Elite Triathlon Academy: Under the Hood

At first blush, the routing of the aerobic nonpareil Lukas Verzbicas to Colorado Springs, enrolling in a program coached by his step-father, has an indecorous hue. For those few who don't know, Verzbicas arrived in Colorado, from Chicago, via the scenic route through Oregon.

I thought of Hugh Freeze, high school coach of Michael Oher, of "Blind Side" fame. Freeze moved from coaching at Briarcrest Christian School to an assistant coach position at U of Mississippi shortly after Oher signed his letter of intent to play there. The NCAA investigated that.

Triathlon not being an NCAA sport, I thought I'd investigate this.

Verzbicas left Oregon last week to join the Elite Triathlon Academy. Its head coach is Romas Bertulis, Verzbicas' step-father. One Slowtwitch reader asked this question: "Why did [USAT] hire his father, who is woefully unqualified to be a national level coach, to head up this training center?"

Fair question, assuming it's a question and not an accusation. In my own case, and after my investigation, I found out that both the author of the question above, and I, were "woefully unqualified" to opine on the subject at all.

Bertulis turns out not to be unqualified. In fact, he might be precisely the right person for the position. The origin of this program, and Bertulis' intersection with it, goes back a dozen years.

The Genesis of a Talent Factory
Scott Schnitzspahn is the high performance director for the USOC. He works with federations that oversee triathlon, cycling and rowing, among others. His job includes themes such as talent identification, athlete support, camps, and recruitment. His former job was high performance director for USA Triathlon. He held that job from early in 2006 through late last year.

He started in triathlon the way most of us do: as a triathlete. He did his first tri in 1992. A job move took Schnitzspahn from his home in Ohio to Geneva, Illinois. He took a position in 1999 as fitness director for Delnor Health and Wellness Center, affiliated with a small hospital based in Geneva. The center had a pool, and Schnitzspahn cast about looking for a master's swim coach for that pool.

He found this in the person of Adam Zucco, a coach who has since gained some notoriety as a solid preparer of triathletes as well as those engaged in other endurance sports.

Zucco was not just a swim coach; he coached triathletes as well. One of those under his charge was Keith Dickson, who would go on to found the Elite Triathlon Academy of which Verzbicas is now a member.

The Multisport Madness club was the eventual expression of Zucco's triathlon coaching business, and was in full bloom by 2002, only two or three years after Schnitzspahn hired him as a masters coach.

"Multisport Madness was an adult club," recalls Schnitzspahn. "Adam wanted to put on a youth tri, because a lot of the adults he was coaching had kids, this would be a good way to build up a pipeline."

Dickson and his own kids were part of Zucco's program. Adam Zucco was Dickson's coach. Dickson himself was a former national swim team member, and a 16-time All-American. Dickson quickly got drawn into the Multisport Madness vortex.

Notwithstanding Schnitzspahn's recollection, memories diverge on whether Zucco had much interest in a kid's program. Dickson, however, certainly did. The Multisport Madness Triathlon Team is Dickson's baby was from the beginning. The team—centered around youth development—is distinct from the club. They share the name Multisport Madness, but, according to Dickson, "We were not a part of the club, in fact, we were a separate entity."

At this point, Scott Schnitzspahn's direct connection with Zucco and Dickson takes a hiatus. Schnitzspahn moved on to USA Triathlon, working on high performance and youth development.

But it was just the beginning for the Multisport Madness team. The program "had a ton of kids," Schnitzspahn recalls, and it dominated the national youth championships. The club was already large and well developed before Lukas arrived. It already had a huge infrastructure."

Verzbicas joined the club in 2006, and his parents were to become part of that infrastructure. His mother had been a national record holder in the running middle distances in Lithuania. Both Verzbicas' parents had been national team coaches in their home country, with Bertulis perhaps uniquely trained in "multisport," having coached Lithuanian decathletes. Verzbicas' parents are reported to have been closely involved in his coaching since the world junior tri champ began taking up triathlon in his early teens.

It was at a 2005 Youth National Championship in New Orleans that Verzbicas' parents met and connected with Dickson.

Not only did Verzbicas become a member of the team—joining other American youth standouts Kevin McDowell and Kelly Whitley—Dickson and Zucco recognized the coaching talent inside of that household.

