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Playing The ITU Game

Jarrod Shoemaker and Matt Chrabot earned the U.S. the right to send two men to the Olympics. So why aren't they on the team yet?

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This story appears in the May/June 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine, on newsstands now.

On Saturday, May 12 at 2:30 p.m. PST Jarrod Shoemaker and Matt Chrabot will dive into San Diego’s Mission Bay to fight for their right to compete at the London Olympics.

They will be racing in the San Diego leg of the ITU’s premier World Triathlon Series—a race that is serving as the second and final Olympic trials for American athletes.

For Shoemaker and Chrabot to automatically qualify for London, they’ll need to finish in the top nine and be the top two Americans—a difficult endeavor given the depth of European and Oceanian talent that will likely show up to San Diego.

Given the somewhat odd and unique way the Olympic trials process has unfolded this Olympic cycle, someone could make the argument that Shoemaker and Chrabot should already be on the men’s Olympic triathlon team.

This is because Shoemaker and Chrabot are the only two American men who have successfully played the ITU’s requisite points game—a complicated process that has unfolded over the past three years and requires countries to earn “country spots,” or the right to send one, two or three athletes of each gender to the Olympics.

This is a tough and risky endeavor, and it carries a high opportunity cost for any athlete who plays it and then fails to qualify for the Olympics. Shoemaker and Chrabot are doing everything in their power to ensure the game doesn’t burn them, especially since they are two of only four American men—yes, only four men in the entire United States—who have stepped up to the plate to take the risk.

As of press time, the U.S. has two country spots out of a possible three for its men—two spots that Shoemaker and Chrabot earned by traveling to the far corners of the Earth, racing well in ITU events and collecting precious ITU points, and in the process sacrificing the opportunity to race on the U.S. non-drafting circuit, which is a whole lot easier to make a living from and more widely publicized in the U.S. than the ITU circuit.

Case in point: Chrabot decided last year to skip the Hy-Vee Triathlon, a non-drafting event with a $1 million prize purse, in favor of an ITU-heavy schedule filled with races offering smaller prize purses.

How much easier—and potentially lucrative—would it have been for him to stay in the States and race Hy-Vee in Des Moines, Iowa, a quick flight from Colorado Springs, Colo., where he lives, instead of flying to China and Japan to compete in two World Triathlon Series races?

“[Last year] I easily could have said, ‘All right, the second half of the year, I’m going to do London [an ITU race], but then I’m going to focus on 70.3 worlds or Hy-Vee, or trying to get into Hy-Vee.’ But I didn’t really let that distract me, because I wanted to ensure that I was one of the guys who gets the U.S. a spot for the Olympics.”

Shoemaker made a similar sacrifice when he gave up his spot on the U.S. team for the Pan American Games this past October. By not going, he missed out on the opportunity to medal at an event that comes around only once every four years—and the potential financial bonuses from his sponsors that come with it. But because of the ITU’s complicated country spot system and how the Pan Am Games played into that system, Shoemaker understood that it wasn’t in the United States’ best interest for him to go, as he had already earned a country spot and, per the ITU’s rules, couldn’t earn another.

While Shoemaker and Chrabot have sacrificed a lot to give the United States the right to send two men to the Olympics, they’ve known all along that it’s perfectly within USA Triathlon’s selection rules for someone else to use the country spots they earned to punch his ticket to London—even if this someone risked nothing and traveled nowhere to help the U.S. pick up a country spot. That is, they know it’s perfectly within the rules for them to go unrewarded—and left at home—despite the effort and the opportunity cost involved in securing the U.S. two country spots.

“I still think the way the rules are written right now, we know that we’re earning a spot for the country by going and doing those specific things,” Shoemaker said.

Over the last three years, only two other American men, Hunter Kemper and Manuel Huerta, have shown a willingness to endure the ITU’s grueling travel schedule and play the ITU points game—it’s just that Kemper and Huerta have come up short and their results haven’t been good enough to secure a third spot.

Indeed, if it weren’t for a pelvic stress fracture and a broken collarbone that kept Kemper out of competition for most of 2010, and if it weren’t for Kemper’s ill-timed bike crash and broken elbow that prevented him from competing in the Pan American Games in October, the United States would likely be where they’ve been for the last three Olympics: sitting pretty with three country spots. Although it is still possible for Huerta or Kemper to earn a third country spot before the Olympics take place, this is unlikely—and it will probably depend on help (i.e. underperformance) from Joao Pereira of Portugal, Ivan Vasiliev of Russia and Kyle Jones of Canada.

In many ways, the unwillingness on the part of all but four American men to race for country spots is predictable. It requires a lot of money, energy and time away from loved ones to travel the ITU circuit, which is mostly based in Europe and Asia, and which is, let’s be honest, a whole lot more competitive than the U.S. non-drafting circuit and thus much more difficult to be successful in. (See Andy Potts, Matt Reed and other American athletes who have left the ITU for greener non-draft pastures.) Despite its status as the toughest circuit on the planet where athletes compete against the best talent, the ITU circuit is also widely ignored by the American media, making sponsorship opportunities limited for American ITU athletes.

