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It's the Latest Teen Sensation

Triathlon: More young athletes are competing in the endurance races, and the sport's national body is already scouting for future Olympians.

July 13, 2002|DAN ARRITT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They wear cargo shorts, faded T-shirts and baseball caps facing backward--the usual teenage boy stuff--but Kyle Hughes and Gordon Withers aren't typical athletes among their peer group.

On Sunday, they will compete in the Pacific Coast Triathlon, having already joined a growing number of youths participating in a test of endurance that combines swimming, biking and running.

"Ever since the Olympics, a lot of younger people are coming out to compete," said Hughes, a Lake Forest resident and two-time national age-group champion. "It's really nice to see."

The wave of new participants, spurred by the debut of triathlon at the 2000 Sydney Games, led USA Triathlon, the sport's national governing body, to quickly develop a pipeline for future Olympic-caliber athletes.

The organization recently began a detailed identification and development program for athletes ages 15-23, one that includes Hughes and Withers, both 15, as card-carrying members. The group mines for top prospects while satisfying newcomers by sanctioning youth races and urging race directors to add youth divisions to adult races.

"We've been pretty successful," said Ric Rosenkranz, athlete development director for USA Triathlon. "I think a lot more kids are starting to see [triathlon] as a sport."

The Pacific Coast Triathlon, which will be contested at Crystal Cove Park near Laguna Beach, added a 13-and-under division this year over a separate, shorter course. Instead of an 800-meter swim, 12-mile bike and three-mile run over the regular course, younger competitors will swim 200 meters, bike six miles and run a mile.

"[The new division] is a good idea," said Withers, who will be a sophomore at Irvine University High in the fall. "It will bring more kids to the race and they won't have to worry about such a long course."

National recruiters track results from across the country, scanning for top finishers in the age-group categories. They also disperse information at events such as swimming and track and field meets.

Athletes are further identified through the USA Triathlon Under-23 National Race Series, as well as several regional time trials in the swim and run, all competed at the Olympic distance--1,500-meter swim, 24.8-mile bike, 6.2-mile run--and format. Qualified athletes are then selected for testing and training camps at various Olympic training centers in the U.S., including the national triathlon training center in Clermont, Fla.

Regional camps are conducted for athletes such as Hughes and Withers, who have shown the potential to make the national team.

Hughes finished second among competitors 15 to 17 two weeks ago in the first race of a series. He is favored to win his third consecutive national championship, adding to the titles he won in the 13-15 division. Withers finished fifth in the same race, which consisted of a 500-meter swim, 10.8-mile bike and 4.4-kilometer run. Paul LeBarton, who will be a senior at Laguna Hills High, was sixth. The next race in the series will be July 20 in Traverse City, Mich.

Cyle Sage, former junior national team coach and athlete development director at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, is familiar with Hughes and Withers and believes both have Olympic potential. His major concern is that they don't burn out on competition.

"It doesn't matter how good a 15- or 16-year-old you are," he said. "We want to know what you're doing when it comes time for the Olympic trials. [Hughes and Withers] are still developing. They need to be good for two Olympic qualifiers, in 2008 and 2012."

Hughes was 7 when he competed in his first triathlon, an IronKids event in Sacramento. He remembers feeling like a nerd at the race. While the rest of the competitors mounted multi-gear road bicycles, he rode a single-gear BMX dirt bike. He immediately put a new road bike on his wish list.

"My dad told me to try a few more races," Hughes said. "Now, it has been eight years, I'm still going strong and I love it every day."

Hughes, who has a best of 16 minutes 10 seconds in a 5-kilometer road race, has been home-schooled. He hoped to compete for the El Toro High cross-country team this fall while continuing his home schooling, but a new National Federation rule will most likely limit him to training runs with the team.

Withers usually finishes behind Hughes when they compete, but Sage believes he has as much potential. Withers competed in his first triathlon less than two years ago.

"Gordon looks very promising," Sage said. "He has made some big strides from one year to the next."

Hughes and Withers will compete in their age group when the Pacific Coast Triathlon begins at 6 a.m., but will start in the opening wave, alongside professionals and anyone else who finished in the top 150 the previous two years. That start will offer them a chance to gauge themselves against the best in the sport, a level they soon hope to join.

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