My Experience at the USAT Collegiate Recruitment Program Camp

By Amber Zimmerman | July 29, 2016, 11:56 a.m. (ET)

Being relatively new to triathlon, I still have a lot to learn. I earned my elite card just over eight months after my first triathlon, but I am by no means a “pro” at the sport, which is why I was excited for the opportunity to be a part of the USA Triathlon Collegiate Recruitment Program camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center on July 15-24. Even though all of the athletes invited shared a commonality in having a collegiate running background, the similarities ended here. A great part of the camp was the wide range of abilities of all of the recruits. Two of us had earned elite cards, several had been racing for a year, and three hadn’t even done a triathlon yet. I think I learned just as much from the experienced athletes as from those who had never raced. Every coach, staff member and athlete taught me something new or reinforced a skill that I had forgotten. It is encouraging to realize how much I do not know about triathlon because that means there is a lot of room for improvement. The progress I had in the one week at this camp was more than I saw in five years of collegiate running.

Amber Zimmerman at CRP camp

We jumped right in on the first day to analyze swim stroke with video cameras and a swim power test to further demonstrate that runners look pretty ridiculous when they try to swim. We watched videos of elite swimmers that showed how beautiful swimming could be. The swim coach, Dr. G [Dr. Genadijus Sokolovas], told me I had a better finish in my stroke than Michael Phelps, but that was about the only good thing happening with my stroke.

A large focus of the camp was on the swim. Luckily since we were all runners, the struggle was felt by all. Every day we spent about 1.5 hours working on drills and strength. We had weights in our hands, on our ankles, elbows, and waists; parachutes and paddles on our heads; bands around our ankles; and kickboards under our stomachs. Dr. G had a real sense of humor when it came to swimming. He said we needed our bodies to “be strong like fish,” but I felt more like a cat flailing about trying to keep my head above water.

Amber Zimmerman at CRP camp

The swim is terrifying to me, not because of the open water, but because when the horn blows everyone piles on top of each other, pulling people down and punching just to stay above the surface. This camp helped me overcome that fear more than anything.

As one of two females in the camp, I had to fight my way through the male swimmers in the swim/bike brick to try to maintain contact on at least one person’s feet. With each round of the brick done in the LCM pool at the OTC, I both dreaded the start, but also eliminated some of my fear. By the last round I felt like a different swimmer; I felt like I do as a runner — aggressive, strong and determined to stay as close to the guys as possible.

At the last drill session of the camp, Barb Lindquist told me I looked two inches taller in the water. I felt it. I have never felt so strong and comfortable in the water as I did at the end of camp. I got through all eight 100s in the test set on a tight “failure” interval as opposed to only four the first time I had done it at the start of camp. I am nowhere near the swimmer I want to be, but I am miles from the swimmer I was 10 days ago.

The bike was less nerve-racking for me. I have only been biking a little over a year, but I don’t have the same level of fear that I do for swimming. The bike drills were challenging, especially since they were mostly on thick grass. While the grass padded the falls, it felt like I was pedaling through molasses as I tried to slip my shoes on and off.

Amber Zimmerman at CRP camp

If you weren’t comfortable on the bike, you were going to get comfortable. Derick Williamson, the USA Cycling coach who led the bike drills, had us hanging on to each other in packs, picking things up off the ground, pedaling in small circles and riding through cones with no hands. Seriously, where did they find these coaches? They’re all crazy!

The last bike day, we rode through the Garden of the Gods to practice ascending and descending. It was like a dream. I can’t explain how blessed I felt to get to do what I love in such an awe-inspiring place.

Finally, there was the run training. I always say, “Thank goodness for the run!” That is a sport I understand. As much as I know about running, I was blown away by the knowledge run coach Bobby McGee has. As a neuroscience student, I appreciate when people look at running at the neural level, which is exactly how Bobby views it. He teaches that you have to train your brain to train your body. Every statement he made was backed up with research, and you could see the passion he has for the sport. Not only that, but at 60-plus years old the man could do plank push-ups, so I had to believe he was doing something right.

The resources I gained from this camp were unbelievable, from the bike fit and swim analysis to the contacts with all the coaches, sponsors and staff with USA Triathlon. Not only did I get a week off work, but I also got to bike at Garden of the Gods, climb the Manitou Springs Incline, get my butt kicked every day and enjoy the best ice cream in town with some incredible people.

If you are an NCAA swimmer or a runner who has an interest in triathlon, I highly recommend giving the USA Triathlon Collegiate Recruitment Program a shot.

Amber Zimmerman at CRP camp