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Triathlon’s Top Photographers Take Us Behind the Lens

Motorcycle scares! Charging athletes! Tackled by the British Army!

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Motorcycle scares! Charging athletes! Tackled by the British Army! Tri’s 12 most prolific photogs spill all about their adventures behind the lens.

Triathlon has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1974 and so have the sport’s images. Some of the sport’s original photographers have either passed away or are enjoying retirement, but a handful of the OG can still be spotted on the Big Island every October, along with a slew of young talent bringing a fresh perspective and new technology to tri photography. We tracked down 12 of the sport’s top photogs to learn what got them started and what keeps them going.

Delly Carr

“The Photo Ninja”
Age: 50
Hometown: Sydney, Australia
Favorite Race: Kona

While nobody keeps stats on who has shot the most triathlons, if they did, that
title would undoubtedly go to Carr, who has been the lead photographer for the ITU since 1994. He’s been taking triathlon pics for longer than anyone in the business, having shot his first triathlon in Sydney in 1988. Carr says the toughest thing about shooting tri is the large field of play (imagine the luxury of a basketball court!), and, in his 30th year of doing it, he admits it can be hard to keep things fresh and find new ways to capture the same courses.

And He Lived to Tell About It
“I was shooting the ITU World Cup in New Plymouth, New Zealand. I can’t remember the year since I’ve shot that race so many times. I was shooting the approaching men’s bike peloton from the middle of the road and realized that they were coming at me in a U-shape, not an arrowhead shape like I was used to. By the time I realized I couldn’t make it to the side of the road, it was too late, so I stood still with my arms in the air. Luckily they saw me, and I saw most of them laugh, and then the peloton split in two and flowed to my sides. I felt like Moses parting the Red Sea.”

Nils Nilsen

“The Photo Viking”
Age: 39
Hometown: Tempe, Arizona
Favorite Race: XTERRA Saipan

Nilsen began his career by traveling the world to shoot the XTERRA series before landing a gig at Triathlete in 2010. He’s since worked for Ironman and is now Roka’s full-time photog. He thrives on the challenge of capturing images that tell a story about a sport in which athletes are so isolated. While he’s a regular on the Big Island, he admits it’s hard to find new ways to capture a race that has been photographed so often, but Nilsen loves the vibe he’s able to capture at the finish line as the clock nears midnight. “The emotion in that moment is unique to Kona,” he says. “There’s nothing in any other sport quite like it.”

The Final Hour
“In Kona 2015, I was shooting at the finish during the final minute of the race. There were seconds to go before midnight. There was this older Japanese gentleman struggling to get there. He kept on falling over and was trying to pull his way along the barricades. People were going nuts willing him on to the finish. I got this photo of him trying to pull himself back up with the crowd screaming all around him. He finished, and Mike Reilly helped him up. It was a few seconds after the cutoff, but I don’t think anyone noticed or cared in that moment.”

Wagner Aruajo

“The Rising Star”
Age: 37
Hometown: Belo Horizonte Brazil
Favorite Race: Ironman Mont-Tremblant

Araujo has been shooting triathlon for more than a decade, but it was only a couple of years ago that his photos began popping up in mainstream publications in North America and Europe. With the explosion of triathlon in South America, Araujo has emerged as the region’s top tri shooter, and his love of travel has him shooting more races per year than just about anyone else in the business. His secret for capturing award-winning images year after year? Preparation. Araujo says he scouts every mile of a course beforehand and makes sure to do it at the same time as the race so he can account for the light conditions he’ll see on race day.

A Big Scare
“I had a very scary memorable moment last year. A photographer and good friend of mine had a stroke while we were shooting a race in Canada. He was my roommate during that race, and I was very concerned. I watched him get taken to the hospital, and then I had to keep on shooting to cover the race for both of us. I’ve never had to concentrate so hard in my entire life.”

Tommy Zaferes

“The New Kid on the Block”
Age: 31
Hometown: Watsonville, California
Favorite Race: ITU WTS Montreal

Zaferes is a former ITU pro and the self-proclaimed “worse-half” of Olympian and short-course superstar Katie Zaferes. Despite being a relative newcomer to the tri photo game, he’s already made a big name for himself, and his fresh take is keeping the old guard on their toes. Zaferes began shooting the women’s races while he was still competing on the ITU WTS circuit and was brought on as an official ITU photographer last year. While he hasn’t been shooting the sport for very long, he’s spent years checking out other photographers’ work and is now on a mission to capture the sport in ways that he hasn’t seen before.