“People have to want to go run around the world and do these races, because it’s a commitment. And you’ve got to be really, really good at this point to do these races, and you’ve got to figure out a way to make a living off of them,” Shoemaker said.

This is why the Athletes Advisory Committee, of which Shoemaker is a part, and USA Triathlon’s High Performance team considered incentivizing points chasing in USAT’s 2012 Olympic qualification selection criteria—perhaps by giving an automatic spot on the Olympic team to the highest ranked American during one particular year—and thus possibly preventing the situation Shoemaker and Chrabot, and the rest of the U.S. men, are currently in. If points chasing were incentivized, there might be, say, 10 guys who went around the world chasing points in the years leading up to the Olympics, thus putting everyone on an even playing field and likely locking up three country spots in the process.

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“My personal experience told me that there has to be some reason for people to keep their Olympic ranking high enough to keep the U.S. having three spots, rather than just keeping it high enough to get into races,” Shoemaker said. “I really wanted to write something into the [selection] criteria that kind of favored the athletes who did that.”

This sort of incentive never made its way into the selection criteria.

But it’s not to say that Shoemaker and Chrabot aren’t ready for the challenge of fighting for their spots.

Chrabot has spent a good chunk of this year training with two-time Olympic medalist and Kiwi Bevan Docherty in Santa Cruz, Calif., along with pro triathletes Paul Matthews and Tommy Zaferes.

“When I was first out there I was training with Bevan as much as I could, just to get a feel for his program and for his habits going in and out of races—like training habits,” Chrabot said. “And listening to him tell stories has been helpful.”

Chrabot also feels he’s in the best shape of his life right now.

“Some of the first track workouts I did at the start of the season were some of the best in my entire life, and I had a lot less in the tank,” he said.

Shoemaker, whose stellar running résumé makes some observers believe he’s the only American man who has any chance of medaling in London, is also feeling upbeat as he heads into San Diego.

“I’m confident in where my fitness is, and I’m confident that I’m training at the level and I’ll be racing at the level I’ll need to be to come in top nine in a [World Triathlon Series] race,” said Shoemaker, who started off the 2012 season with a win at the Clermont ITU Sprint Triathlon Pan American Cup.

Even if Shoemaker and Chrabot don’t finish in the top nine in San Diego and automatically qualify for the London Olympic team—and this could occur because of something as unlucky as a flat tire—a variety of scenarios can unfold where either one or both of them makes the team, including being selected for USA Triathlon’s discretionary spot, if the selection process comes down to that.

To put it another way, if Shoemaker or Chrabot doesn’t automatically qualify in San Diego—and if two other athletes such as Kemper, Huerta or even a possible Lukas Verzbicas don’t place in the top nine—he will find out the answer to a big question: Will USA Triathlon’s discretionary selection committee send someone to the Olympics who did no work to secure American country spots?

To be fair to USA Triathlon, there are legitimate reasons for why they wouldn’t select Chrabot or Shoemaker for a discretionary slot. But if the successful points chasers do end up unrewarded this Olympic cycle, what incentive will other athletes have to chase points from this point forward? And if there aren’t any incentives to chase country spots, then we have to open ourselves up to the possibility that no men will chase country spots leading up to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, potentially leaving the U.S.—the country that invented triathlon—without any men in Rio.

Fortunately for Shoemaker and Chrabot, if they race well at the Sydney leg of the World Triathlon Series, which is in April, and in any other races they compete in before San Diego, their consistent results in 2010 make them likely candidates for potential discretionary selection if it comes down to that. (Although both men didn’t do themselves any favors last year—they endured sub-par seasons due to injuries, with Chrabot suffering from back problems and Shoemaker from a concussion and neck problems.)

Shoemaker is the only American to ever win a World Triathlon Series event, which he did in Hamburg, Germany, in 2009, beating out men such as Docherty, reigning Olympic champion Jan Frodeno, and Olympic gold and silver medalist Simon Whitfield in the process.

In 2010 and 2009, Shoemaker finished in the top nine in eight of the 14 World Triathlon Series races that he entered, stamping himself as one of the most consistent American men in recent history.

“I feel like over the past three years I’ve been the athlete on the U.S. side who has consistently had a good chance of getting on the podium,” Shoemaker said.

2010 was the year Chrabot emerged as a top ITU athlete—he finished fourth at the Kitzbühel, Austria, leg of the World Triathlon Series thanks to a gutsy break on the bike, and he ended the season as the top-ranked American ITU athlete. It was also in 2010 that Chrabot proved himself to be a “1 percenter”—or the type of athlete who thrives off of unpredictable conditions and high-pressure situations, making him a wild card podium contender for anything-can-happen events such as the Olympics.

“My heart belongs on the Olympic team,” Chrabot said. “It’s been there for the past four years. I just need to put my name on the spot.”

Tune in to the ITU’s live feed of the Olympic trials, on Triathlonlive.tv, to see if the names they’ve etched on these spots will finally be set in stone.

For more information on the ever-complicated triathlon Olympic trials process, including what’s in store for the women, visit Insidetriathlon.com/Olympicqualification.