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Why Triathlon

July 15, 2008, 12:40 p.m. (ET)

For most athletes, one sport is enough. Even more than enough. But some people are drawn toward multiple sports. Like triathlon. For some of them, it's the challenge of competing in three sports. For others, the fact that they excel as multisport athletes. Here's a look at how two Olympic qualifiers, Jarrod Shoemaker and Julie Swail Ertel, got into triathlon.

Shoemaker says he was always an athlete-from the usual boyhood sports of baseball and soccer to swimming in high school. His sophomore year in high school, his team won the Division II Massachusetts State Championship. He also ran cross-country and devoted himself to running at Dartmouth College. But during the summers, he worked as a lifeguard, which helped maintain his swimming skills.

At Dartmouth, he says he grew immensely as a runner. "I won the Heptagonal Games Cross Country Championship my junior year covering 8km (5 miles) in 24:36," he reports on his web site, www.jarrodshoemaker.com. "During my first three years, Dartmouth won three straight Heps XC titles. Over my senior year I finally had consistent indoor and outdoor track seasons. I lowered my PRs to 8:08.90 for 3km and 14:09 for 5km. I also finished 5th in the region and was 12th at NCAA Outdoor Nationals in the 5km."

He tried his first triathlon in the summer before his senior year-"for fun and to see what kind of shape I was in." Then during his senior year, he started swimming and biking as "added recovery" from running. He tried his second triathlon over spring break, finished third in the U-23 (under 23 years old) category, and was hooked. After he graduated in spring 2004, he jumped full-time into the multisport life.

"I kind of knew I was not good enough to by an Olympic caliber runner, but I knew I was a good athlete," he says.

The following year, he was the U-23 World Champion. "Honestly, I'm surprised at how well I did so quickly," he says.

Running is his strongest of the three sports, and he's had to work on his swimming. "I needed to improve my swimming by a lot," he says. "But I had to learn to improve my swimming while holding on to my fast running."

For Ertel, who won a silver medal in 2000 in water polo, it was the promise of ice cream that lured her into a triathlon. While traveling before the 2000 Olympics, the University of California-San Diego grad was talking to her team's chiropractor, Tom Gallagher.

"He asked me, ‘What are you going to do when you're done with water polo?'" she recalls. "I said, gosh, I don't know. But that's going to be a big chunk of time to fill because if you include travel time, that's about eight hours a day that we're either training or getting to or from practice.

"He said he used to be a triathlete, and he'd never known people who train more than triathletes. So he said, ‘If you win a medal at the Olympics, I'll take you to the last Southern California race of the year, which is on Catalina Island.'"

Ertel then won the silver, and Gallagher held up his end of the bargain. The water polo player was tentative because she had only been riding a road bike for about a month. But Gallagher knew how to entice her to enter the triathlon.

"He said, ‘If you do this, I'll buy you an ice cream cone at the end,' and that was all the motivation I needed."

Ertel got her ice cream, and she also learned that she like triathlons. "About a year later, I dropped water polo and started doing triathlons," she says.

Surprisingly, swimming isn't her strongest sport. "It has turned out that running is my strength," she confesses. "Part of me wonders what I would have been like if I had run before this."

"But I feel like I've saved my body all the years of pounding (from running)," she adds, "so it has probably worked out for the better."


Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.