John Salt

Triathlon Magazine Canada - - FEATURES - BY KEVIN MACKIN­NON

When he de­cided to start a triathlon series in the early 2000s, even his friends and fam­ily thought he was crazy. Over the last 17 years, though, John Salt’s Mul­ti­sport Canada has be­come the coun­try’s largest triathlon series, and the Bar­rel­man Triathlon is the largest non-70.3 half-dis­tance race in North Amer­ica.

IT JUST SEEMS AP­PRO­PRI­ATE. Even though John Salt and I live a few hun­dred kilo­me­tres apart, our best chance for a face-to-face in­ter­view came in Ger­many, the day af­ter Chal­lenge Roth. In 2002 the Walchshöfer fam­ily took a flyer from the sport’s big­gest brand, Iron­man, and went on their own to cre­ate what has be­come the epic event in the small Bavar­ian town. Renowned as one of the most unique and en­joy­able ath­lete ex­pe­ri­ences in the sport, Chal­lenge Roth thrives be­cause ath­letes are em­braced by the event or­ga­niz­ers and com­mu­nity alike.

That same spirit drove Salt to cre­ate the Mul­ti­sport Canada series 17 years ago. At the time peo­ple told him he was crazy. De­spite the fact that On­tario was home to a huge num­ber of ath­letes, at the time the Subaru Triathlon Series ruled the roost in the province. (Full dis­clo­sure: I worked as the an­nouncer at the Subaru Series at the time.) In the few years be­fore Salt started Mul­ti­sport Canada, three other series had been launched, but none of those had been able to suc­ceed.

Salt, who was work­ing as an ex­ec­u­tive in the re­tail bank­ing world at the time, de­cided it was time to start his own race series. On is way home from a race in Colling­wood, he called his friend Mike Buck, a pro triath­lete based in On­tario, and said “We’re start­ing a triathlon series.”

“No, we’re not,” Buck an­swered.

“Yes, we are,” Salt in­sisted.

I asked Salt why he felt he wanted to take the chance

when so many peo­ple thought there was no way it could work.

“The hon­est answer is that there was a change in own­er­ship at the other ma­jor series and I think that the cul­ture changed a lit­tle bit,” he said. “I was com­pet­ing my­self at that time, and I had a lot of peo­ple who were friends who were com­pet­ing and there was talk that there was a dif­fer­ent feel­ing at those events. I re­mem­ber go­ing back from to the day of the Royal Lepage Triathlon series and Gra­ham Fraser’s par­ents cook­ing Pres­i­dent’s Choice burg­ers and that whole fam­ily at­mos­phere, that feel­ing of ca­ma­raderie – it was just a fun time. That seemed to be chang­ing in the sport and I wanted to re­tain that. I saw that as an op­por­tu­nity.”

It’s not that the op­por­tu­nity was easy. Salt re­mem­bers how, just like Gra­ham and Sue Fraser had pulled in their fam­ily and friends to get their triathlon series started in the ’80s,

his fam­ily and friends pulled through for him.

“The first year was a rag­tag bunch,” he said. “My wife, Anne, was the ad­min­is­tra­tor, my in­laws were in the tent chop­ping fruit for the post-race food, Gabby Whit­lock was at that point was work­ing as an ad­min­is­tra­tor at Western and came over to help with ad­min, my kids helped set up tran­si­tion, I was pound­ing posts. So we just slugged it through. I think the suc­cess was that we were fo­cussed on the ath­lete/cus­tomer. It was all about them. That’s al­ways been the goal – the cul­ture was cre­ated.”

That ath­lete- and cus­tomer-ori­ented fo­cus is, for Salt, crit­i­cal not only for the Mul­ti­sport series, but for the sport as a whole. I asked him how he felt the sport was do­ing in Canada.

“If you go back to about three years in time and go back to the pre­ced­ing five years be­fore it, there was ac­tu­ally a 30 per cent de­crease of the num­ber of house­holds, in On­tario, any­way, that were par­tic­i­pat­ing in the sport,” he said. “I think what was hap­pen­ing back then was we couldn’t demystify the sport. It [seemed] like there was more ef­fort in­volved than peo­ple



wanted to put into it. Things were shift­ing in the mass-par­tic­i­pa­tion land­scape – there were more fun events com­ing out. I think younger peo­ple weren’t com­ing into the sport. We hit a low about three years ago. It has bounced back over the last cou­ple of years – we were up five per cent. In ev­ery other year, other than the lit­tle dip for a while, we had al­ways had gains of 10 per cent or so. This year, right now, we’re trend­ing 15 per cent up.

