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'12 Things ... you might not know about triathlon

By Paul D. Bowker | May 30, 2012, 12 p.m. (ET)

Gwen Jorgensen

As the days rapidly count down to the London 2012 Olympic Games, TeamUSA.org takes a closer look at some of the sports that will be contested there. In this week’s edition, we explore 12 Things you might not know about triathlon.

Key Events

July 2: ITU confirms final allocation of Olympic qualification places
Aug. 4: Women’s competition, Hyde Park, London 2012 Olympic Games
Aug. 7: Men’s competition, Hyde Park, London 2012 Olympic Games


The modern triathlon dates back to one late afternoon in September 1974, when 46 members of the San Diego Mission Bay Track Club were seeking an alternative workout. The result: a 5.3-mile run barefoot over grass and sand, a 5-mile cycling race and a 600-yard swim in Mission Bay. Who could have imagined that 26 years later the one-day experiment would result in a new Olympic sport at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games? In 1989 the International Triathlon Union (ITU) was formed for a fast-growing sport that now has more than 140 national federations. In 2016, paratriathlon will become a part of the Paralympic Games for the first time in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. Thus, it was with great importance that the ITU World Triathlon Series returned to San Diego in May for an Olympic-qualifying event. “This is the birthplace; this is the mecca of triathlon,” said Rob Urbach, the CEO of USA Triathlon.


Ready for the swim, bike and run? The Olympic triathlon is a true test of an athlete’s stamina and physical endurance. The event for both women and men begins with a 1,500-meter swim, followed by a 43-kilometer bike ride and then a 10K run. All events are held on the same day and the three disciplines are consecutively with no breaks.


The majority of the triathlon competition at the London 2012 Olympic Games will be held in picturesque Hyde Park, the largest of London’s eight Royal Parks and certainly one of its most historic sites. It is a place where King Henry VIII and his court hunted for deer while on horseback. The 350-acre park has been open to the public since 1637. Hyde Park is host to the annual ITU World Triathlon Series and is also home to the Serpentine Swimming Club. The swimming competition will take place in the Serpentine, a lake that was created in the 1730s and is situated in the central portion of Hyde Park. The 6.137-kilometer bike course begins and finishes in Hyde Park, but it also goes directly in front of Buckingham Palace. Athletes will complete seven laps of the cycling course. The run will consist of four laps around a 2.5-kilometer course that goes around the Serpentine and over a bridge.


The triathlon will be among the most beautiful events to watch at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Tickets for the triathlon were among the first events to be sold out, but fear not. If you are going to be in London, there are several places to watch the competition. Tickets were sold only for the grandstand and standing area next to the finish/transition zones and a narrow area between the Serpentine and Serpentine Road. Expect big crowds at Buckingham Palace, where the cycling course passes by, and at the Wellington Arch, which is situated between Hyde Park and Green Park. There are also many non-ticketed areas surrounding the Serpentine and along the cycling route on South Carriage Drive in Hyde Park. London Olympic organizers also plan to set up large big screen TVs in several English cities.


There will be two medal-events at the London 2012 Olympic Games. The women‘s triathlon will be held Aug. 4, followed by the men‘s triathlon on Aug. 7. Both events begin at 9 a.m., London time. Overall, 110 athletes (55 women and 55 men) will be competing for six medals. Hunter Kemper and Manny Huerta will attempt to win the first Olympic triathlon medal on the men’s side for the United States. Americans Laura Bennett, Sarah Groff and Gwen Jorgensen will be competing for gold on the women’s side.


Athletes in the triathlon must be strong swimmers, strong cyclists and strong runners. There is little question about that. But the medals may actually be won and lost in the transition area, the time it takes from the completion of one event to the start of the next event. Seconds are precious. It is in the transition area where an athlete takes on new clothing or equipment for the next stage of the race, and also where he or she may catch a quick breath before heading into the next competition. The transition time counts in an athlete’s overall time for the race. Think of it as a pit stop, in auto-racing terms.


Hunter Kemper is the only U.S. athlete to qualify for all four Olympic triathlons, and entering the London 2012 Olympic Games he is one of the very few in the world to do so. A fifth-place finish at the ITU World Triathlon in San Diego qualified Kemper for the London Games, pending approval by the U.S. Olympic Committee. Through the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, just 11 men and three women had competed in all three Olympic triathlons. Kemper has improved his finish with each Olympic Games: 17th in 2000 in Sydney, ninth in 2004 in Athens and seventh in 2008 in Beijing. Named the USOC Sportsman of the Year in 2005, Kemper made the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team despite breaking his left elbow in a bike race in October 2011.


The only U.S. triathlete to medal in the Olympic Games is Susan Williams, who is now a triathlon coach at C2E Coaching in Littleton, Colo. Williams earned a bronze medal at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. She began competing in the triathlon in 1997, three years before it became an Olympic sport, and also was a swimmer at the University of Alabama. She is now married to Tim Williams, also a triathlete, and they have a daughter, Sydney, who was born in 2001.


First-time Olympian Sarah Groff is a native of Cooperstown, N.Y., the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. However, she now lives in Hanover, N.H., and is a 2004 graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont with emphasis in conservation biology and studio art. Groff, 31, qualified for the London 2012 Olympic Games by finishing seventh in the 2011 London World Championship Series event. Her third-place finish in the World Championship Series overall was the best by an American.


Considering the distances a triathlete faces in one day of competition, the training for such an event can be brutal. Kemper often begins his day with a three-mile swim, followed by an hour-long run and then a 40-mile, two-hour bike ride. “It’s usually all three disciplines a day,” Kemper said. “In that week, I’ll do three hard run sessions, three difficult bike sessions and three difficult swim sessions, all staggered on different days.”


In 1904, an event called the triathlon consisted of the long jump, shot put and 100-yard dash. The triathlon we’re more familiar with now did not enter the Olympic lineup until the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Simon Whitfield of Canada and Brigitte McMahon of Switzerland won gold medals that year in the men’s and women’s competition, respectively.


No, this isn’t ice hockey. But in the triathlon, an area known as the penalty box is set aside to administer time penalties to athletes for any infringements of the rules during the race.

SOURCES: USA Triathlon, International Olympic Committee, london2012.com, International Triathlon Union, royalparks.org.uk, yahoo.com

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Paul D. Bowker is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

Related Athletes

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Hunter Kemper

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Manuel Huerta

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Laura Bennett

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Sarah True

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Gwen Jorgensen

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Susan Williams