High school triathlon opens up a new opportunity for youth in the sport, but the development is not without challenges

Shannon Scovel

LAKEWOOD, Calif. — In an age of youth specialization in sports and special elite programs for young athletes, Mark Mason is pushing for a different trend.

Mason, an Ironman athlete and cross country and track coach at Point Arena High School, has been working to open up the sport of triathlon to high school students all across California.

For the last six years, Mason has led a club triathlon team at his high school and helped students learn how to swim, bike and run their way to success. With the help of the community and sponsors, he has been able to provide equipment to the athletes and find cheap races where the students compete against their peers and against college-aged triathletes.

Mason helped start the California High School Triathlon Conference in 2011, and he has recruited several other schools to join a league that he said provides an opportunity for kids to try something new, something that brings them immediate status among their friend group.

“They are instantly bad***es at their school,” Mason said. “They are seen as gods, three-sport athletes.”

Jordan Chalmers, a triathlete and a sophomore at Lakewood High School, said the same phenomenon has spread to her school, and she received new attention and respect from her classmates when the principal announced her triathlon accomplishments over the loudspeaker at school.

“After the announcement, I went to one of my classes which was filled with baseball and softball players, and they were like, ‘What’s a triathlon?,’ ” Jordan said. “My friends freaked out.”

The coach of the Lakewood team, David Klein, said the principal of the high school has offered complete support for the club and even proposed hosting a staff triathlon on the school grounds.

Lakewood High School coach David Klein (L) poses on the podium with his athletes Jordan Chalmers (C) and Aaron Martinez (R). (Courtesy of David Klein)

But not every administrator has embraced the sport with as much support.

Mason said he has heard from kids who have wanted to create their own teams at their high schools but have been met with pushback from schools, administrators and other groups.

“It’s not the kids, the kids are great, it’s the freaking schools and the organizations,” Mason said “Some kids contact me directly and want to start a team and their high school says no. They get all freaked out, the insurance on this.”

In an effort to drive increased interest in the sport and allow high schoolers the opportunity to compete under a larger governing body, USA Triathlon announced a new series of high school state championships for triathlon in May. This new development could allow more athletes like Chalmers and the kids at Point Arena High School to try something new, improve their athleticism and gain increasing respect in the school hallways.

High school athletes celebrate after the 2016 High School National Championships in Clemson, South Carolina. (Mario Cantu/CIMAGES)

Twenty-one states will now offer championship races, most in conjunction with already existing races or college races. This series will create excitement for young athletes potentially interested in triathlon, but Mason hopes that the championships won’t let the sport to once again be cut off to those of all incomes.

“These aren’t kids that want to be in the USAT junior program,” Mason said of his athletes in Southern California. “To them, this is just something they have their buddies doing with them, and it’s a school sport and they get to travel. I’m giving USAT hundreds of kids that wouldn’t even know what USAT is.”

Even with state championships, however, high school triathlon still faces obstacles before becoming a full-fledged public high school sponsored sport.

INSURING A SAFE RACE IS COSTLY

Insurance is just one of several obstacles facing high schools interested in starting their own teams, but it’s one of the major hurdles that Mason had to overcome in order to host a local race in his community.

“I was getting pushback from the school, the community,” Mason said. “I actually had to pull up some articles pulling up that cheerleading was more dangerous than triathlon.”

Mason’s race, an event he fought to stage even despite some resident and city council concerns, ended up doing “amazing well,” he said, and the triathlon inspired others in the town to respect the sport and spotlight the athletes.

“The community was watching it. I had them going through main street,” Mason said. “The adults were just like, ‘Wow, these are tough kids.’ The newspaper went nuts on it. CBS news came up and did interviews.”

But triathlon is not a cheap sport, and insurance isn’t the only cost holding some communities back from hosting or competing in races.

Bikes prices range into the thousands, and even entry fees can limit access to competition. Mason said he provided his club team at Point Arena High School with donated equipment and cheap wetsuits, but the cost of travel prevented them from being able to attend the 2016 High School Triathlon National Championships put on by USA Triathlon in Clemson, South Carolina.

“This is a poor community. It’s not like some of the teams we race where a lot of the parents are lawyers, doctors, Ironmen,” Mason said.