“I think what’s chang­ing is race pro­duc­ers, event man­age­ment com­pa­nies, have to un­der­stand that its about the ex­pe­ri­ence now. It is ath­letic achieve­ment, ab­so­lutely, about in­spir­ing your­self to be the best you can, but we are, as Steve Fleck (the race an­nouncer for the Mul­ti­sport Canada series) likes to say, in the en­ter­tain­ment and ex­pe­ri­ence busi­ness. We can’t just pro­duce a race, present the rules and tell peo­ple to race hard. It’s all about let­ting peo­ple know ’we’re re­ally happy you’re

here, we’re try­ing to do our best to en­ter­tain you, let us know how we’re do­ing pre- and post-race and, while you’re out there, just have a whole lot of fun. We’re go­ing to try and give you the best race ex­pe­ri­ence pos­si­ble. And I think that will bode well for any­one who pro­duces races in that way.”

It’s here where it re­ally hits home just how ap­pro­pri­ate our choice of in­ter­view venue has been. Salt made his first trip the Roth in 2009 af­ter reach­ing out to the Chal­lenge

Roth race direc­tor, Felix Walchshöfer, to ex­plore the pos­si­bil­ity of put­ting on a fulld­is­tance race in On­tario. Walchshöfer in­vited him to come and race. Two years later, Salt was back for more meet­ings, but was so en­am­oured by the trip, he brought a group over to en­joy the race with him.

“Chal­lenge Roth is prob­a­bly the per­fect ex­am­ple of pro­vid­ing the best race ex­pe­ri­ence pos­si­ble,” Salt said. “There is one ex­pe­ri­ence af­ter an­other from the day you ar­rive, mid­week prior to the event to the day af­ter. This is a race ex­pe­ri­ence of a life­time. This is a race ev­ery triath­lete should come to. There’s a line up of peo­ple that’s stretched out for two hours for peo­ple sign­ing up for next year and, once they open on­line en­try, they’re go­ing to sell out in un­der 30 sec­onds – 4,000 spots. That’s be­cause of the ex­pe­ri­ence. And that’s the state of the sport, if it loses sight of that, we could be in trou­ble again.”

While a deal with Chal­lenge to host a long­course event never ma­te­ri­al­ized, Salt did start the Bar­rel­man Triathlon, which has be­come the largest non-Iron­man 70.3 half-dis­tance race in North Amer­ica.

At the first race of the 2018 Mul­ti­sport Canada series, Salt an­nounced that af­ter this year he’d be step­ping back from the main day to day op­er­a­tions of the com­pany. While he’s been think­ing about do­ing it for a few years, the fact that he turns 65 this year and his best friend is un­der­go­ing “a se­ri­ous med­i­cal sit­u­a­tion,” prompted him to “stop talk­ing about it and go ahead and do it.”

“What we re­ally needed to do was make sure that there was a real solid team be­hind Ja­son [Vurma, Salt’s part­ner in the com­pany], so that he could re­ally step for­ward,” Salt said. “Ja­son has been with me since our sec­ond year, so he’s been with me for 15 years. To me, it’s ex­tremely im­por­tant that some­one’s at that fin­ish line. The ath­lete-cus­tomer needs to know that we care about them and they had a good day. We needed to free Ja­son up so he could be there. I’ve been talk­ing about this for a num­ber of years and we’ve fi­nally been able to put all the pieces of the puzzle to­gether so Ja­son can do that.”

So, while John Salt won’t be the man you’ll find greet­ing you at the end of any Mul­ti­sport Canada races you’ll com­pete in af­ter this year, he’s con­fi­dent that’s not go­ing to di­min­ish your race ex­pe­ri­ence one bit.

“Mul­ti­sport Canada will still be all about the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence. We’ll lis­ten to the cus­tomer, we’ll make changes for the cus­tomers and con­tinue to grow,” he said.

Those words ring that much more true when you’re sit­ting in the expo at Chal­lenge Roth, tak­ing in one of the best triathlon ex­pe­ri­ences on the planet.

otoh­p­mooZ/re­hc­taH boB

BE­LOW John Salt at the Rose City Triathlon in Wel­land Bob Hatcher/Zoom­photo

ABOVE Ja­son Vurma, who will be tak­ing over at the Mul­ti­sport Canada Series af­ter this year

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