"Adam [Zucco] and Keith [Dickson] brought in Romas [Bertulis] to help coach the running portion," according to Schnitzspahn. "The kids liked Romas, really responded to him."

"Bottom line, I recognized we needed a running coach," echoed Dickson. "Romas was the guy. I hired him."

But Dickson had a problem. The first edition of young superstar triathletes birthed by Multisport Madness was approaching high school graduation. He wondered what would happen to them now.

Pathways to Greatness
There is a divergence in thinking among those who ponder the question of talent identification and development. Should we continue the development of top juniors unabated after high school, as happens in many other countries? Or should we pack our top multisporters off to college, to earn degrees while getting their educations paid for through participating in scholarship single sports?

There is the so-called, "Sharks and Cheetahs" program, the brainchild of Lew Kidder. Barb Lindquist runs it, and it's based on the notion that America's best athletes since the advent of the Olympic Games were honed as single sporters. Lindquist, Sheila Taormina, Andy Potts, Hunter Kemper, Siri Lindley, Susan Williams (nee Bartholomew), and virtually all other highly-ranked or high-place American in ITU history developed under this model. It has as one non-sporting-related virtue: a college education providing a head start in industry once one's Olympic chase is over.

Sharks and Cheetahs is based on the identification of sharks (elite swimmers) who have some running ability, or cheetahs (elite runners) who have some swim background.

While that model has served the U.S. in years past, Dickson doesn't believe that can anymore be the exclusive model in use. And, he says he explained that to Verzbicas, trying to instill in him his view of a hard reality.

"You can't go off at Oregon for a couple of years and come back," says Dickson. "You can't do it. You can't run around and be 'The Man' everywhere."

It's not that Dickson was trying to talk Verzbicas out of Oregon, rather to say that this is his moment of decision. You either are a runner or you are a triathlete. There's no more moving back and forth between sports—according to Dickson—if you want to be the world's best at one of them.

Does this mean that Verzbicas, McDowell and Whitley must just choose between developing as elite triathletes or pursuing a college education?

Dickson and Schnitzspahn conceived of a middle ground.

"Keith was pushing from his end," remembers Schnitzspahn. "He was saying, 'I've got these blue chippers ready for college, what can USAT do?' We need a collegiate program that pays for their way through college."

Schnitzspahn first looked at developing a program at U of Colorado, in Boulder. He got the ball rolling before leaving a year ago to take up his position at the USOC. USA Triathlon's new high performance senior director, Andy Schmitz, took over from there, and Dickson remained involved.

"We had a resident program in Colorado Springs," said Schnitzspahn, "but not a team program; not a team atmosphere."

Brian Burnett, PhD, Vice Chancellor of UC Colorado Springs, was eager to help. "[Burnett] agreed to treat those in the program like varsity athletes, in terms of priority scheduling, study, etcetera," recalls Schnitzspahn. "But they are also treated as elite triathletes, and are not governed by the NCAA restrictions that encumber training, coaching and hours. So we wouldn't lose these blue chippers anymore."

Those in the Elite Triathlon Academy not only use the UCCS facilities, and those of the USOC—3 miles away—they can train alongside each other as well as elite U.S. triathletes based in the Springs, such as Sarah Haskins, Hunter Kemper and Matt Charbot.

"They swim with the resident USAT swim program frequently," Schmitz said of the Elite Triathlon Academy members. This includes Kemper, Jilian Peterson, Ben Collins, Sarah Haskins and others." Mike Doane is the coach of that swim program.

The scheme made a lot of sense. But it was not yet staffed. Among other things, the Elite Triathlon Academy was looking for a coach. Romas Bertulis was one of several coaches considered, and the one finally chosen. "He was willing to relocate," said Schnitzspahn, "the kids responded to him, it was working out great, why change things?"

Bertulis and Patrick Valentine are running the day-to-day at the academy. The latter has been an elite coach at CTS, and is a highly-skilled off-road tri competitor himself.

Hiring Bertulis, "...made all kind of sense for us," echoed Schmitz. "He's the right choice from the start, and as long as it's a good fit for us, we'll continue. We have a lot of confidence in what he's produced to date."

