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Pathways to Elite Racing

May 22, 2017

After you have logged the miles, polished your swim stroke, and developed a fierce cadence on the bike- where do you go from here?  There are many different avenues that a competitive triathlete in pursuit of elite racing can take.  This short summary will help navigate and highlight a logical progression in the sport.

ITU Racing:

The International Triathlon Union is the governing body of Aquathlon, Duathlon, Triathlon (Olympic Distance events), and Cross Triathlon (off-road).  ITU consists of members of each National Federation and they work together to determine the selection criteria for the Olympic Games and the schedule of the annual World Triathlon Series.  Anyone that races under their National Federation within the ITU circuit are widely considered to be elite triathletes and must be selected by their respective countries to compete in events (with some exception). 


Guam is a member of the Oceania Triathlon Union (OTU) that oversees (advises) athlete development, coaching and technical official development, and certain competitions.  Guam National Team athletes are typically selected by participation at the Guam National Triathlon held each July.  National Team athletes are vetted for residency and Nationality prior to competing in off island events such as the Pacific Games.  


Australia and New Zealand have invested heavily in ITU development programs and through OTU they have shared some insight on guidelines to identify talent to progress to the next level. These guidelines help to define the transition from youth development to Olympic Games caliber racing, so set the course and stay true to small gains and measured improvement.  It doesn't happen all at once. 

(Peter Clifford, Oceania Triathlon Union) 


Non-residence athletes that live, train, or travel to race on Guam can race all the local events, but would need to meet their National Federation requirements to participate in any elite races locally or racing internationally.  U.S.A. Triathlon (USAT) established elite athlete criteria and allow for a number of alternative paths to achieve an ITU elite license ($50) to compete as a member of their federation. Similarly Australia and Japan have their own specific guidelines to achieve an elite license.  


* One very important note on if your primary goal is to become an elite ITU triathlete is that Guam doesn’t receive any special consideration for the Olympic Games in the sport of triathlon.  Unlike swimming and track and field that receive solidarity slots at each Olympic Games and Mountain Biking that is determined by Oceania ranking from UCI total points, ITU determines the criteria for selection that typically requires athletes to be in the Top 55 men and women in the world (Rio 2016).  Don’t let this discourage you, but know you will need to be among the best in the world to toe the line at the Olympic Games in the sport of triathlon.


Ironman, 70.3, and non-drafting elite racers:

The most popular brand of the non-draft long distance triathlons is Ironman owned by the World Triathlon Corporation. Ironman requires that ITU athletes compete in the elite/pro category at each event and more importantly you must register for either an annual or single event Ironman Pro Membership ($900 annual/$480 single event for the full ironman and $240 for single 70.3 event).  Athletes are required to submit their National Federation elite license or a letter from the National Federation they represent as part of the application.


Challenge Family triathlons offer a similar process to register as a pro triathlete but there is no cost associated with their licensing.  Athletes are required to submit either an elite triathlete license or a letter from their National Federation. 


One other option that I highly encourage to those new to racing is to pursue entry in non-mainstream events or races not directly tied to major race brands.  It will involve writing race directors directly to share race results and performances to secure entry into the pro field.  Many will offer discounts on entry and potentially assist with lodging to increase the size of the pro field. 


Off-road Triathlon:

The sport of off-road triathlon has grown to the point that it is recognized by ITU with an annual world championship (Cross Triathlon).  The XTERRA brand serves as the international standard and the primary sponsor/race director for off road racing.  The pathway to achieve an elite off-road license is very similar to achieving the ITU or non-draft license from your National Federation.


Within the USAT elite license system, they offer a host of ways (7 ways to be exact) to achieve a license.  The most applicable to up and coming off -road triathletes is to finish as a top 3 amateur at any U.S. championship race with a prize pursue greater than $15,000.  USAT introduced a new method in 2017 based on age graded performance.  It requires athletes to race at least two sanctioned events and achieve greater than a 106 in the age-grade performance scale. 


(Photo Credit: Jamil Buergo @ Xterra Albay)


Final Words:

What are the benefits of racing elite.  First and foremost, it allows athletes to continue to improve and test themselves on a new level.  If you find yourself at the front of the pack in age group races week after week, then you should strive to make it to the next level.  


Racing elite is often times confused with being a professional athlete- although those terms are interchangeable to many, they are really two different aspects.  Many professional athletes have devoted their lives and livelihood to racing and spend the better part of the year on the road earning prize money, points, and titles necessary to secure their place in the sport.  On the other hand, elite triathletes have risen to the level to compete with other world class athletes (professional and elite), but normally still compete on a limited basis due to other commitments.  

The goal of becoming an elite triathlete is obtainable by many age group and competitive youth triathletes.  For some this might come with ease and for others it might take years to attain.  I recommend focusing on becoming an all around athlete, gain exposure to racing better athletes (typically means traveling abroad), and train with this purpose and intent. 


GTF is currently working to develop elite license guidelines. Reach out to GTF President, Dave Torre, for further details.  


* Rules and criteria often change so review their official pages before you set out with this goal in mind.  If you have questions about making the move to racing elite, I'm glad to answer your questions and offer advice. (rcharlesepperson@gmail.com) 


** Questions on Guam National Team selection and residency requirements please contact Dave Torre at (davetorre@outlook.com).

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