We Were Totally Wrong About Zwift Academy

Redemption stories have an important role in triathlon, as proven by Zwift's first Tri Academy.

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When Zwift first announced the creation of its first Tri Academy in April, we didn’t know what to do with the info. The team, created in a joint venture with Specialized, was made up of four people hailing from the UK, US, Belgium, and Germany who would try to qualify for and race in Kona this year. OK, so far so good.

The team would get support “on par with the top pros in the sport: wind tunnel testing, coaching, gear, training camps, financial support, and mentoring from Tim Don and Lucy Charles.”

Awesome. That’s like every Ironman triathlete’s fantasy—the ultimate chance to prove that with pro-level support, you can make it to the World Championship. What a neat opportunity for age groupers holding onto the Kona dream.

But the four athletes on the team weren’t your average everyday age groupers. In fact, three of them had already raced in Kona, a detail left off their bios on the Zwift Academy page. The program was, essentially, taking top triathletes and making them, um, topper. The goal: to get them on their age group podiums in Hawaii.

The narrative grated with the one we wanted. When the ultimate dream for so many American long-distance triathletes is to just make it to Kona, pouring all of those resources into athletes who had already lived the dream seemed like a tragic waste. It was not the underdog story we love—and it didn’t seem analogous to the story the original Zwift Academy created in 2016, in which any cyclist with a smart trainer could prove they had the power to ride on a pro team.

But now Kona fever has calmed down, we’ve seen the results, talked to UK-based Tri Academy athlete Bex Rimmington, and we’ve changed our minds. We know what it’s like to have unfinished business—to feel like we could’ve done better or to need a second chance—and to be afforded that opportunity is a gift that has its own hallowed place in triathlon history, particularly at Kona. (See: Zwift Academy tri coach Tim Don.)

In the end, two Inaugural academy members got their comebacks, and two did not. German Golo Röhrken placed 20th in the 30-34 age group with an 8:57:25 after placing 48th the year before in the 25-29 age group with a 10:06:36, and 97th in 2015 with an 11:56:56.

Belgian Geert Janssens crashed on the bike in 2017 and DNF’d, then failed to qualify for this year’s Kona after stomach issues derailed his effort at Ironman Hamburg.

American Rachel Norfleet’s story is bittersweet: She last raced Kona in 2015, finishing in 12:20:05 for 13th in the 18-24 age group. She dropped out of Kona 2018 after struggling in the heat on the bike. (Then announced on Instagram she’s quitting the sport.) But her 10:22:44 qualifying time in Santa Rosa nabbed her seventh overall female and an age group win.

But perhaps the biggest redemption story came from British all-around superstar athlete, 35-year old Bex Rimmington—the only Zwift Academy member who hadn’t ever been to Kona.

By day, Rimmington works at Merlin Cycles and coaches local youth in cycling. She’d been a gifted athlete from the start, competing nationally in swimming in her youth. She raced tri on and off in the early 2000s and was on a group ride training for tri when a fellow rider (and former pro cyclist) suggested she could be a pro cyclist. Less than a year later, she’d won nearly a dozen cycling races and continued in the sport for a decade.

She’d already penciled in Kona as her goal for 2018 when she heard about the new Zwift Academy for triathletes. Needless to say, she already had the skills and aerobic engine to be a terrific triathlete, and she proved it when she did her first Ironman—and ran her first marathon—at IM UK in July, finishing first in her age group and 4th overall female with a time of 9:53:19. In a statement only crazy talented athletes like Rimmington could ever make, she said her Kona debut gave her the triathlon bug.

“Originally it was just going to be a one-year project, and I’m not gonna lie, I absolutely loved this year, it’s been so good. I want to go for it again,” she says. She was personally disappointed in her performance—she placed 34th in her age group with a 10:47:35 and, like her fellow Academy athletes, would like to do better on the island.

But perhaps the best part of the experience is the documentation Zwift offered of all of it. After her performance, Zwift put out a video that the kids she coaches saw.

“A kid came up to me and said, ‘I saw your video,’” Rimmington says. I said, ‘What did you think?’ and she said, ‘You did absolutely great. But you cried, though, didn’t you, why were you sad?’ It kind of really choked me because she was really into it and her parents turned around and said, ‘You’re a real role model and inspiration.’ Sometimes you don’t realize that’s what you are to other people.”

Applications for Zwift’s 2019 Tri Academy are now open. (Apply here!) Eight lucky people will get all the resources they could imagine in helping realize their Kona dreams, with Tim Don and Sarah True as mentors. (Note: Entrants must be level 12 cyclists and level 3 runners or above on Zwift.)

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