Recalled: Triathlon’s Very First U.S. National Champs

This weekend the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships will take place in Milwaukee. We look back at the first nationals race from what was then called Tri-Fed.

Photo: Bass Lake Yosemite Triathlon

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This week, an estimated 6,000 age-group athletes from across the country will mix it up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for the USA Triathlon (USAT) Age-Group National Championships. Some will vie for a coveted spot on Team USA to compete in the 2022 Sprint and Olympic-Distance World Champs in Montreal and Abu Dhabi, respectively, while many others will compete for the sake of experiencing racing at a championship level. Through the years hundreds of thousands of triathletes have experienced this event in locations ranging from Coeur d’Alene to Cleveland. But how did it all begin? Here’s a look back at the origins of the largest and longest-running national championships in the U.S.

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In 1983, USA Triathlon (then known as Tri-Fed) decided that the sport needed its own national championships. After all, the Ironman World Championships was in full-force by that time, but there wasn’t a sanctioned race that crowned the fastest Americans, especially at the increasingly popular shorter distances. So, the folks at Tri-Fed set their sights on a scenic spot near California’s Yosemite National Park. And, in the shadows of the Sierra Mountains, a jewel known as Bass Lake became the home of the sport’s very first National Championships event, held 39 years ago next month.

At the time, there was no standard distance for short-course triathlon: There was the Ironman, and then there were races that covered much less ground, but at varying lengths. In 1983, the determined distance for the inaugural National Champs at Bass Lake was a 2,000-meter swim, a 35K bike, and a 15K run (in later years, the race switched to the Olympic distance, once it became more universally accepted). The course treated competitors to clear mountain waters, a rolling ride through the Sierra National Forest, and a run along the shores of Bass Lake, at an elevation of around 3,000 feet.

Despite its small beginnings, Bass Lake suddenly became a big thing in the burgeoning sport of triathlon. And while, in the early days, the entire field was made up of less than 200 athletes (plus several relay teams) the depth of talent was impressive. Drawn by a chance for a national title (for the Americans) and a large prize purse (for everyone), the race saw stars of the sports like Ironman champs Scott Tinley, Scott Molina, Dave Scott, Patricia and Sylviane Puntous, Julie Moss, and “Queen of Kona” Paula Newby Fraser. “Literally, almost every person responsible for the birth and success of the sport of triathlon raced in Bass Lake in 1983 and/or 1984,” a passage on the race’s website reads. “The Bass Lake Triathlon was about so much more than a race. It was a celebration of the brand new sport of triathlon.”

Bass Lake’s National Championship run lasted until 1985, when the event moved to Hilton Head, South Carolina, then to Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, and then to Hammond, Indiana in 1990, where it merged with the famed Leon’s Triathlon. It was then when the focus of the event shifted from professional to amateur athletes, as it remains to this day. (With the addition of draft-legal triathlon to the Olympic Games in 2000, pros began to be crowned national champs at their own elite events.)

USAT has never brought the National Championships back to Bass Lake (the closest it has come is Mission Viejo, California in 1996 and Portland, Oregon in 2007 and 2008). But for anyone who wants to revisit the home of the very first champs, you can still compete there: The 2022 event will be held next June.


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