Through the ’80s and ’90s, as competitive as triathlon might have become, it still remained a sport that good athletes from other backgrounds could take up and excel at. Lisa Bentley ran at university before becoming an 11-time Ironman champion, for example. To do that, though, Bentley became extremely proficient in all three sports.
The Olympics changed all that, though – suddenly a weakness in any of the three sports became a huge issue. Draft-legal racing suddenly required the ability to swim extremely well. After his disappointing race at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Simon Whitfield, considered one of the sport’s premier runners, immersed himself in swimming in order to routinely come out of the water with the leaders. As triathlon continued to gain in popularity, it joined the big leagues in other ways, too.
Ever heard of a guy named Nick Bollettieri? In 1978 he began the process that has changed sport as we know it with the creation of the first tennis academy. Bollettieri suddenly made it the norm for elite level tennis players to start specializing in their sport from a young age. Parents would move their entire families to Florida in order for one (or more) of their children to be part of the academy. International Management Group eventually took over Bollettieri’s camps and started the same process in other sports – there are now academies and camps for virtually every sport, even to the point of specializing in specific positions. (Quarterback camps for 10 year olds, anyone?)
The extent to which this specialization has arrived in triathlon is embodied most in Alistair Brownlee. The defending Olympic champion swims like a fish, can ride a bike with the best and is so fast as a runner there’s a serious chance he’ll represent England at the Commonwealth Games in the 10,000 m. His brother Jonathan is every bit as fast. Their biggest competitor, Javier Gomez, is equally as proficient in all three sports. The Brownlees grew up swimming like their mother and running like their dad. They started competing in triathlon races at 10, but remained competitive in the pool and in running through their teenage years. It was that competitive mix that helped set them up for the excellence in all three disciplines they’ve brought to the sport now. That template has set the stage for the sport’s elite these days – Paula Findlay swam and ran at a high level before she turned her sites on triathlon and went on a world cup-winning tear.