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The Rise of the Professional Age-Grouper

Should super-fast amateurs with sponsors be forced to “upgrade” to pro status? What keeps someone in the elite age-group ranks?

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You know their names, you follow them on the Ironman tracker, you see them out at the races, and there they are, on Instagram—they’re wearing your favorite triathlon brands and using your favorite products. They should be professional athletes, right? But they aren’t…really. They’re taking the tops steps, the podiums, the Umeke bowls in Kona and the overall amateur titles at age group national championships, but why don’t they take that next leap to the pro ranks?

We spoke with the “elite amateurs” that meet this middle-ground, pro-not-pro definition to try to get to the bottom of this phenomenon. Their reasons and unique perspectives might surprise you.

RELATED: How Does A Triathlete “Go Pro?”

A balancing act

In this sport, we all struggle to find the time to do it all. Even those at the top of triathlon are trying to find that magic formula (if there is such a thing) between juggling three very different sports, family life, a full-time job, and everything else that falls in between.

To Lukas Bosmans, the two most important things in his life are his wife and daughter. He might not mention that he was second in his age group and third overall amateur at this year’s Ironman World Championships in St. George or that in 2019 he was the Men’s 30-34 Age Group 70.3 World Champion in Nice, France.

In his “normal life,” he is a police detective and his lifestyle is fairly flexible with how he manages his time. Earlier this year, when he went to a training camp for the St. George Ironman World Championships, he was away from his daughter for three weeks. In the end, it wasn’t worth it to be away from his family for extended periods—even though he has qualified for Kona this year, he has decided to pass on that opportunity to spend invaluable time with his daughter. Being a professional is not realistic for him.

Kristen Yax enjoys training as part of her lifestyle. She is a psychology professor at Oregon State University, a mom, wife, and an active member of her online community. She also finished fourth in her age group this year at the Ironman World Championship in St. George and was also the Women’s 40-44 age group winner at Oregon 70.3.

During the school year when she is teaching, she has a bigger time commitment to her job. During the summer, she enjoys more time to train while still continuing to work. With time constraints, she primarily does most of her training indoors throughout the year to get the best out of both training and life.

Community

We have all felt at times that triathlon can be a selfish endeavor. The way to lessen that feeling is to find a community of people to surround yourself with. It can be a master’s swim team, a running club, a triathlon team, or an online community to cheer us on.

Dani Fischer was successful very early on in her triathlon career, winning several overall titles including age group long course national championships and Ironman Wisconsin. After a breakout year in 2014 she decided to take her professional license in 2015. It was a roller coaster of emotions. She was at the pinnacle of the sport, what everyone “would strive for, the money, to race the best of the best,” she says but it simply wasn’t enough. After racing as a professional, she says she realized her reasons for racing were the “camaraderie, people, and shared experiences.” When she came back as an amateur, she found a community of triathletes on her Tri Loco Indianapolis Team. She found her love of the sport again. Today, even after winning the overall age group national championship a few weeks ago in Milwaukee, she said she loves the community she has surrounded herself with and would never want to give that up.

Rebecca Anderbury Duxbury says one of the keys to her success as a triathlete is her husband Dan and her parents. As an elite athlete himself, her husband Dan understands her goals and what she goes through on a daily basis, while her parents have always been very supportive. Rebecca says when you have the support of those around you to “duck out of a family event to go for a long run” and not feel guilty, it makes a lot of difference. Her support system has allowed her to win the first Ironman she ever competed in Wales in 2019. She was also second in her age group at Ironman World Championships St. George this year and will be competing in Kona this October.

Although she was the youngest member of the Zwift Tri Academy, she says the team all took care of her and helped share their collective experiences. She said the community of like-minded people on the team is a group of friendships that she will cherish for a lifetime and that they continue to stay in touch.

Mental health

At the end of 2016, Fischer admitted she didn’t want to do triathlon at all anymore, and felt she was burned out from the pressure and loneliness of the professional ranks. She still feels as though many of the professional athletes in the sport of triathlon are not able to express their struggles because who they are on social media is “their brand.” Over the past few years, like many of us going through the global pandemic, without racing, she felt the mental burn out creeping in again while she struggled with multiple injuries. For her, the difference was the triathlon community surrounding her, and now she says she feels much more comfortable sharing her journey.

Duxbury, on the other hand, feels imposter syndrome despite her impressive resume. In Europe, you have to finish within 4% of the top professional’s time in order to get your elite license. At 2022 Swansea 70.3, she did just that, finishing within that margin of Kat Matthews’ winning time. Even though she finished world championships at St. George in second place for her age group, she still didn’t feel like it was a great performance. Rebecca says she feels that she still has much to accomplish in this sport and wants to feel fully confident before taking that next step.

Incentive to “go pro”

What does it really mean to “go pro?” It depends on your nationality but for the United States, you have three years to prove yourself, you pay a one-time yearly fee of $900 to enter as many races as you want (for Ironman-branded events), and you are eligible to win prize money. But the actual nuts and bolts of it are a little more complicated.

