This story originally appeared in the Fall issue of USA Triathlon Magazine.
Triathletes Steve Polley and Jerianne Davis met on a Wednesday.
It was the Team USA pre-race meeting at the 2018 ITU Age Group World Championships in Gold Coast, Australia, and Davis found “that cute guy Steve Polley” she recognized from a Team USA Facebook group standing by the elevator.
The two age group Team USA athletes sat next to each other during the meeting, exchanged small talk and wished each other luck in their respective age group races the next day.
On Friday, walking along the beach and curious how that Steve Polley guy did in his race, Davis, 65, looked up Polley’s page on Facebook and saw friends’ posts on his page congratulating him on his race. Others mentioned a bike crash.
A bike crash?
What bike crash?
So she messaged him. Polley, 70, messaged back — from his hospital bed — telling her he had flipped his bike and hurt his neck, but still finished his race.
“Are you open to having visitors?” Davis, a career nurse, wrote back.
She sits on his bed, they hold hands and they talk triathlon. For hours, they swap tri stories. They were smitten.
By the following Wednesday, Polley was home in California and Davis was back at work at the hospital in Oklahoma City, where her coworkers told her to check her desk.
A big, beautiful bouquet of flowers greeted her, with a card that read, “Happy one-week anniversary.”
It’s the people
Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, USA Triathlon’s Team USA annually brings together more than 700 U.S. age-group athletes like Polley and Davis who travel the world to represent the U.S. at ITU World Championship events.
Of course, not all have a romantic love story of finding their future soulmate like the two Gold Coast lovebirds, who married this August then competed together at the ITU Age Group Sprint World Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland. But ask an age-group athlete what they love about competing for Team USA and you’ll hear one constant answer: it’s the people you meet.
“The amount of wonderful people I’ve met throughout the years because of Team USA is amazing,” said Barbara Kostner, 71, who has competed for Team USA since 1993. By the end of next year, she will have participated in 70 world championship races. “My greatest fear every year is that I’ll get injured and miss worlds and not be able to see my friends.”
Those friendships — and sense of adventure traveling the world with new friends — is what attracted Davis to Team USA long before she met Polley in Gold Coast last year. She was going through a divorce in the early 2000s and needed a healthy way to branch out and meet a new community.
“My life was pretty negative before Team USA. I was newly single and I wanted to get healthy, become a part of a community and travel and see the world,” said Davis, who raced in such places like Rimini, Italy; Edinburgh, Great Britain and Gijon, Spain. “I come to (USA Triathlon Age Group) Nationals and hear about Team USA and the whole atmosphere is so positive. I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to be a part of this positive, influential and inspiring group of people.”
Triathlon is well known for its vibrant, enthusiastic, welcoming community, but that camaraderie among triathletes gets ratcheted up a notch on Team USA, athletes say.
First, there is the exclusivity. You have to qualify.
Which means putting in the year-round work to perform at a high level.
“You’ve already got some sort of special connection with fellow teammates. We’re all driven — aka possessed — for better or for worse,” said James Aust, who along with his wife Tracy DiSabato-Aust, has competed on Team USA since 2008.
Then there’s the sense of shared adventure.
The bike course familiarization rides through tiny, quaint European villages. Sight-seeing with fellow Team USA team members after the competitions. Breaking bread and telling stories at team dinners with fellow Americans or joining the boisterous Brazilians for lunch at the team village cafeteria.
“Oh, it is so much fun going on the group rides with your friends and seeing who you meet,” said Celia Dubey, a Team USA member since 2003, who once had to borrow a bike from an Italian resident in Rimini, Italy, when her own bike hadn’t arrived from London. “She’s Italian. I speak Spanish. We work it out. She was so nice and welcoming … these types of things happen all the time.”
And there was the time during a course recon ride when Dubey and her fellow Team USA members joined an interesting group of Englishmen.
“I hear these two guys next to me and they’re talking about the years they did the Tour de France,” Dubey said. “This was probably decades ago for them, but I’m like, ‘Really, I’m riding with some dudes who have done the Tour de France?’ That is super cool.”
The other thing that bonds Team USA athletes: it’s wearing that red, white and blue Team USA kit. There is an immense sense of togetherness, pride and patriotism wearing the jersey with ‘USA’ across the chest with fellow Americans while competing on foreign land, athletes say.
Tim Yount, USA Triathlon Chief Sport Development Officer and longtime Team USA manager, will never forget the 2001 ITU Duathlon World Championships in Rimini, Italy, where that strong camaraderie and patriotic pride showed its full force.
He arrived in Italy on a Monday, and on Tuesday — Sept. 11 — went to packet pick-up, where he saw TVs broadcasting the news of 9/11. He had a missed call from Larry Buendorf, Chief Security Officer for the United States Olympic Committee — “Call me.”
Buendorf instructed Yount on what the Team USA athletes should do to ensure their safety, with the recommendation for athletes not to wear any USA gear the remainder of the week. Yount called an emergency team meeting and the athletes filled the 160-person room as Yount broke the news to the team — a sign of the times, before smartphones.
“The room was pin needle drop quiet. Some started crying. Others were mad,” Yount said.
He asked the team if they wanted to wear their Team USA kits. If they did, they could be at risk for further attacks, as the USOC cautioned.
“Amazingly, all the athletes but one chose to wear the USA uniform,” Yount said. “I have never felt so much pride. Neither had the athletes. They wanted to wear ‘USA’ on their chests, backsides and caps.”
American athletes wore their Team USA uniforms as the host city of Rimini, and athletes from around the world, showered the Americans with love and support.
“People were no longer sad, they were thankful … that our sport could bond as we did and unite an entire world of duathletes who were at the event,” Yount said. “I have never felt anything like it and probably never will.”
Yount has certainly seen and experienced many moments at the helm of Team USA since he helped create the program 30 years ago as a way for American age group athletes to compete at ITU world championships. From the program’s humble beginnings in 1989 to today’s team with more than 700 athletes, Yount has been there as the team manager, the motivational leader, the bike course scouter, the joke teller and the team’s biggest cheerleader.
“To us, he represents Team USA. He’s the voice of Team USA. He’s one of the kindest and most supportive people that you can hope to have as a representative of Team USA,” said Tracy DiSabato-Aust. “He’s always there to give you a ‘c’mon guys!’ or a fist bump or high-five. He’s what makes that unity, that camaraderie, that connection and that family-like atmosphere possible. Team USA is very special, and he’s a big reason why.”
Stephen Meyers is the Content Manager at USA Triathlon. Contact him at Stephen.Meyers@usatriathlon.org.