When Wife and Photography Collide
“Typically my wife is racing while I’m working, so I’m always trying to follow how she’s doing. In Stockholm last year, she was in a breakaway of three riders, and on lap five of eight, only two riders came past me and Katie wasn’t one of them. I hoped she just got a flat, but as I’m looking through my lens for the next group, I see her riding solo with blood all over her face. After she passed, I had to run 2.5K to the med tent with all my equipment to make sure she was OK—luckily she was.”

Paul Phillips

“The Bionic Man”
Age: 69
Hometown: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Favorite Race: Challenge Roth

Phillips may be the elder statesman among tri shooters—he’s had both knees and a shoulder replaced—but nothing seems to slow him down for too long. He’s a meticulous planner, going so far as to keep spreadsheets with him so he can estimate when certain athletes will be passing certain parts of the course. Phillips seems to have a particularly good eye for Ironman 70.3 St. George and Challenge Roth and has twice won Triathlon Business International’s “Best Published Photo” award for his work at those two events.

A Terrifying Crash
“My scariest triathlon moment was at the 2011 USAT Age-Group National Championship in Burlington, Vermont. While I was walking to the venue on race morning, I was hit by an SUV and thrown about 30 feet. I was taken to the hospital with three broken ribs and a concussion. Once I was released, I returned to the venue and the race was still going on. I could only walk about 50 yards at a time before I needed to stop and rest, and when I did, I would shoot what I could. I somehow managed to put together a decent gallery from that race.”

Janos Schmidt

“The Hungarian Rhapsody”
Age: 40
Hometown: Budapest, Hungary
Favorite Race: Norseman Xtreme

One of Hungary’s most decorated photographers, Schmidt landed a role with the ITU in 2007 and has been shooting dozens of tris a year ever since. Working in the fast and furious world of ITU racing, Schmidt has learned the importance of being fast on his feet to get to the right spot, but he also stresses being patient once he gets there to capture that perfect image. Even when he’s not working, he’s taking pictures. An image he snapped while waiting for a train at Budapest’s Nyugati pályaudvar (West railway station) won the runner-up prize at Sony’s 2015 World Photography Awards.

“I’ll never forget what happened during the women’s race at the 2012 Olympics in London’s Hyde Park. I had just gotten off my moto after the bike and was running into T2 to shoot the women making transition. Even though I was shooting for ITU and had full accreditation, one of the local organizers wouldn’t let me through. We had a little fight and a few soldiers ended up taking me down to the ground before they realized that I had every right to be there.”

Don Miralle

Age: 44
Hometown: Encinitas, California
Favorite Race: Kona

Miralle isn’t just one of the world’s best triathlon photographers, he’s one of the world’s best sports photographers—he’s won numerous international awards, especially for his work at the Olympic Games. He first came to the Big Island for the 1999 Ironman World Championship and was so blown away by the scenery and the emotion of the finish line at midnight that he’s returned every year since. An avid swimmer, surfer, paddler, and diver, Miralle is most at home in the ocean and can always be found diving beneath the athletes during the Kona start, in hopes of capturing the perfect mix of curious sea life and nervous athletes.

In Too Deep
“I was sitting at the bottom of Kailua Bay at about 6:59 a.m. before the start of the 2010 Ironman World Champs, trying to line up schools of fish below schools of man, while keeping my bubbles from my regulator out of the frame. Then I noticed the battery light on my camera was blinking, and I thought it would die before I got the shot. The cannon went off, and I was only able to get in a couple of shots before it died. I swam back to the pier with my head hanging low, upset that I went through all that work and blew it. But sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. One of the few shots I got ended up winning a World Press Photo award for the best sports action image of the year.

Rocky Arroyo

“The Norcal Natural”
Age: 47
Hometown: Arcata, California
Favorite Race: Kona

Arroyo showed up at the 2000 edition of the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon with a 35-mm camera and a handful of film on a whim. Little did he know back then that it would turn into his passion and profession. Arroyo credits triathlon for keeping him in shape because he’s learned the importance of maintaining a “minimal amount of fitness” so that he can keep up on race day. He loves returning to the same races like Escape from Alcatraz and Kona year after year to push himself to find new ways to capture those iconic events.

