Reposted from Sarasota Herald Tribune website. Article originally posted on March 3rd, 2014.
SARASOTA – International triathletes — ranging from established elites to up and coming athletes under 19 — won’t just be competing for prize money at the Sarasota Pan American Cup at Nathan Benderson Rowing Park.
The sprint championships — held in addition to competitions for juniors and mixed teams of men and women — will likely be indicative of how elite triathletes will perform in qualifying events for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
In addition to the championship events, two triathlons for youth and age-group competitors will be held on the same course during the competition this weekend.
“We’re trying to create a weekend event that caters to all types of athletes from the elites down to the age groupers,” Race Director Bill Burnett said.
While the 2016 Olympic qualifying period does not begin until May 15, the Sarasota competition for juniors is an important pathway in earning a spot at the Olympic Youth Games scheduled in Nanjing, China, this summer.
Hosted by Sarasota, the North American Junior Championships determine which 16- and 17-year-olds can compete in the Olympic Youth Games qualifying event in Mexico this May and includes triathletes under 19 from the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
This is the second year that Sarasota has hosted a Pan American Cup, a competition also held more recently in Clermont — near Orlando — and Dallas, Texas. Roughly 100 men and women from eight countries have registered for the main sprint championship this year, Burnett said.
Part of the appeal is the venue: a 600-acre rowing park on Cattlemen Road with the infrastructure to support swimming, biking and running, and lots of room for spectators.
American Tommy Zaferes, a Santa Cruz, Calif., native, came in second at last year’s sprint championships. Zaferes appreciated the opportunity to compete in two Pan Am cups, as the Clermont race is held a week before Sarasota’s race.
“There are only 3 Pan Am Cups in the USA, so having the chance to race in Clermont one weekend, then Sarasota the next weekend was a good opportunity for some good racing without the hassle of insane travel,” said Zaferes, who is training in New Zealand.
The sprint distance events in Sarasota include a 750-meter swim, 20K bike and 5K run. Youth under 16 will compete on an abbreviated course and the mixed teams (two men, two women) will complete shorter circuits of all three events each.
While the sprint championships events for elite triathletes comes with $10,000 in prize money, the race is perhaps more crucial for junior athletes, who range from 16 to 19 years old.
The event will serve as a selection event for the Panamerican Triathlon Confederation Junior Championships this spring — a key race in making the world championships — in addition to the Olympic Youth Games qualifying event in Mexico.
“These are some of very best athletes out there who are looking to eventually go to the Olympics,” Burnett said.
It’s a quest shared by many others.
Zafares will not compete in Sarasota this spring because he has chosen to start the racing season in New Zealand. Making the Olympics, he explains, relies on his ability to frequently compete, train up to 30 hours a week and rack up wins in key races.
Florida has been an important part of his development as a triathlete. He earned his pro card at an elite development race in Clermont during 2010, and he remembers the Sarasota’s Pan-American Cup as a fast course free of traffic.
“That race went great,” he said. “I just got outsprinted the last 200 meters by a Portuguese Olympian, so I can’t be bummed.”