The University of Florida may be the reigning national champion in football, and its basketball team has back-to-back championships of its own.
But in recent years, the Gators have another sport that has put Gainesville on the national sports map: triathlon.
The Tri-Gators have produced some world-class athletes in recent years. Orlando's Kevin Collington won the Collegiate National Championships in 2007, placed second in 2008 and delivered a strong performance at last year's St. Anthony's Triathlon.
"We have 110 members," said Alex Lechner, a 21-year-old triathlete from Clearwater. "But only about 60 of us are active racers."
Lechner, an education major, is a frequent top finisher on the local race scene.
"She is an incredible athlete and an outstanding student," said Val Tavenese of Outspokin Family Bicycles & Pro Shop in Largo. "She's also humble and probably would never tell you that in 2009 she's been selected to the prestigious Mark Allen Elite Racing Team."
Each year Allen, a six-time Ironman champion, picks 25 athletes to coach remotely.
"It is a real honor," Lechner said. "I am very excited about it."
Lechner is typical Tri-Gator team member. The club is open to UF students, staff and faculty. There are no fees or prerequisites of athletic ability or experience.
The triathletes typically train as a group, and many members travel together to races around the state.
Other local members include Ryan Repp, a 22-year-old accounting graduate student.
"I love the half-Ironman distance," said Repp, who grew up in Clearwater and now lives in Palm Harbor. "I like the discipline in triathlon. You get out of it what you put into it."
Repp, who has been competing in triathlons for three years, often races with his mother, Terry, another frequent top local finisher.
"My mother got me interested in it," he said. "She has been doing marathons, ultramarathons and triathlons for more than 20 years."
For the past 2½ years, Repp has been training with Lechner.
"Without her I wouldn't know half of what I know now," he said.
Rounding out the local Tri-Gator crew is Kellen Goodell, another Clearwater High graduate.
"People call me Kel-Bo," he said. "I study horticultural science — you gotta eat — specializing in organic and sustainable agriculture."
Goodell, who graduates in May, has been on the triathlon scene for a little more than a year. He and Repp have been friends since kindergarten.
"He's my roommate, best friend and mentor as far as the triathlon goes, since he was the one that turned me on to it," Goodell said.
Lechner, who has been competing in triathlons for nine years, was a member of the 2005 and '06 junior national team and qualified for worlds both years.
"We are not on the same level as football, but in the tri world we are very well known," she said. "But we are working very hard to become an NCAA-sanctioned sport."
Lechner said she plans to keep competing even after she graduates. Next week, she will compete in the Miami International Triathlon then after that begin training for the National Collegiate Championships in Lubbock, Texas, in April.
"I wish I could run St. Anthony's but it is right after the collegiate championships," she said. "And as soon as I get home, I'll have to start studying for exams. Remember, I'm still a student."
The fitness column will return next week. Terry Tomalin can be reached at [email protected]