Moto Memories
“The Beijing International Triathlon has a bike course that’s an absolute rollercoaster. There is a section that has a long, gradual incline where I need to get shots of both the pro men and women, and then I need to catch up to the front of the race again before they make transition. All I can say is that 115 mph on the back of a motorcycle will make the hair on the back of anyone’s neck shoot straight up.”

Stef Hanson

“The Encyclopedia”
Age: 37
Hometown: Melbourne, Australia
Favorite Race: Challenge Wanaka

Hanson started in 2012 as the first and only site dedicated entirely to women in triathlon and figured she should learn how to take pictures. She admits she had no idea what she was doing for those first few races, but she proved to be a quick learner. It also helps that she’s not one to sit still for even a second. During a race, Hanson can be found shooting photos, videos, taking splits, tweeting, and keeping notes for her post-race reports. Like many other relative newcomers to the tri photo game, she credits Delly Carr for helping to show her how it’s done.

Wind, Rain, and Breakneck Speed
“One time, at Challenge Melbourne, my moto turned out to be a dirt bike, which meant there was no backrest. The driver also wasn’t afraid to rip on the accelerator. It wasn’t easy to keep from flying off the back with a heavy backpack on. That definitely tested out my core strength. It probably didn’t help that it was rainy and windy, and I kept yelling at him to catch up to the lead women ASAP, causing him to take off at 130 kph.”

Rich Cruse

“The O.G.”
Age: 56
Hometown: Vista, California
Favorite Race: CAF San Diego Triathlon Challenge

Cruse shot his first race in 1986 and has been among the best in the business ever since. The Southern California native has spent time as the official XTERRA photographer
and has shot the Ironman World Championship more than 20 times. While he’s cut back his workload over the past few years, one race he never misses is the Challenged Athletes Foundation San Diego Triathlon Challenge, which he says continues to inspire him. “People who have every excuse not to be participating are out there to show what they can do and what they want to be,” Cruse says.

You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out
“I can’t remember the year, but as I was waiting on the pier in Kona for the swim start, one of my camera straps poked me in the eye and scratched my cornea pretty bad. My eye started watering and I could only see out of one eye for the next 17 hours. That was a day when autofocus saved my bacon. It was swollen completely shut when I woke up the next morning.”

Oliver Baker

“The Artist”
Age: 32
Hometown: San Diego, California
Favorite Race: Kona

While he’s only been shooting triathlons for a few years, Baker arguably knows more about triathlon photos than anyone else. He was Triathlete’s graphic designer for more than a decade, charged with scrutinizing thousands of good and bad tri photos. He decided to pick up a camera in 2016 and hasn’t put it down since. Baker says over the past 10 years he’s learned to worry less about the technical skills of design and photography and focus more on the art of finding his own style.

“I was walking down the finishing chute at Oceanside 70.3 this year when I heard Mike Reilly’s voice, ‘And here comes Frodeno!’ I quickly turned around to see Jan closing in on me, already having started his victory dance. I laid down a PR 50-meter dash, with camera in hand and moto helmet still on, and then I dove under the tape and into position to get the shot. All the while, a dozen of my colleagues watched the entire thing with their cameras all trained in my direction. I was that guy.”

Thierry Deketelaere

“The French Connection”
Age: 56
Hometown: Beauvechain, Belgium
Favorite race: Kona

The founder, editor, and head photographer for France’s Triathlete magazine shot his first triathlon in Ireland in 1984 on assignment for this magazine. In the 34 years since, he’s photographed races everywhere from South Africa to Suriname and has been a regular on the Big Island for three decades. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone more well-traveled than Deketelaere, and he loves photographing unique destinations that many of his French readers wouldn’t otherwise think to visit.

“I’ve had two memorable falls over the past 30 years that resulted in some damage to my gear, body, and ego. The first was at the first-ever ITU World Championships in Avignon in 1989. I fell into the Rhône River with all my cameras on me. That was way before digital, and I lost a lot of film. The second time was a few years later in Kona when I fell off the pier as I was shooting the leaders exiting the swim. Both times I thought I should probably quit photography, but I managed to make it through those days and got some pretty good shots.”