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Two triathletes swim, run, cycle for elite status

It is a rare athlete who can excel in the three-pronged test of endurance known as the triathlon. Rarer still is the athlete who can make a living at it. A triathlon begins with a long-distance swim, continues with a bicycle ride, and ends with a foot race to the finish line. Like just about every other sport in America, triathlon has people who get paid to compete.

The average age of a professional triathlete is 27. That means Kim Lewis, 20, and Mike Whitehead, 19, have barely splashed into the first leg of their careers as pro triathletes.

The two Hillsborough Community College students train together and live with Whitehead's parents in Tampa. They have been successful in United States Triathlon Series races, the big time of triathlons.

Now they are ready to climb out of the water and move on to the bike leg of their young careers. But before they can take the next big step toward elite status, they're going to need a sponsor.

"You don't have to find a sponsor to compete, but it helps," said Whitehead, a graduate of Gaither High School. "If you want to travel and make money, really be a professional at it, not just a weekend warrior, you need a sponsor."

Whitehead attained pro status at 17. He was on the 1988 and 1989 Triathlon Today magazine All-America teams, but ruptured disks in his back, bike wrecks and flat tires have slowed him this year.

Lewis swam competitively for 10 years before running her first triathlon, at 18. She was on the first junior national triathlon team in 1989 and has nine victories in two years.

Both consider themselves a notch below elite professionals, the top 15 to 20 men and women in the world. Both want to make a career of triathlons, which means they have to come up with approximately $10,000 in annual expenses.

"People who make a living at triathlons do it with sponsors and endorsements," Lewis said. "Prize money alone won't do it."

Their parents pay most of the bills now, but the two have taken steps to alleviate the financial pressure.

This year, Whitehead and Lewis raced with a team sponsored by Bike Rack II, a local bicycle shop that specializes in triathlon equipment. Joe Solak, the shop's manager, said Bike Rack II supplied the racers with bikes at wholesale cost and repairs for free.

Now the racers are seeking a full-time sponsor to back them. A month ago, they took on a manager, Northwest YMCA program director Kyle Thorne, to guide them to the next professional level.

"Kim and Mike are two of the top young, up-and-coming professional triathletes around," Thorne said. "It's only a matter of time before someone comes forward to sponsor them."

Lewis and Whitehead hope to compete for the United States in the 1996 Olympics, in Atlanta. The triathlon is not yet included in the Olympic schedule, but it is expected to be added as an exhibition sport in 1992 or 1996, Lewis said. Pro triathletes will be eligible.

Besides constantly seeking a sponsor, Lewis and Whitehead must prepare for next year's races. They train every day, which leaves very little time for the social life that is all-important to the average college student.

"We have our friends at the pool, but we don't go out much," Lewis said. "By the time we're done training, we're usually too tired to go out anyway."

Ask them about their accomplishments and the most likely response is a shy smile and a shrug. That modesty may be holding them back, Solak says.

"They haven't had the benefit of being on a collegiate team, so they haven't had great exposure," Solak said. "They don't like to brag about their accomplishments.

"The best thing that could happen to them is for one of them to turn in a top performance in a big race, where some sponsors can see them."

The two athletes met in Daytona Beach, Lewis' hometown, when Whitehead was racing in a triathlon sponsored by an equipment shop where Lewis worked. They kept in touch, and Lewis decided to move to Tampa to train with Whitehead.

Lewis and Whitehead share more than a training regimen and a career goal. They are boyfriend and girlfriend.

Although no marriage plans are pending, they consider themselves a team.

Whitehead's back is completely healed. He and Lewis say they are ready to enter the upper echelon of pro triathletes.

"I always just did it for fun," Whitehead said. "I never thought I'd be where I am."

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