A little over five years ago, ITU Development Director Libby Burrell decided to act on a trend she spotted. Triathletes from smaller, developing National Federations (NFs) were competing at World Cup events, but with no other teammates and no support staff, often struggled on race day to match it with those who had.
So Burrell decided to create a solution, what was then known as Team BG Elite Athlete Development Project (EADP). The very first qualification document outlined the primary objective as ‘providing support, resources and expertise to elite athletes from emerging/developing National Federations to compete at a World Cup level,’. One of the key aims was to try and help these athletes, who had already shown elite potential but perhaps not possess the resources to take it that step further, to reach their Olympic goal.
WHERE IT ALL STARTED
The first team, at the 2006 BG Triathlon World Cup in Beijing, comprised Flora Duffy (BER), Kate Roberts (RSA), Mari Rabie (RSA) and Lisa Norden (SWE). As well as supporting each other in a team, they had access to elite level coaching, a bike mechanic and physiotherapist, an elite support team to equal the best in the world. Just two years later at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, those first goals were reached as all four girls became Olympians.
Now, five years later, Team ITU has evolved into much more. The programme’s alumni like Norden and Barbara Riveros Diaz have gone on to be the first athletes from their respective countries to win an ITU World Championship, after they claimed the sprint distance world titles in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
The range of developing federations continues to expand, this year athletes from Slovenia, Colombia, Estonia, Monaco, Morocco, Korea, Serbia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Israel, Cuba, Zimbabwe and Barbados have all been part of the programme at World Cup events in Mooloolaba, Edmonton and Auckland.
Burrell said this week it had achieved everything she hoped and more.
“My main reason for launching this project was because I noticed how hard it was for athletes from small NFs travelling alone to far off places with no other teammates and no support staff. I felt if we put this team together we could join together the ‘solo’ athletes into a ‘team’ where they feel part of a group and have the necessary support to allow them to compete on an equal footing with other athletes from larger nations,” Burrell said.
“The concept was an immediate success and we noticed in a very short space of time what an impact this camaraderie and support did to allow the young athletes to maximise their potential. All of a sudden they seemed to move to a new level and the athletes themselves were the best advertisement for the project and continue to be.”
THE ATHLETES PERSPECTIVE
Norden was part of that very first Team BG back in 2006, and since then has won two Dextro Energy Triathlon Series races, claimed five additional WCS podiums and won an ITU World Championship (sprint world title in 2010) – but she said the start she gained from Team ITU was invaluable.
Team ITU 2011 - Who’s who of this year
Leonardo Chacon (CRC), Aleksandr Latin (EST), Ron Darmon (ISR), Elizabeth Bravo (ECU), Mateja Simic (SLO), Jason Wilson (BAR), Carlos Javier Quinchara Forero (COL), Michel Gonzalez (CUB), Ognjen Stojanovic (SRB), Christopher Felgate (ZIM), Fanny Beisaron (ISR), Yanitza Perez (CUB), Min Ho Heo (KOR), Herve Banti (MON) and Medhi Essadiq (MAR)
Other Team ITU Alumni
Lisa Norden (SWE), Barbara Riveros Diaz (CHI), Kate Roberts (RSA), Flora Duffy (BER), Mari Rabie (RSA), Yuliya Yelistratova (UKR)
“For me being the only one from Sweden coming out. You are always by yourself, you have breakfast by yourself, you walk around by yourself, you race by yourself, you might maybe have one coach with you, but all the other triathletes have these big support teams,” she said earlier this year.
“The ITU kind of gave us that, you have your friends, you have the team spirit, you aren’t racing by yourself and it’s just really fun, you are racing with the team and you have all that support crew and it’s a massive amount of help.”
Mostly, Norden said, it gave her belief.
“You have someone looking after your bike, someone looking after your body, someone looking after your food. It benefits you amazingly in the race, because someone is there to help you and also that someone believes in you. It’s very flattering for an athlete and you want to go out there and do it justice because there is all these people helping me to be on the start line, so you want to make an impact for them.”
Riveros Diaz made her World Cup debut with Team BG back in June 2007. After emerging from the chilly Vancouver swim course third last, the Chilean was lapped on the bike and was eventually pulled off the course. But she didn’t give up and neither did Burrell, who saw enormous potential in Riveros Diaz and kept her on the programme.
“I’m really grateful because if ITU didn’t help me, I would never be where I am now. Because ITU recognised me first, my country opened their eyes and saw that I had a chance to qualify for Beijing (Olympics), so I always that say that ITU made me,” said Riveros Diaz, who like Norden, was crowned ITU Sprint World Champion and owns a host of podium finishes.
“I just always wished to have the opportunity to go overseas and train there and have the same opportunity as some of the bigger nations like UK, Australia, and have good quality coaches. When I had that option, I just wanted to grab it with both hands and not let go,” said Riveros Diaz.
“Being part of this team really makes me feel confident about the race,” said Ognjen Stojanovic at the 2010 Huatulco World Cup. “I’m the only elite athlete from Serbia and I’m usually training alone but coming here and having this team behind me, it’s really an amazing feeling because I only have to focus on the race and not worry about other things.”
THE TEAM BEHIND THE SCENES
But Team ITU also wouldn’t have worked without the committment from the support staff.
The support staff who make it happen
Craig Redman (AUS), Jamie Turner (AUS), Mick Delamotte (AUS), Gale Bernhardt (USA), Zeljko Bijuk (CRO), Libby Burrell (RSA, ITU), Tibor Lehman (HUN), Warwick Dalziel (AUS)
Jeff Donaldson (USA), Dave Coleman (USA), Dan Brickell (AUS)
Teresa Schuemann (USA), Diana Palmer (USA), Maury Hayashida (USA)
Burrell carefully selected them to ensure “that the athletes were exposed to a variety of experts on the many aspects of elite sport to allow them to grow and develop into top level professional athletes.”
In addition to actually attending events as part of the race-day team, they have also served as a support system all year round to provide athletes and their home coaches with advice when they need it. Burrell also added the fact that so many of the same coaches, bike mechanics and physiotherapists have stuck with the programme has helped add to its stability and success.
And that dream of helping give development a kickstart has become reality for Burrell.
“The return on the investment is huge and watching the athletes ‘grow’ is so exciting!” she said. “Pretty much what any coach dreams of.”