WESLEY CHAPEL — At a time when most business are scaling back and just trying to weather the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, Hunter Jewett is looking to expand.
"Triathlons are recessionproof," said Jewett, manager of the world's first Ironman Store. "Every year we are seeing more and more races, the sport is steadily expanding."
Next to the Nike swoosh, the Ironman name is one of the mostly widely recognized brands in the world of endurance sports.
Few foresaw the sport's meteoric rise back in 1977 when Navy officer John Collins persuaded a group of SEALs to combine the Waikiki Rough Water swim, Around Oahu bike race and Honolulu Marathon into one event.
Collins declared that the winner would be christened the "Ironman," and since then the grueling 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run would set the standard for all endurance events to follow.
"Everybody knows the Ironman name," said the 39-year-old Jewett, himself an accomplished age-group triathlete. "And nationally, the Tampa Bay area is known as a destination for triathlons."
This year, more than 1 million people will compete in a triathlon, making "swim, bike and run" one of the fastest growing fitness activities in the United States.
According to USA Triathlon, the governing body of the sport, most triathletes are married, well-educated and have white-collar jobs.
The number of dedicated triathletes in the United States, those who compete in more than one event each year, is at an all-time high. USA Triathlon counted more than 115,000 members in 2009, up from 21,000 in 2000.
According to USA Triathlon, the average triathlete is a 38-year-old white male who makes $126,000 a year. Joe Triathlete spends an average of $4,009 annually on his sport: $2,274 on bikes; $564 on race fees; $524 on bike equipment; $370 spent on training, running and athletic footwear and $277 spent on nutritional supplements.
Jewett and his partners at World Endurance Sports, the LLC that licensed the Ironman name from the Tampa-based World Triathlon Corporation, hope to cash in on the wave of free-spending triathletes.
The Ironman Store, which had a soft opening in December, is at at 6417 County Line Road in the largely affluent area of New Tampa. The store, which sells everything from bikes to swimming gear, is at in a shopping center next to a LA Fitness the size of supermarket.
"We have had people from as far away as Orlando come over to shop, and we haven't even done any advertising," said Jewett. "Business has just been great."
World Triathlon Corporation, owner and organizer of Ironman events, has seen its own market share increase in recent years.
More than 50,000 people this year will participate in the 25 Ironman-distance events in 16 countries. Florida is one of eight U.S. states that will host an Ironman triathlon this year.
But the hottest thing in swim, bike and run these days is the relatively new half-Ironman. The 70.3 (half the distance of the original 140.6 mile event) is the fastest growing segment of the sport.
Starting in 2006 with 17 events worldwide, Ironman 70.3 will expand to 42 events this year including November's Foster Grant Ironman World Championship 70.3 in Clearwater.
Jewett and his partners picked the right spot to launch what they say will be a series of Ironman stores. Florida recently passed California in terms of triathlon participation, and now trails only Texas, the No. 1 triathlon state in the country.
"We hope to open five to 10 more stores in the next five years," Jewett said. "We are looking at Miami, Orlando and Houston — all good triathlon cities."
In the meanwhile, out-of-town tirathletes can still buy Ironman gear on internet through the Tampa-based World Endurance Sports' new Web site, www.ironman360.com.