The name "Ironman" has become synonymous with multi-sport endurance events. The success of the World Triathlon Corporation's signature race in Kona, Hawaii, and the addition of the Ironman 70.3 series, which holds a World Championship in Clearwater each November, has made the Ironman brand a household name.
Now, with youth participation on the rise, the Tampa-based WTC hopes to introduce the next generation of swim, bike and run enthusiasts to the world's top endurance sport when the inaugural St. Petersburg IronKids Triathlon series, the second stop on an eight-city tour in St. Petersburg on Sunday.
"People are very excited," said Michelle Payette of IronKids. "Having the St. Anthony's Meek & Mighty Triathlon as well as IronKids here has really made St. Petersburg the hotbed of youth triathlon."
Nationally, youth triathlon is growing at an exponential rate. In 2005, USA Triathlon counted 949 children 16 or younger in its membership base. By 2008, that number had grown to 22,445. As for events geared to young triathletes, those numbers are also increasing. In 2004, there were just 193 youth triathlons in the United States. Last year, the number had more than doubled to 396.
Philip LaHaye, race director for the St. Anthony's Triathlon, widely considered to be the most competitive Olympic distance event in the United States, said he believes aging triathletes are bringing their kids into the sport.
"They have been doing triathlons for 20 years now and they have kids that are old enough to start competing," he said. "As a result, you have these 7-, 8- and 9-year-old kids showing up at races who really know how to swim, bike and run."
Youth participation in organized swimming has also increased. LaHaye believes many swim team coaches are encouraging their athletes to enter triathlons as a way of cross training. "It keeps them from getting burned out in the pool," he added.
For more than a decade, the Meek & Mighty drew about 500 participants a year. Then four years ago, participation skyrocketed. "We picked up about 100 new triathletes each year," LaHaye said. "This year, we had about 900 kids race."
Celia Dubey, a top amateur triathlete and multi-sport coach from Tarpon Springs, holds regular camps and clinics for young triathletes. "The sword cuts both ways," she said. "I have seen a lot of parents who have introduced their kids to triathlons, but now I am seeing a lot of kids who are introducing their parents to triathlons."
Sunday's IronKids event will feature three courses for three age groups: juniors (6-8) will swim 50 yards, bike 2 miles and run 500 yards; intermediates (9-11) will swim 150 yards, bike 4 miles and run 1 mile; seniors (12-15) will swim 300 yards, ride 8 miles and run 2 miles.
St. Petersburg's Karen Quilty, who has three kids ranging in age from 6 to 11, coaches a youth triathlon team called the St. Pete Stingrays. "The kids just have a blast," she said. "It's what kids do all summer … swim, bike and run. It comes natural to them."
But signing up your children for this weekend's IronKids event could pay long-term dividends. Brian Harrington, a local attorney and USAT board member, got his girls started when they were 7 and 9. Brianne, now 30, has an MBA, and Shana, 33, just completed a Ph.D. in human movement sciences.
"It helped them develop some great life skills," he said. "Triathlon training teaches you time management, which is something many adults never master. And I think there is nothing like success to help build a positive self image."
Locally, aspiring triathletes can sign up with the Youth Triathlon series, which holds 11 events from Tierra Verde to Tallahassee throughout the year.
"We have doubled in both attendance and the number of races since 2008," said Suzanne Henslee, the series coordinator. "We give kids the opportunity to grow up with triathlon, competing every month, just like league baseball."