From ‘Swim-Bike-Run’ to ‘Triathlon’ to ‘Tri-Athlete:’ How The First Magazines of Multisport Came to Be

Founding father Harald Johnson digs into the magazine and sport's roots and origin story.

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In January 1983, three friends and partners in a small publishing company had a party at their Los Angeles office. They had just received a sample box of their new magazine from the printer, and it was time to celebrate. Co-founders Penny Little, Mike Gilmore, and I toasted each other as we tore open the box and flipped through the glossy pages of the first major publication devoted exclusively to something called triathlon. We would soon find out if our two years of testing and buildup would find an audience or not. We were taking a gamble, but we had done our homework and felt like we were onto something.

For some context, let’s back up to 1982, when the seeds of this new sport were firmly planted. This was the watershed year when ABC’s Wide World of Sports televised Julie Moss’s infamous crawl at the February Hawaii Ironman; Sally Edwards published the sport’s first book, Triathlon: A Triple Fitness Sport; the first meetings took place to establish a governing body for the sport, the United States Triathlon Association; and the first short-distance, multi-city race series with a uniform format—the U.S. Triathlon Series—appeared.

Things were definitely happening in the world of multisport, but keep in mind that in 1982 there was no social media, barely any email, and the internet was in its infancy (the web didn’t go live until 1991). So if you wanted to feel like part of a sport, you turned to a magazine dedicated to it. But there was no magazine for triathlon. So we decided to do something about that.

Penny, Mike, and I were already publishing a quirky swimming magazine called SWIM SWIM. We were thirty-somethings living the California cross-training lifestyle: besides swimming, we were into beach and road running, cycling, and surfing. So we were personally prepped for multisport. And around 1980 we started noticing an uptick in interest in our SWIM SWIM coverage of run-swim-runs—then called biathlons—and, increasingly, triathlons. Looking for a way to expand our shoestring operation, we decided to do a test. We created a special, one-shot publication with a limited focus on multisport events and released it before the 1982 U.S. summer season.We called it SWIM-BIKE-RUN and pushed it through our existing distribution channels.

S-B-R was basically a bunch of entry forms and a big calendar of events. But, wow, it sold out its 35,000 copies across the country almost instantly! We had hit a nerve. And with that proof of concept, it was time to get serious about a real magazine.

In the summer of 1982, we entered all the open-water and multisport events we could along the California coast (USTS#1-San Diego, Tug’s Swim-Run-Swim, various ocean swims), then focused our attention on the October Hawaii Ironman in Kona. Penny and I were itching to participate and raced it, while Mike schmoozed with potential investors and advertisers. The event was awesome, and we flew home to L.A. full of ideas for our magazine’s launch after the new year.

The sport’s first magazine—TRIATHLON: The Magazine for Multi-Sport Endurance Athletes—hit the streets in the U.S and abroad in February, 1983. At 64 pages, it was all glossy with lots of ads and even more hopes. Penny was editor, Mike was publisher, and I was the art and PR director. We were off and running.

Photo: Harald Johnson

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, a political science teacher at the University of California Berkeley, William R. Katovsky, who had an interest in the socio-cultural effects of sport, had also gone to the October ‘82 Hawaii Ironman with the idea of starting his own triathlon publication. It appeared in May 1983, with the title TRI-ATHLETE (note the hyphen). It started as a free, regional tabloid (Bill would tell me years later that he envisioned creating “the Rolling Stone of triathlon”), but Bill soon got an outside investor and by April 1984 had switched his publication to an all-glossy format distributed nationally, just like ours. Now there were two slick magazines covering the same sport, and their different styles began to emerge.

In my view, TRIATHLON was more mainstream than TRI-ATHLETE. Where they might go for the jugular with their hard-hitting commentary, we had a more commercial approach. For example, we were doing equipment and fashion guides early on. I also thought we had better training and competition advice. They, on the other hand, were stronger in European race coverage since they had an office and were being produced in Belgium.

Photo: Harald Johnson

Another major difference was that we at TRIATHLON were more active in developing and promoting the sport itself. We communicated regularly with the national news media trying to hype triathlons. We also created the Triathlete of the Year Awards, where we selected the top two (male and female) triathletes based on a host of criteria including a reader’s poll. We started off modestly, holding the events in Southern California meeting rooms, but ended up with a glitzy awards ceremony (I was the MC) on the Queen Mary in Long Beach.

We were also very tapped into the triathlon industry and its power structures. I made the restaurant reservation for the initial meeting of the first governing body of the sport, the United States Triathlon Association, which would ultimately morph into Tri-Fed/USA then become the current USA Triathlon. That original spring 1982 meeting was at Gladstones-4-Fish on the beach in Pacific Palisades, California. It included some of the top movers and shakers in the sport at the time: Dave Scott, Scott Tinley, Carl Thomas, Jim Curl, Sally Edwards, Mark Montgomery, Rick Delanty, and all of us from the magazine.

But overall, I thought both magazines did a good job of covering and growing with the new sport. The problem was the word “both.”

By early 1986, it became clear that there wasn’t room for two competing magazines in the same marketing arena. So the two groups had a powwow and hammered out a merger deal: There would be a new, single magazine named Triathlete (no hyphen), and we (TRIATHLON) would keep control of all editorial and advertising in L.A., while they (TRI-ATHLETE) would manage production and circulation from their Pennsylvania and Brussels offices. I became editorial director of the new magazine, which left no role for Bill (although he would come back some years later). The new, merged Triathlete Magazine debuted in July 1986.

The magazine prospered, but because lives change, all four of the original founders of the first triathlon magazines had each moved on to new adventures by 1989. Penny Little (Hawks) went back to her roots as a fine-art consultant and still maintains a regular fitness routine that includes weighted hula-hooping on Venice Beach. Mike Gilmore became President of Tri-Fed/USA and then helped Les McDonald grow the International Triathlon Union (ITU), ultimately becoming its managing director. The late Bill Katovsky came back to the sport in 1993 to launch Inside Triathlon as a sister mag to VeloNews, then a stint back at Triathlete in 1994, then onto writing books on media, politics, fitness, and running.

Photo: Harald Johnson

As for me, I started an ad agency in Santa Monica three doors down from the old magazine and eventually moved to the Virginia countryside where I regularly swim, power-hike through the woods, and jump on the elliptical trainer when the weather’s bad—still cross-training.

Today, it’s hard to grasp that it’s been 35+ years since this publication’s story began. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, but there was something special about those early tri years for me. Not only did I feel grateful and lucky to be making a living chronicling (and experiencing) the outdoor, fitness-oriented lifestyle that formed the heart of triathlon, but I thrived upon the excitement of a unique period in time when a new sport was evolving. And I was glad to be a part of it.

Harald Johnson is a co-founder of Triathlete and current author of historical-fiction, sci-fi, and thriller novels, including one about the birth of New York City and the island at its center: Manhattan (the island he swam around after getting in shape for Ironman).

This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Triathlete Magazine.