ST. PETERSBURG — When Mandy Gildersleeve and her husband, Tom, staged a youth triathlon in Jacksonville in the spring, they weren't sure how many kids would turn out to swim, bike and run.
"We ended up having more than 1,000 triathletes," said Gildersleeve, who coaches that city's Junior Hammerheads team. "It was amazing."
But Gildersleeve's experience is not unique. From Seattle to St. Petersburg, race directors have seen explosive growth in the number of children participating in youth triathlons.
Sunday's IronKids National Championship in St. Petersburg is expected to attract more than 600 of the nation's top young athletes. That's more than double the turnout for last year's inaugural event.
It's a trend that arrives as health officials are searching for ways to get American kids moving. Roughly 32 percent of U.S. children and adolescents — about 25 million — are obese or overweight, putting them at risk for lifelong weight struggles and health issues such as diabetes and heart disease.
Triathlon fans say their sport taps into skills many kids already have, and lets children keep a pace that's right for their physical condition and personal desire to compete.
"Most kids run, ride and swim when they play," said Gildersleeve. "When they find out that there is a sport that lets them do all three, they just have to do it."
Caroline Condon, 14, a freshman at St. Petersburg's Northeast High, has competed in triathlons since fourth grade.
"I love it,'' she said. "It's challenging, fun, but most importantly it is a sport I can do by myself. I put in all the work and I can take pride and get all the credit.''
The IronKids brand is owned by the Tampa-based World Triathlon Corp., which also hosts the Super Bowl of multisport distance events, the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.
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Last month, an IronKids event in Alpharetta, Ga., drew 1,300 triathletes, which is more than most adult triathlons attract.
"The sport is growing at a phenomenal rate," said Karen Quilty, an IronKids team coordinator in St. Petersburg. "It's not just here, but all over the country."
Dave Deschenes, the USA Triathlon Florida Region youth representative, helps Quilty coach the St. Petersburg-based Tampa Bay Tri-Sports team.
"I think part of it has to do with the fact that triathlons in general have become more popular," he said. "We have a lot of parents who have been active triathletes for years and now they are introducing their children to the sport."
Unlike the distance for their adult counterparts, the distance in youth triathlons vary according to age. Children ages 6 to 8 swim 50 yards, bike 2 miles and run 500 yards. Children ages 9 to 11 swim 150 yards, bike 4 miles and run one mile. And children ages 12 to 15 swim 300 yards, bike 8 miles and run 2 miles. An Olympic-length adult triathlon, such as the popular St. Anthony's event in St. Petersburg, is a nearly 1-mile swim, 25-mile bike ride and 6.2-mile run.
"Some kids are more competitive than others, but the great thing is that everybody can just go at their own pace," Quilty said. "The whole idea of triathlons is to have fun."
In its inaugural year, IronKids hosted nine events. This year, the tour added three new events, including IronKids Orlando, and moved its National Championship to St. Petersburg.
Deschenes said triathlon organizers see young athletes as the future of the sport. "I think one reason you are seeing so many more races is that race directors want to see the sport grow. ... If not they won't have jobs in 10 years," he said.
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Quilty, a mother of three children ages 12, 9 and 8, said it's important to provide supervision to help young triathletes stay healthy and safe.
"We spend a lot of time focusing on proper technique when it comes to bike riding," said Quilty, who has about 35 children on her team. "We also take great care in making sure that they do not overtrain. Rest is just as important as racing."
Dr. Ajoy Kumar, assistant director of the Bayfront Family Medicine Residency Program, said parents should take common-sense precautions before letting children compete in triathlons.
"It's a good idea that they get medical clearance before beginning any organized sport," he said. "And if they want to do a triathlon, make sure they train and have the right gear — good running shoes and a properly fitting helmet — to make sure they avoid injury."
Gildersleeve, who has one of the more accomplished youth triathlon teams in Florida, said she stresses letting kids set their own pace.
"Not every kid wants to play soccer or baseball," she said. "Triathlon is a sport that most kids can do, but you have to let them participate at their own level. You can't push them too hard."
Caroline Condon's dad, Jim, is a triathlete who has five children regularly competing in local swim, bike and run events.
"It promotes a healthy lifestyle,'' he said of IronKids, "and sure beats sitting on a couch playing video games.''
Contact Terry Tomalin at email@example.com.