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Recalled: The Original Tri Training Camp

The idea of a bunch of average (or slightly-above-average) adults gathering for a triathlon camp used to seem like an oddity.

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Last week, British brothers Alistair and Jonny Brownlee, two of the sport’s most decorated and accomplished athletes, announced they will be hosting a training camp in La Nucia, Spain, a week-long experience that promises a stacked swim, bike, and run schedule led by their coach. While training camps are commonplace now (albeit many are making a resurgence in 2022 after COVID-related cancelations over the past couple of years), there was a time when the concept of adults of average (or slightly above-average) athletic ability gathering together at a set destination to glean the insight of pro triathletes was extremely novel. And it can all be traced back to a camp that launched way back in 1983. Here is it’s backstory.

“One weekend at this triathlon camp will either make you or break you,” screamed a headline in the April 16, 1984 issue of Sports Illustrated. The article, tucked into the front of the magazine alongside features about the dominance of the San Diego Padres (the squad cheekily referred to as the “San Diego Zoo”) and several sleek cigarette and liquor ads, introduced a brand-new concept in the world of sports: A triathlon camp.

At that point in history, triathlon was still very much in its infancy—or perhaps more accurately, its toddlerdom. The inaugural Ironman had gone off on Feb. 18, 1978 on Oahu before moving to its current home base of Kona in 1981. And some time around then, a recent college grad named Mark Wendley tried his hand at the grueling swim, bike, and run event. A competitive swimmer as a kid who ran a 10K here and there, Wendley first read about the Ironman triathlon in the Los Angeles Times. Further intrigued by the Wide World of Sports coverage, he entered the Kona race in 1982—and finished 507th out of 850 participants.

It was at that race, according to the Sports Illustrated story, that Wendley met Tom Peters (who finished the 1982 Ironman in 630th place). Perhaps befuddled by the seemingly unconquerable distance, but wanting to do better, Wendley and Peters put their heads together: “Why not start a training camp for triathletes, with topflight competitors as instructors?,” the SI article pondered.

And thus planted the seed for the National Triathlon Training Camp (NTTC), which officially launched out of Malibu, California in May of 1983. For $130, participants were put up in a dorm room, given three meals a day, and received access to two days of instruction on everything from race strategy to proper nutrition (one wonders what, exactly, that particular seminar covered, considering many Ironman athletes back then were known to fuel on bananas or oranges they stuffed into their singlets). To lead the sessions, Wendley and Peters brought in superstars of the sport like Ironman champs Julie Moss and Dave Scott, and later ITU star Jan Ripple and 1985 Kona runner-up Chris Hinshaw.

The camp was a hit. By the late-80s, NTTC had expanded from the West coast to the East, offering sessions at the University of California-Irvine as well as the University of South Carolina, and a three-day camp in New England at one point. In 1986, Wendley expanded NTTC into a racing team, which ran until 1994 before picking back up again in 2006, eventually gaining top title sponsors like Jelly Belly sports beans (the 2010 camp included a tour of the candy company’s facilities in Fairfield, California). NTTC also sponsored elite athletes and younger ones with promise, like Mike Pigg, who picked up a $12,000 backing from the group after finishing seventh at the 1985 Ironman World Championships. “To a 21-year-old who’d never made money in his life in sport that was awesome,” Pigg later remarked. “I used that money to pay for plane tickets to go to the next race.”

So, what started as a simple way to teach newbies the ropes of the sport ultimately turned to a well-oiled machine, bolstering and backing elite athletes and creating what is said to be sport’s most successful triathlon team until 2010. And, to circle back to that 1984 SI headline, it’s safe to say that the NTTC certainly went on to make more triathletes than break them.