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Recalled: The First Indoor Pro Triathlon

Three-time world champion Karen Smyers reflects on the wackiest race of her career: An indoor super-sprint tri in Paris.

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Last year, some thousands of people tuned in to watch the Super League Arena Games showcase the world’s best triathletes compete in a lightning-quick indoor race. But long before the SLT came another indoor event, staged in Paris’s Bercy Arena. With enough prize money to attract the top triathletes in the game at the time and enough intrigue to draw more than 9,000 spectators over two days (as well as the president of the International Olympic Committee at the time), the Paris Indoor Triathlon of 1994 was quite the spectacle.

Here, Karen Smyers, who competed in the event the year before she became both the ITU World Champion and the Ironman World Champion, reflects on what she calls the most unique race she ever competed in. 

In 1994, the concept of an indoor triathlon was extremely novel. Especially one with a prize purse! At the time, I was at the height of my Olympic-distance racing career—I didn’t really get into Ironman until 1993—so I was up for a short race (although this one was very short: 400m swim, 8km bike on a velodrome, and 3,000m run). Plus, the idea of traveling to Paris, a city I’ve never raced in, seemed like a big adventure to me. So my husband, Mike, and I packed our bags and my bike and off we went. (Sidenote: I missed my connecting flight for reasons I don’t recall, had to spend a day in New York City, and somehow connected with Mike in Paris by calling him on a pay phone. How we used to get by without cell phones, I don’t know!)

I remember entering the Bercy Arena and being floored by the scene. In the center of the arena was a 50-meter pool built just for the event. Surrounding the pool was a velodrome. And then there was this crazy run course that snaked around the pool. All of it was inside the arena, in a set-up perfect for spectators. I had never competed on a velodrome before, and I was petrified that I would fall down the steep sides if I didn’t go fast enough, so I hammered the bike purely out of fear. We had a couple of days to practice before the big event, so by race day I felt fairly comfortable and ready to go, but I was still so nervous. 

As much as a spectacle this race was set up to be, it was not without its glitches. Before the pros went off, there were heats of age-groupers. We watched as athlete after athlete wiped out on the velodrome after getting onto their bikes dripping wet from the swim. No one took into account how difficult it would be to stay upright on the slick, banked track. So, once that happened, the race organizers instituted a mandatory drying off period in the transition area. You exited the pool and there were helpers there to dry you off to ensure that none of the pros crashed out on the bike. And I don’t think any did. 

We went off in heats, and then the top nine returned for a final the following day, which I made. Having trials and a final was another new experience for me, as I had to strategize about how to pace myself so I didn’t go too hard on the first day. I also had to pay attention to where I was on the bike, as we had to do a dizzying 40 laps on the velodrome. The way it works on a velodrome is that eventually everyone comes together and drafts. But some of my competition may have been a few laps ahead of me, and it was hard to tell where everyone was. In the final, I was 24 seconds down in the swim from the leader, Australia’s Rina Bradshaw-Hill, and wound up just biking my head off trying to make up time. I just tried to stay in front and did most of the work pulling the pack, which was an error on my part. But I was so inexperienced at drafting—drafting was a brand-new concept on the pro scene back then—and it’s one of those things where you don’t learn until you’re in it.  

After that effort on the bike, my legs were kind of dead from the start of the run. And I had a 3,000-meter all-out effort ahead of me. I was confident in my run over that distance: I had done some track races after college and had a 4:48 mile PR and ran 4:24 in the 1,500m. But the other women were so tough! I had some ground to make up on both Bradshaw-Hill and Germany’s Sabine Graf-Westhoff. We were just running as hard as we could on this crazy, snaking course in front of a huge crowd and TV cameras, trying to reel in the other women. It was just so wacky and exciting and unlike anything I’d ever done before. 

I wound up finishing third; just one second behind Graf-Westhoff and five seconds behind winner Bradshaw-Hill (who was coached by Brett Sutton at the time), picking up 5,000 French francs (about $925 in U.S. dollars). It was exhilarating—and the after party was especially memorable, because we had all just experienced this wild, nerve-wracking event and there’s just a camaraderie that comes with that. Besides, it was Paris! How could you go wrong? 

I would have done the Paris Indoor Tri again, but I don’t think they offered this race again for pros. I think they had plans to bring it to different cities, much like the SLT Arena Games, but it never took off. They had the right idea, but maybe they didn’t have the funding for it. When I watch the SLT events, I am kind of jealous as I wish I could have done that during my pro career. It’s such a cool format of racing, and something I know I would have excelled in and enjoyed. All told, triathlon took me all over the world and I had plenty of amazing opportunities, but that indoor tri certainly stands out as one of the most unique racing experiences in my career.