Who Needs Tradition?
In the 17 years that I’ve been involved in triathlon, I’ve come to learn a great deal of the sport’s history. It is a pretty crazy and charming characteristic of triathlon that the best in the world – the superstars – are so often just another one of the masses. They usually train in groups that range from world-class athletes to social participants and excelling amateur athletes, to the green-as-grass newbie. They follow the same cycle routes, pound the same run trails and they race the same races. How many sports will have an athlete who is just debuting in that sport, starting a race on the same start line, racing over the same course and facing the same challenges as some of the most phenomenal, talented and high performing athletes in the very same event? Some in the sporting world may view this as a dilution of the quality of our sport, a mixing effect that takes away from the elite end. These views are outdated and out of touch with the bigger picture (more on that later).
As a junior, I was exposed to the larger than life professionals of the draft legal world – many of whom became the crème de la crème of the drafting sphere not too long after. It was odd. I would travel with my junior state team to events around the country – or around the world when I scraped into a national team – and I would train and hang out with the older guys and girls racing in the elite races at the same events as me. I would then head home and go back to school for the next week – standard school-age sport. Then the following weekend, lounging around the house, I’d switch on the telly, and another triathlon would be on. Sweet! Then I’d realise – there, ripping around on national TV, looking like absolute machines, are the same people I had sat around just one week earlier, eating a sausage sandwich. When it dawned on me that in triathlon the almost immediate proximity to the sport’s elite was a weekly occurrence I began to take more notice. What I learnt quickly was that triathlon was young. Prior to taking up triathlon I had played soccer and studied Tae Kwon Do, two sports that, in their own ways, had inconceivably long existences and were doused in history. Triathlon, on the other hand, was less than a generation old and, as I was informed by many who were much more experienced than I, the form of triathlon that I had come to know in my teens was much younger still.
Main Image: Nineteen countries represented at the ITU World Champs in Perth, 2000.
Triathlon in its youth changed frequently and sometimes drastically. The styles were unique and eccentric, training methods were wild, experimental and varied massively from athlete to athlete. Even races were unconfined, challenging, entertaining and sometimes a bit gimmicky. All of these variations in triathlon was our sport finding itself, its identity. During its infancy it was spread thin and fast around the globe, and didn’t have a chance to sit and mature in a small geographic, highly concentrated environment like an undisturbed pond. Tradition and dogma didn’t have an opportunity to cultivate in the fast flow of triathlon’s spread. Modern technologies accelerated the changes and amplified them.
The greatest change in the sport has been its growth. In the year I began in triathlon (in 2000) the sport debuted at the Olympic Games. In that same year, the ITU World Championships were held in Perth. At those championships in the elite men’s event, there were 50 competitors representing 19 countries. Fast forward to the ITU World Series final of 2017 in Rotterdam where 66 competitors from 30 different nations raced in the most important event contributing to this year’s world title crown. That’s some solid international growth. This surge in popularity for tri internationally is also reflected in the amateur masses. From the triathlon season 2010-2011 to the season 2015-2016, Triathlon Australia membership numbers rose substantially from 9755 to 21592 – more than double nationwide in five years. It is safe to say that triathlon must be doing something right. So it’s probably time to slow down the change, right? I don’t think so.
I’ve had the incredible experience to train with some of Australia’s greatest modern athletes, many of whom are pure swimmers, cyclists and runners. I was able to spend time with some of the country’s best distance runners in Falls Creek a few years ago – amazing location, incredible facilities and obviously some formidable foot race specialists. I was pretty intimidated, questioning whether I would even last one rep of the session and when I did get dropped what I would do as I navigated the aqua ducts of the Victorian high country. I was relieved to realise two things: 1. I was not as out of my depth in ability and lasted much more than a single rep, and 2. I always knew what to do in each session because the sessions never changed. Every week the schedule would consist of the same format of training. The same morning jog, same Tuesday Mona Fartlek and Thursday quarters, same Sunday long run – easy to follow, hard to get lost! After speaking with a certain Aussie running legend recently (the previously named session is his namesake) I discovered this same weekly format had been followed by elite runners who would make an annual Falls pilgrimage since the 60s! That’s respectable tradition, particularly when you consider some of the fantastic athletic performances that have come off the back of such agendas. But it did get me thinking, just because it works, is it the only way and is it the best way?
Above: Flora Duffy and Mario Mola at the ITU World Series final in Rotterdam, 2017.
That’s when I realised that triathlon’s lack of tradition and conformity is its strength. We’re not afraid to experiment, innovate and improvise. We look at what’s been done successfully before and choose to improve it further rather than etch it in stone. The playbook is constantly being written, altered, erased and rewritten across all levels and styles of tri to suit the evolving athletes that are coming out of the woodwork. I see 10-year-olds riding their old pedal brake BMX with more skill and confidence than I had at 20. I meet a 68-year-old woman who, after learning to swim at 65, has her sights set on a full day event. Without tradition, without standards and boundaries, we inspire average people and produce amazing athletes. We can include all and discriminate against no one when there is no “wrong”. I for one am all for change and constant evolution. Who needs tradition?