triathlon’s debut at the Summer Olympics in 2000 in Sydney, the U.S. has earned just one medal (a bronze from Susan Williams in 2004). And heading into the 2012 London Olympics, the U.S. only had a couple of realistic medal contenders, both on the women’s side: Gwen Jorgensen, who’d placed second at the London test event a year prior, ended up having a disappointing Olympics, and Sarah Groff, the first American woman to make the podium in a WTS race, just barely missed out on a medal in the final sprint finish, ending up in fourth place.

While nations like Australia (five medals), Switzerland (four medals) and New Zealand (three medals) have consistently earned medals, the U.S. has the same number of medals as the Czech Republic. So why has the U.S. not earned a medal in the last two Olympics? And why is there a particular lack of men’s medal contenders?

“I think there are a couple of explanations,” says Andy Schmitz, USA Triathlon’s high performance general manager. Some of them stem from the culture in the U.S. as well as the participation of men and women in high school swim and cross-country programs (Dan Empfield breaks down the numbers specifically in this Slowtwitch article).

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Reason #1: Fringe Sports

The number of high school swimming and cross-country programs (and participants) for men pales in comparison to women. “I think one of the key things is the [low] number of men, who as young adults or as high school athletes, become exposed to and exceptionally proficient in swimming in addition to cycling,” Schmitz says. “I found myself as a swimmer in my own youth where it was maybe a one- or two-to-10 ratio of men to women on the team that I was on. … Most men in our culture aspire to some of the more major sports, like football, baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey.”

Besides just being drawn to major team sports over individual sports, high school athletes also have a hard time being different from their peers and participating in club sports, like triathlon: “If you have a choice of being a high school athlete and being a triathlete, kind of with an independent squad, away from your high school peers, or being on your high school team, whatever that is—whether it be running or swimming or soccer or something else—I think culturally a lot of our athletes have been drawn to fitting in and belonging to a school-oriented sport,” Schmitz says.

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Reason #2: The Allure of the NCAA

While USAT has worked hard in recent years to build a strong junior program (athletes 16 to 19 years old), it’s still contending with the U.S. norm of going to college straight out of high school. As Empfield says in his article, “ … the path of our good athletes is to enter college out of high school and focus on a single sport. Much of the rest of the world does not have that attachment to college straight out of high school, allowing promising triathletes to focus on triathlon full time at a much earlier age. This isn’t a criticism of America’s system, rather a statement of its values.”

USAT has sought to reroute junior athletes through its Elite Triathlon Academy, a program that allows athletes to train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs while attending classes at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, but athletes still feel like they’re missing out on a true college experience, Schmitz says. “Kelly Whitley, who attended our Elite Triathlon Academy … felt like she was missing something by not going to a major institution and not being a part of an NCAA program. So we’ve had athletes like Lukas Verzbicas initially went to Oregon, Tony Smoragiewicz has gone to Michigan, Tamara Gorman has gone to Minnesota, Tanelle Berard, who just missed a medal in the junior ranks, went to run at Northern Colorado,” he says. “Honestly, Kevin McDowell is the only athlete that we’ve seen who’s been successful in triathlon as a junior who’s committed to and stayed with triathlon beyond his high school graduation.”

While they aren’t necessarily away from the sport forever and compete in one of the three disciplines in college, “they don’t focus squarely on triathlon like our peers in New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Great Britain and other countries do,” Schmitz says. “I think that’s probably the single strongest issue for us.”

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Reason #3: The Depth of the Men’s Field

No one can deny the incredible speed of the Brownlee brothers and Javier Gomez—they’ve been consistently dominant in ITU racing the last three years. Meanwhile, until Gwen Jorgensen started winning races, no woman had looked so fast or so dominant over a long period of time. Jorgensen was a product of USAT’s collegiate recruitment program, and while she may bean anomaly with how quickly she rose through the ranks, there’s still a possibility that one of the men in the program could break through. “Like the women, we do have athletes who have come through our collegiate recruitment program,” Schmitz says. “We do think that the time to the world-class level is a bit longer, just given the depth of racing on the men’s side. But there’s certainly … capability that a collegiate-recruited athlete could come through.”

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Building the Future

Since USAT started a high-performance team program in 2008, it’s been able to provide funding to a new wave of youth and junior programs (athletes 13 to 19 years old). From eight teams in 2008 to more than 40 teams in 2015, the program has grown very quickly. “There are a lot of athletes now who aren’t afraid of being different from their high school peers,” Schmitz says.

Schmitz predicts that the investments USAT is making now in the junior programs will pay huge dividends come 2020 or 2024. “I go to our junior events now and I see athletes who are more skilled than the elites I see at the Continental Cup level in most parts,” Schmitz says. “I look at flying mounts and tactical elements, technique and skill around tight corners and technical aspects of bike courses, and I think our juniors are doing an amazing job. … And that, unfortunately, is not going to be seen at our senior level for still another four, six or even eight years.”

In addition to the investment in the junior ranks, USAT’s work in getting triathlon approved as an NCAA emerging sport for women could also help the U.S. get more medal-capable women into triathlon, but it could also help other countries, Schmitz says. “I’m sure some of the U.S. institutions will be recruiting internationals as well, and that’s as much a threat as it is a benefit,” he says. “But I think it will bring the focus of triathlon closer to home, more high-level athletes here in the States, which all plays into greater exposure of the Olympic format, the draft-legal format, to our public and to the next generation of athletes that follow.”

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How Gwen Changes Things

For the first time since the inception of ITU’s World Triathlon Series (formerly World Championship Series), the U.S. has a winning athlete. And not just an athlete who’s won one race—Jorgensen is the fastest woman in the world right now and has won four straight WTS races. Could she make a difference in the future of triathlon in the Olympics?

“I look at the individuals in their own sports who have changed the face of what the sport looks like,” Schmitz says. “I look at the likes of athletes who are game-changers like … Tiger Woods or LeBron James. I think that Gwen is somebody who, through her success in addition to the demeanor with which she carries herself … I think she’s somebody who can transcend and help make triathlon and the Olympic format of triathlon more mainstream for our U.S. population, and somebody who I think will draw a greater following.”

Jorgensen is not only influence and inspire future generations of triathletes, but she’s also pushing the current U.S. men to step up. “I think our men have been one-upped a little bit in the past, but they’ve seen somebody achieve at this level, and they want to match that,” he says. “It’s inspired all of [the U.S. men] to do the same thing and deliver men’s victories to balance what Gwen’s doing on the women’s side.”

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