Eric Engel, the men’s 35-39 champion at Ironman St. George World Championships who has qualified for Kona 5 times, sees people making the decision to move up to the professional ranks too soon. Athletes “get frustrated and leave the sport,” he says. There isn’t a “magic formula to get better” when you make the jump to the professional ranks. Eric says you have to continue to work hard and the margins become much slimmer. He also quantifies the lack of “resources and availability to focus on training” as one of the problems of the system. As part of the Zwift Tri Academy, he acknowledges that the Zwift Team is given more resources than many of the professionals.

Eric Engel of the United States competes on the bike during the 2021 IRONMAN World Championships on May 07, 2022 in St George, Utah. (Photo: Sean F. Haffey/Getty Images)

In Bosmans’ opinion, “people are trying to survive and make a living” in the professional ranks. He doesn’t want to lose his love of the sport and “likes the flow” of where he is at. He works full time and has local sponsorships, but the amount of time and energy it would take to make that next leap, would take time away from his family. He says there aren’t people knocking down his doors with sponsorship opportunities, either. The only difference he sees is paying less for registration. You still have all the other same expenses of travel, accommodation, and equipment.

The cost of racing

As many of us might have noticed, the cost of travel has skyrocketed over the past few years. Here is a quick chart of the costs related to travel for a triathlon and how much they have changed since 2019 to now, according to the U.S. Travel Association and a Washington Post story on car rental prices.

2019 vs 2022 Inflation
Flights 41.6%
Hotel 6.5%
Rental Car 55.0%
Gas Prices 63.1%
Food 16.0%
Other 15.5%

With inflation rates rising, the cost to travel and racing becomes more of a tradeoff. As a rookie pro, veteran, or an age grouper, these costs are still the same. If you’re thinking ‘All professional athletes are sponsored’, that is not necessarily the case either.

Sponsorship opportunities

Cody Beals, a successful pro triathlete since 2015, has openly documented and shared his finances from his rookie pro years to the present. Cody has now set multiple course records, most recently adding the 2022 Eagleman 70.3 title and new course record to his resume. He admits “in-kind/product sponsorship is much easier to come by than some form of financial support”. Brands are not throwing money at every triathlete who experiences some form of success. In order to make sponsorships a reliable and profitable source of income “it takes years of patience and hard work to build a reputation and image, develop a network, earn the trust of sponsors and nurture these relationships.” The other thing no one tells you about sponsorship opportunities is that there is no handbook or manual on how to secure these deals. It differs from company to company on their expectations and requirements. These days it’s not just about your race resume, it is also about your social media presence and your following.

It is also risky to rely solely on prize purses as the landscape for professional athletes changes. To be a professional triathlete and “finish in the money” can mean a multitude of things. For Ironman events, prize purses can range from $15,000 at minor pro events to $750,000 at the Ironman World Championships. The prize purse can also be split by gender and can range from five to 15 pros deep. So if the prize purse is $30,000, like at a standard Ironman 70.3 race, that means the winner gets $30,000, right? Well, actually, no. The champion takes home $4,000 for crossing the line first. But that’s only if you win. What if you don’t finish first, crash on the bike, get heat exhaustion, or finish out of the money? Well, you’re out of luck.

When you factor in the cost of travel, accommodation, bike maintenance, and the plethora of other costs associated with triathlon, that prize money dries up very quickly. If you walk away without any or very little prize money, it ends up costing you to race.

To go pro or not to go pro? That is the question

Breaking down the benefits of becoming a “pro” triathlete—the increased notoriety, the potential for prize money, and the opportunity to race for a living—versus the downsides—things like leading a very meager lifestyle, potential for loss of income, smaller community, mental burnout, and more—it’s a risky bargain for anyone. For many top-level triathletes, the balance to that equation gets tipped towards “pro” at the opportunity to race the very best, at the same time, on the same day. As an elite amateur athlete, the chances to race head to head with the best come rarely, if ever, even at the highest levels of age-group competition on the world stage.

While there’s no doubt that some pro triathletes do it for the money or the clout, those things are often what comes after years of hard work, sacrifice, grueling training, modest travel, and a spartan-like lifestyle. For many, the opportunity to race against the fastest triathletes in the sport—regardless of age or commitments outside of tri (yes, that can mean setting aside a job, and sometimes even a family)—is the only thing that matters. And of course there are the exceptional pros who strike a fantastic balance between life and sport, even if not at first, but sometimes later in their careers.

So why are there so many “professional age groupers?” Elite amateurs can still have a high level of personal multisport happiness, without gambling their time or finances, and maintain an easier balance with their families, their community, and their working peers. With the commitments of everyday life, they don’t (always) have to choose their work out over their family or compromise how they spend their time. They find joy in balance—where triathlon plays a large, but not overwhelmingly huge role

And meanwhile, the professional field is changing. With similar opportunities for pro sponsorship as elite amateurs, there might not be as much of a financial incentive to dive in with both feet, but the opportunity to race the very best in their chosen sport still remains solely at the professional level. There is a lot of glitz and glamor associated with being a professional athlete, but at the end of the day, it is still very hard work—above and beyond training and racing. Meanwhile, elite amateurs have found happiness in the way that triathlon occupies a very specific space in their lives.

RELATED: A Case for Cycling Categories in Triathlon