USA Triathlon has attempted to create more options for athletes and counteract some of the hefty costs, offering a scholarship and grants that high school teams can apply for to fund their training and racing.

Jessica Welk, the high school, collegiate club and women’s NCAA coordinator for USA Triathlon, said she hopes this fund will encourage schools to create sustainable clubs, apply for funding and help kids make trips across the country to compete.

“USA Triathlon wants to support our high school club programs, and that’s where the USA Triathlon Foundation High School Grant is key,” Welk said. “This grant can be used for a variety of items such as club marketing materials, continued coaching certification opportunities, equipment assistance, race entry fees and items related to the 2018 High School National Championships.”

The high school teams also receive help and support from college programs across the country, and this relationship has been mutually beneficial, as colleges have been able to use high school races to meet new athletes.

COLLEGES CALLING

Triathlon at the college level is also a new and growing sport, but some schools are ahead of the curve. Fifteen colleges and universities now offer varsity programs, and high school triathlon could open up a new pool of recruits. Queens University, another school with a varsity team, is also recruiting new athletes, and the coach of this team, a man who leads one of the top teams in the country is watching the growth of high school triathlon with particular interest.

Sonni Dyer, the head coach of Queen’s University of Charlotte’s varsity triathlon team, said four of the incoming athletes on his varsity men’s team this season competed on a high school team or a composite team made up of several high schools. Dyer said that new high school triathlon teams have not changed the way he approaches the recruiting process, but he is still following high school athletes, swimmers, runners and bikers with keen interest to see how they could fit in his collegiate triathlon program.

One of those athletes, Jared Eytcheson, said he wished his high school had a triathlon team, but he’s enjoyed competing on part of Dyer’s composite team this summer.

“When I wasn’t on a team, I was doing everything on my own,” Eytcheson said. “I was on multiple teams for cross country, cycling and swim team, but now I am able to work with all my coaches for things I need to work on each day and they have the right training for me.”

Triathlon has been a part of Eytcheson’s life since he was four years old, and he’s become a standout athlete in both swimming and running at his high school in Cary, North Carolina. But when he started being recruited for college, cross country coaches told him he would have to stop racing as a triathlete to compete for their team.

“I talked to tons of schools about running, and they all told me ‘you have to give up triathlons,’ and I could not see myself without it,” Eytcheson said. “So I just told them, ‘I don’t know if I can not do triathlons,’ and then at nationals last year, I met Sonni, and we talked. He was like ‘you should keep in touch and email me.’ When I found out what he had going on at Queen’s, he brought me in, and I loved it.”

The potential for triathlon to open up new opportunities for high school swimmers and runners can be seen across the country.

BACK IN THE HALLS OF HIGH SCHOOL

Chalmers, whose high school triathlon club in Lakewood is growing, said the chance to compete in triathlons came up the exact right time for her. She was just about to lose interest in swimming when Klein offered her the chance to spice up her training.

“I started get a little bored with swim. So I was like, ‘I have to find something that I can do and have passion for, but still do well in swim,’ ” Chalmers said. “So I did my first triathlon…and I got maybe eighth in my age group, but I had the fastest swim time. That’s when the passion for triathlon really grew. Then I saw this club, and I was like, ‘I have to see this.’”

Athletes race out during the swim portion of a triathlon in Southern California. (Anna Klein)

Chalmers and her father, Leighton, along with her sister and mother all race in triathlons, and Leighton said the sport has helped him and his daughter form a unique bond.

“[It’s] for sure a family thing,” Leighton said. “We probably spend more time together than most father-daughters, sometimes too much time.”

USA Triathlon has not yet created a high school national championship in California, so Chalmers will have to wait a little longer to represent her school at the national level, but that hasn’t stopped her from dreaming big and continuing to train.

“I want to always keep on trying to get top three in my races, and improve a lot in my biking and get a lot more better in my running, but still make swim my top priority,” Chalmers said.

Chalmers will start 10th grade this fall while Eytcheson makes his college triathlon debut, and the two athletes, on opposite sides of the coast, will continue their personal triathlon goals in different states, in different ways, but with the same passion. One is a high school athlete, one is a college athlete, and both represent their school when they race.