With the racing world on pause as the planet continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, Triathlete will dip back into the archives and revisit some of the biggest, most inspiring, and somewhat under-the-radar events in triathlon. Today, we’re flipping the calendar back to 2013, when the world’s best short-course triathletes converged for a supercharged super-sprint race under the lights of the Las Vegas strip.
Most people head to Las Vegas for the gambling, the shows, the all-you-can-eat buffets, and the clubs that never seem to close.
But in 2013, a cache of the world’s fastest triathletes headed to the strip for a decidedly less hedonistic pursuit: A high-stakes, super-sprint, night time race that was unlike anything the multisport world had ever seen before.
The frenetic race format, which was popularized by Australian triathletes in the 90s and later brought to the U.S. by Marc Lees, an Aussie and former pro triathlete himself (and now owner of Race Day Wheels), features two continuous, non-stop circuits of the same course: A 300-meter pool swim, 8-kilometer draft-legal bike, and a 2.5-kilometer run. In 2013, USAT jumped in as a key partner with Lees’ Grand Prix series, and the race doubled as the USA Triathlon Elite Sprint National Championships for the American athletes entered.
Why Vegas? The race was timed to coincide with Interbike, the massive cycling expo and trade show held in the city each year. At the time, Lees said he was hoping to grow interest and opportunity in this format from U.S. sponsors, and thought that extra eyeballs from Interbike attendees would help that.
So, on September 19, 2013, many in the tri world–and several unsuspecting people passing by–turned their focus to a portable, 25-meter, 115,000 gallon, 10-lane pool in a parking lot across from the Las Vegas Convention Center. With the dry desert air registering 90-degree F, two heats each of men and women dove in–and took off for 50 minutes of flat-out racing set against the dazzling lights of the famous Strip, as cameras from Universal Sports Network rolled.
In the women’s race, Gwen Jorgensen–still three years out from her gold medal performance at the Rio Olympic games–displayed her dominance by outdistancing Sara McLarty and Lindsey Jerdonek for an American sweep. The men’s race was more of a barn burner, with just seconds separating the top six. Australia’s Josh Kerr took the top honors, with Americans Eric Lagerstrom and Ben Kanute squeaking in to round out the podium.
The following year, the event’s ante was upped with a total of $70,000 in prize money, with the winners each earning $10,000–plus bonuses for the top Americans. Chelsea Burns took home the lion’s share of the purse, earning her first career national title and most likely her biggest paycheck as a pro, with a total of $11,500 in just 40 minutes and 43 seconds of racing. Once again, an Australian took the tape for the men, with Aaron Royle topping Kanute and Tommy Zaferes, also of the U.S.
While the Grand Prix event did not return to the Strip beyond 2014, the super-sprint was later showcased in the Major League Triathlon series and the European-based Super League Triathlon events. It is also the format of the Olympic Mixed Relay Race, which is set to make its debut in Tokyo in 2021 (teams of four alternate between super sprint courses, tagging their teammate at the end of the run to kick off their swim.) Which goes to say that what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay there.