Culture

Recalled: The Juggling Triathlete

The unique feat earned Joe Salter mainstream attention.

In triathlon, there are some records–Jan Frodeno’s 7:35:39 iron-distance finish at Challenge Roth; Daniela Ryf breaking 8:30 in Kona–that are so ridiculously fast, they seem almost super-human. And then there are world records that don’t necessarily denote the speediest times, but are just as impressive and exceptional. Take, for example, the record for completing a triathlon while juggling–a mark set nine years ago this month. 

For Joe Salter, then a 31-year-old school counselor from Pensacola, Fla. simply swimming, biking, and running wasn’t enough. Once the avid “joggler”–that’s jogging while juggling–added “buggling” and “swuggling” (biking and swimming while juggling, respectively) to his repertoire, he set his sights on becoming the very first juggling triathlete. Sure, there were jugglers who completed 10Ks, marathons, and even running races backwards while continuously tossing a trio of special juggling balls in the air. But no one had pulled off a triathlon–or had likely even attempted one. 

“When you mention you’re going to do a triathlon while juggling, people really don’t understand how you can swim or bike and juggle,” Salter said in 2012. “You need to go out and prove you can do it, but who wants to go out and train for something like that?” 

Salter took on the challenge and, on top of typical triathlon training, he had to figure out how to swim on his back while juggling three balls, then biking with one hand on the handlebars and the other tossing two balls. The swimming proved especially difficult, perhaps because no one had really ever done it before. Fellow joggler Perry Romanowski compared Salter’s ability to master “swuggling” to that of Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile: “He was the first one,” Now that he’s done it, other people will do it too,” he said. (And he was right: In 2016, an Israeli man, inspired by Salter, finished a 3.5 kilometer race in the Sea of Galilee while swuggling and later completed a triathlon.)

Prior to the race, Salter documented his training on his YouTube channel, depicting him swimming in a lake or riding his bike around his neighborhood, acknowledging the difficulty of the task set out beforehand. 

“I was scared when I first trained. Especially with the swim. It’s panicky and then knowing you have to keep three balls in the air while kicking, it’s stressful. It comes down to survival,” he said. 

But on April 21, 2012, Salter stepped on to the beach of Perdido Key, Fla. for the Flora-Bama Mullet Man Triathlon, three yellow balls in hand, appearing cool and confident. When the gun went off, he jogged towards the Gulf of Mexico, turned around, plunged on to his back and took off–all while juggling. With two spotters floating nearby him, he managed to navigate the swim course before exiting on to the beach and running to transition, swapping his three balls for two, and taking off on his bike. As competitors tucked into aero position whizzed by him, Salter remained smiling and relaxed–and completely upright–as he “buggled” away for 16.2 miles. 

Once on the run, Salter hit his stride: After all, he’d been joggling for years, so this was more in his wheelhouse. He picked up a third ball in transition and managed to hit about 7:52 pace for the 4-mile run, crossing the finish line in 1 hour, 57 minutes–good enough to place 147th out of 246 participants. Perhaps more impressive than those stats? Salter, who made approximately 19,692 throws and catches during the entirety of the race, did not drop the balls at all during the bike and run and made just three drops in the swim. 

Salter’s feat earned him media attention from around the world–and a nod from RecordSetter.com as the first (and therefore, fastest) person to finish a triathlon while juggling. But it wasn’t enough to pass the stringent guidelines of Guinness World Records, which required him to juggle with two hands while biking, according to Salter. Undeterred, he went on to set a Guinness record for joggling backwards at the Quad-Cities marathon in 5 hours, 51 minutes and write a children’s book about–what else–a boy who juggles through the jungle.  

“It was quite a thrill to be the first person to juggle a triathlon,” said Salter. “Who knew it would turn into all the adventures it has taken me to.”