Spreading the Love of Triathlon in Africa

By Joe Maloy | April 20, 2017, 10:51 a.m. (ET)

Africa Youth Development Camp

For more photos, visit the Africa Youth Development Camp photo gallery.

There’s a conspicuous absence of African representation when scrolling through the 2016 IRONMAN World Championship and ITU Grand Final results. Of the continent’s 54 countries, only South Africa is consistently competitive. This underrepresentation mirrors local, regional and national participation levels in many African countries. Sensing an opportunity to “spread the love” of triathlon, ITU Executive Board Members Barry Siff (USA) and General Ahmed Nasser (Egypt) collaborated to grow African triathlon culture through youth development camps.

USA Triathlon coach Kathleen Johnston and I flew to Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, on April 1 (No Fooling!) for a week-long triathlon camp offered to teenagers from Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Ghana. Our coaching goal was to communicate a process these teenagers could take home. We aimed to facilitate an experience that would get these kids excited about triathlon — the training, the community and the way of life.

Each day’s success was measured against one’s ability to answer the following three questions:
1. What did I learn about triathlon?
2. What did I learn about one of my training partners?
3. What made me smile?

We decided that being able to answer these questions each day would make for a successful camp. “Being successful in triathlon is the same way,” I said. “You identify the tasks that will make you more competitive, and then you execute those tasks every day.” Coaches Ahmed Salama and Abdoulaye Chetima would translate this message for anyone who didn’t pick it up in English.

Our group worked toward these answers against the picturesque backdrop of Sharm El Sheikh. It’s a resort town at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, buttressed by the crystal clear Red Sea. British and eastern European tourists, the primary drivers of Sharm’s tourist industry, have stayed away in recent years. The region’s picturesque beaches, cerulean waters, and hookah-scented streets are busy, but there’s obvious potential to entertain a larger population.

Kathleen and I worked with each athlete to recognize his/her potential for triathlon achievement. We encouraged the group to remember their three daily goals, met to discuss individual challenges and provided journals to document progress. Kathleen related swimming technique to the natural environment, advising, “Swim like a fish — fish have no necks!” At this open water session, we used swimming relays to disguise hard work as fun. Kathleen and I knew we were working on beach starts, swim exits, race-start speed, and building camaraderie, but the kids were bantering and racing. The relays finished after about 30 minutes, but the athletes found the energy to continue upon learning that the warm down was to swim out to the coral reef to look at the fish. After “not being able to swim one more stroke,” the teenagers spent another 20 minutes in the water. Their progress was a byproduct of the experience.

Sport has a way of uniting people. While striving to separate ourselves, we remember that we’re all in this together. The smiles, tears, handshakes, and high-fives you’ll see during a triathlon are more universal than skin color, language or socio-economic background. The kids raced in Sharm on the last day of camp, and one of the Egyptian athletes, Kareem, led all racers (some of whom were twice his age) out of the water. He has a swimming background and said he used some of the skills from that “endless relay” session to help him execute in the race. It was his first triathlon, and something tells me it's not his last.

Africa Youth Development Camp

2016 U.S. Olympian Joe Maloy recently retired after competing as a professional triathlete for eight years. During his competitive career, Maloy represented the U.S. in 21 different countries on six continents. In 2016, he anchored Team USA to its first-ever World Championship in the Mixed Team Relay. Visit his website at www.joetriathlon.com or follow him on Twitter (@joetriathlon) or Instagram (@joemaloy).