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For someone with the same name as a famous rock ‘n’ roll singer, Robert Plant has earned rockstar status of his own in the niche world of age-group triathlon. At 79 years old, the Woodside, California, resident is one of the most decorated age-group multisport athletes on the planet, having won more world medals across all on-road multisport disciplines than anyone else. In his three-plus decades as a triathlete, he’s earned six age-group podiums at the Ironman World Championships and has collected five world International Triathlon Union (ITU, now World Triathlon) titles in the last five years alone.
Still, Plant was sure USA Triathlon had the wrong guy when they informed him he was part of this year’s group of 2022 Hall of Fame inductees, which includes Olympians Gwen Jorgensen and Laura Bennett, as well as fellow age-group triathlete 75-year-old Lesley Cens-McDowell.
“I was totally taken off guard, I didn’t have a chance to think I’d ever be in there,” Plant said. “Of only eight other amateur triathletes in the Hall of Fame, they chose me. It took me a while to wrap my head around it.”
Tonight, reality will set in for Plant when he is officially inducted into the Hall of Fame as part of the USAT Gala in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the kick-off to the USAT Age Group National Championships taking place Aug. 6-7.
But Plant isn’t just heading to Milwaukee for the gala: True to form, he’ll race in both the Olympic and sprint distance races this weekend on back-to-back days, and hopes to pick up national titles in each. “This is the last year in the 75-79 age-group, which means you’ve got those ‘young’ guys coming up, if you can call 75 young,” he said with a laugh. “Winning a national title may not come easy, but I’m planning to qualify for the world championships.”
One may wonder what makes this man so motivated, so focused, so, well, able to race triathlons at the level he does at nearly 80 years old. Plant, who owns his own dentistry practice and still works full-time, chalks it up to two things: Consistency and experience.
“I don’t overtrain; I listen to my body, and I’m consistent,” Plant said of his not-so-secrets to success and longevity in the sport—which first interested him after being inspired by watching Mark Allen and Dave Scott battle while volunteering at the 1989 Ironman World Champs. “All of these years of base training, you have a lot of reserves there. As long as I get out and move, I know I don’t need to be doing too much.”
This “just enough” approach has kept injuries at bay and has enabled Plant to travel around the world to compete in multisport—while racking up enough hardware to make him one of the most recognizable athletes in age-group triathlon. But he’s quick to eschew any suggestions that he’s an icon in the sport, and in fact seems embarrassed when asked to speak about his accolades.
“I never put my medals on display. I try to downplay the ‘me’ aspect of triathlon,” he said during a break between patients earlier this week. “Instead, I just hope by being out there and showing them what is possible, I am encouraging more people to get into the sport.”
While Plant admits he loves to win, he has had his share of bad days on the race course. He cited a recent mechanical that lead to a DNF at June’s Ironman 70.3 Hawaii as one of those humbling moments where he realized that crossing the finish line is never a given.
“Believe it or not, I’m still learning from each and every race, even at this age, “ he said. “You race, you learn, you move on. There’s always another race, so I don’t beat myself up.”
Plant, who married once, but never had any kids, said he considers the insular community of Team USA age-group triathletes his extended family—and has no plans to stop showing up to the annual family reunions (i.e., national and world championships) anytime soon.
“Right now, I am going to race the big races until I can until it’s not fun anymore, and I honestly can’t see that happening,” he said. “Maybe I’m in denial, but I won’t say I’m old. So wherever the world championships are in the near future, that is where you’ll find me.”
In addition to Plant and Cens-McDowell, USAT will also recognize two other incredible athletes at the pointy end of the racing field—who both preach strangely similar advice, despite their different stations in the sport.
“Looking back at my career, I am most proud of my level of consistency for a long period of time,” said Olympian Laura Bennett, who will be inducted alongside Plant. “I feel like I was a player through a few generations of athletes and adapted well as the sport changed in different ways across the three disciplines.”
Bennett added that like Plant a big part of her consistency was via the support she found in the tri community—and through USAT’s unique programs. “Starting with [USAT’s] collegiate program coming out of college to the funding and technical support needed when just starting out and beyond,” she said, praising the Olympic Training Center system that helped her eventually find her way to the training squads that became like extended family.
And like Bennett, Olympic gold medalist Gwen Jorgensen found invaluable support within the tri community. “I’m so grateful to USAT, which gave me my very first bike and found me a coach. Barb Lindquist was the first person to introduce me to the sport of triathlon,” said Jorgensen. “She believed in me when I didn’t, showing me how the support and belief of others can impact a person’s life.”
For Jorgensen especially, “multisport family” is more than just a figure of speech. “Triathlon also introduced me to my husband, Patrick,” she added. “I can’t imagine my life without my family and am so thankful triathlon introduced me to so many life-long friends.”