Reflections on the Early Days of Triathlon

John Lily from 220 Magazine asked some of us “old timers” to write up some memories of our racing days. Here are some of the memories I shared with him. This also appears on 220 Blogspot, great reading to learn more of the history of the sport.

From Karen Smyers: 

I have loved reading all the early 220 posts up through 1994—brings back some great memories.  Michael (my husband) and I remember lots of laughs over those years with the gang from 220 (British accents make every joke funnier to Americans).


The ITU World Championships in Cancun (thanks for the cover shot!) were significant that year in that it was the first time that drafting was allowed.  In 1994 the ITU had done a draft-legal experiment at the Goodwill Games and I found out the hard way what not to do; I had surged over and over again trying to whittle down the lead pack, which was completely ineffective at whittling down the pack, but very effective at frying my legs for the run.


I was a USA delegate to the ITU in 1995 and spent the days leading up to the World Championship speaking at the Congress against allowing drafting in triathlon.  I thought it was going to turn the event into a swimmer/runner event rather than a swim, bike, run.  In my opinion, the spectacle of having a fast biker out front being reeled in by a faster runner (like the Mike Pigg/Mark Allen or Spencer Smith/Simon Lessing races) was the essence of triathlon racing.


The USA delegation tried (in vain) to have the draft-legal concept defeated.  We were in the minority as the ITU had already done a lot of back-door politicking to line up votes. We were intimidated and ostracised all week long for fighting against them.  (I was mysteriously not invited to the press conference before the race even though I had won Worlds in 1990 and the Pan Am Games earlier that year.)  I remember being so upset after the Congress on Friday that I met Michael at an outdoor café right afterward and had a giant Margarita to de-stress.  We remarked that it was a good thing I had raced well in Hawaii because I had set myself up for a less than stellar outing at this race.  Cancun was five weeks after Hawaii where I had won my first…er, only… Ironman.


As the race unfolded, a few fast swimmers formed a small pack out front on the bike and I was in the larger pack behind that slowly gobbled them up.  I was very careful not to repeat my mistake from the Goodwill Games and conserved as much energy as I could.  About ¾ of the way through the bike, we had formed one pack with all the favourites in it and the pace slowed dramatically.  I remember sitting up on my bars in the middle of the pack mostly just trying to avoid a crash, and Joanne Ritchie (World Champ from 1991) who was riding next to me, saying “Can you believe this is a World Championship and we are sitting up on the bike talking?”  I agreed it was surreal but we had a nice little chat as if we were sitting in a coffee shop catching up on old times.


I had a great transition from bike to run and managed to stay in the top five  for the first 5K with Emma Carney, Jackie Gallagher and Joy Hansen Leutner trading off the lead.  It was significant that Michellie Jones, one of my big rivals at the time, had decided not to race in protest at the draft-legal format.   I couldn’t believe it when I found myself surging to take the lead for good at 6K.   Ironically, the drafting on the bike probably was key for me to have enough in my legs to win the race that day.  That, and the salt from the Margarita.  I felt a little guilty—but hey, I didn’t make the rules, I just played by them!


Simon Lessing outran the field to win his second World Championship in the men’s race. And so began the draft-legal era.



The Indoor Triathlon in Bercy was probably the most unique, fun triathlon I have ever done. It was in a huge indoor stadium with a temporary pool built in the middle, a velodrome around it and a run course that had a snaking lane that looped around  the stadium floor between the pool and the velodrome.  I had never been on a velodrome before and was petrified that I would fall down the steep sides if I didn’t go fast enough, so I hammered the bike purely out of fear (not only in the race but in practice and warm ups too!) It was something like 40 laps on the velodrome and each lap took just 15-20 seconds.   They could only race 6-8 people at a time because we all had our own lane in the pool (for the 400m swim) so we had several heats in the “Trials” and the top two in each heat qualified for either the “Consoles” or the “Finals” the next day.  At some point, they realised that wet triathletes on a velodrome was a recipe for disaster so they instituted a mandatory 10 second stop for drying-off in T1.  There were several glitches in the first few heats that had to be worked out; trouble counting laps and a light system that malfunctioned that was supposed to show how many laps to go for each competitor.


What can you say? Rina then Karen ending up third.

I qualified behind Sabine Graf Westhoff and Rina Bradshaw Hill (coached by Brett Sutton at the time) who both beat me in the swim by a chunk. Once everyone converged on the velodrome, there was very little chance to get away. In the trials I had ended up down two laps to Sabine and one lap to Rina at the end of the bike and was beaten handily.  So I knew if I wanted any chance to win, given how we matched up on the run, I had to get on the velodrome before they completed two or one lap(s) respectively, then blast the first part of the bike so that I would catch up to them rather than them catching up to me from behind.  In the finals I managed to do just that by the skin of my teeth. Sabine got off a lap ahead and Rina and I came off together and took off after her.  Rina passed me early on and I hung close but could never re-pass her.  It came down to the final stretch of the run. Rina caught Sabine right near the end to win and I fell two seconds short of catching her for third. Mais c’etait magnifique!


Karen with her husband Mike and of course a copy of 220 lolling in the Dead Sea.
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