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The origins of the West Point triathlon team are not in swim-bike-run, but in swim-shoot-run. It makes some sense; after all, the team is based out of the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, and when the group was formed, multisport had a completely different meaning.
“In the middle of the 20th Century, the West Point triathlon team was a club dedicated to sports in modern pentathlon. The West Point team would compete in swimming, pistol shooting, and running. There were separate fencing and equestrian teams at the Academy,” said Dr. Kenneth S. Allen, professor of nuclear engineering at the United States Military Academy and officer-in-charge of the West Point Triathlon Team. “As the current sport of triathlon evolved, the club transitioned in the latter 1900s away from pentathlon to swimming, cycling, and running.”
Today, the team, comprised of cadets at the United States Military Academy, trains and races with several goals in mind: to win national championships, qualify for world championship events, and—of course—beat Navy and Air Force teams in local and national competition. But they never stray far from their roots: “We remain in contact with some of the earliest members, including Mr. Tom Lough, USMA class of 1964, who competed in the 1968 Olympics in modern pentathlon,” Allen said. The team also travels to Cave Creek, Arizona every spring break to spend a week of training with West Point alumni who have retired in the area.
With a firm understanding of its history, the West Point triathlon team also works to ensure its legacy is intact for many years to come. Every August, the team hosts a weekend of racing at Camp Buckner in Cornwall, NY. The West Point Triathlon, which is open to the public, offers the opportunity for team members to inspire youth at the kids race on Saturday. On Sunday, they join over 1,000 athletes competing in the open sprint race. “We enjoy having many of our Academy alumni participate, as it coincides with the acceptance weekend for the freshman class,” Allen said.
And the alumni are many. Since its inception, the team has seen thousands of multisport athletes move through its ranks. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to join up. In fact, West Point’s tryouts are just as competitive as the Military Academy itself. Earning one of the 20 team spots available involves a swim and run time trial, but the most important part is not their splits: It’s the interview that follows with Amy Maxwell and a panel of faculty members to determine the best men and women to become a part of their tri family.
“Most of our team members come to us with little to no triathlon experience,” Allen said. “We look for people who are dedicated to learning, amenable to coaching, and will positively represent West Point.”
When those team members are announced, they are whisked away to Lake George, New York over Labor Day weekend, where they participate in the Lake George Triathlon. For those who have never raced a triathlon, this baptism-by-fire experience is crucial to learning the sport as well as how to work as a team, Allen said.
“Many of our cadets have never competed in the sport of triathlon before joining our club. We believe the best way for them to learn is to dive in. We have had many new members set their first PR on block pedals with borrowed gear, and some have admitted that they forgot how to shift and rode the entire 24 miles in one gear. The remainder of the weekend is spent as a team doing skill training and bonding as we get to know the folks we will be spending 20 or more hours a week training with for the rest of the year.”
If the process sounds intense, that’s because it is—but it’s also the way a lifelong journey begins for many West Point athletes. “I have been working as the officer-in-charge of this team for over a decade. In that time, I have had the honor of seeing cadets go from their first-ever race to earning their professional licenses, winning at nationals, and competing in worlds,” Allen said. “However, I am most proud of what they say the club has meant to them as their development into leaders of character and Army officers. The graduates from our team will tell me how the challenges, adversity, teamwork, and mentorship they encountered on the West Point triathlon team is what allowed them to make it through Army Ranger School or prepare their platoon for deployment or gave them a lifelong sport that they continue to love today. It is the lasting positive impression of the team that makes me proud.”