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
“I THINK WHAT WAS HAPPENING BACK THEN WAS WE COULDN’T DEMYSTIFY THE SPORT… IT APPEARED LIKE THERE WAS MORE EFFORT INVOLVED THAN PEOPLE WANTED TO PUT INTO IT.”
“WHAT WE REALLY NEEDED TO DO WAS MAKE SURE THAT THERE WAS A REAL SOLID TEAM BEHIND JASON.”
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.
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