Thus, Verzbicas' step-father—with a decades-long tenure as a national team coach in all track & field's disciplines, who developed his triathlon coaching expertise while under Dickson at the Multisport Madness team—ends up at the same place as his step-son.

But, all this was set in place well before Verzbicas ever set foot on the Oregon campus. Indeed, it's Verzbicas metro-Chicago teammates—McDowell and Whitley—that Dickson and Bertulis had in mind when embarking upon this program's inaugural semester and season.

Further, it's clear from multiple sources—including Verzbicas—that all the mentors in his life counseled him to staying at Oregon rather than coming to the Springs. Verzbicas notes this in our recent interview with him.

"Look, you just won the world championship of triathlon," Dickson explained to Verzbicas as the latter's misgivings about Oregon became apparent. "You went from being a miler in June to a world champion triathlete, to a whole new level of sport. There was no conversion time."

According to Dickson's recollection, Verzbicas' answer was, "Mister Dickson, I saw through all of that. I'm leaving because you guys were right all along. If I'm going to get at it, I need to get at it now."

And, yes, he calls him Mr. Dickson.

The Windy City Connection
The reunion of Verzbicas and his step-father was not the only eyebrow raiser about this program. There was also a metro-Chicago nexus that seemed cozy. Moving vans are not only wearing out the roads between Chicago and the nation's capital, but between Chi-town and the Springs. Dickson, Verzbicas, his parents, and a majority of the Elite Triathlon Academy class are all from Multisport Madness.

But if one considers the question—"Why does everything have to start and stop in Colorado Springs?"—the Elite Triathlon Academy represents a departure from, rather than a continuation of, the typical federation hegemony over athlete development.

It's a familiar refrain that USA Triathlon should stop trying to develop organic programs, rather it should go out, see what's working, and fund what's proven successful.

"I used to hate dealing with USAT," Dickson confides. "But when I had five out of six World Championship [youth or junior] members coming from my team, they finally said, 'What should we do?'"

The solution, according to Dickson, was not a USAT program. Rather, the Elite Triathlon Academy is set up as its own entity, a non-profit corporation, funded in part by USAT along with a grant from USOC. Dickson refers to these governmental organizations as "investors."

The fact that this enclave is domiciled at all in Colorado Springs is coincidence and convenience. A quarter-century old Colorado state law allows the UC system to offer in-state tuition to those actively engaged in high-level Olympic sport. That, plus the ability for participating governing bodies to offer training and perhaps housing facilities made Colorado, and in particular the Springs, the logical choice.

Dickson bristles at the idea this is a government, or federation, program. "They can help," Dickson said of federations. "But they can kill." In fact, he believes that the proper pipeline for triathlon should follow the model he grew up in.

The Nadadores of Multisport
It's not just the idea of the Elite Triathlon Academy that Dickson champions. He's a product of, and a believer in, Nadadore-style hard charging swim programs in the 60s and 70s. He believes this is the model for future Olympic triathletes.

"In the 60s there were a dozen good teams in competitive swimming, they used to talk to each other, but the AAU was out of that loop," he said. "USA Swimming was formed [by these clubs]. That's my model."

Dickson says there are a thousand swim teams, four in every city. He doesn't expect that out of triathlon.

"Triathlon doesn't have that kind of scale," he says. "Still, you cannot manage triathlon out of Colorado Springs. You have to fuel the entrepreneurship that's in every city.

"The growth of these junior elite programs, everybody likes to blow smoke, they show numbers, but there's no there there. The crop that's produced [by Multisport Madness] was produced from hard work.

"If you want to be elite, it's not about numbers. If you have 400 swimmers in your club, but you produce one [high achiever] every other year, that's not coaching. [The formula] is training six days a week, having a paid coach, making sure everyone has the right equipment."

Is the Elite Triathlon Academy Cloneable and Scalable?
"We're starting slow," Dickson says. "We're a group of guys, we don't have policies, but, the idea is to get capital. I don't want to rely on the governing bodies to be my only source of capital. Capital tries to control sometimes. They're not doing that, but, that can happen."

What's the future of the Elite Triathlon Academy?

Schmitz likes the model as well, and doesn't think it need be the only one of its kind. "Whether it's partnering with the training center in San Diego and San Diego State, or somewhere else with the interest and aptitude, there should be a second and third triathlon academy program. The best way to encourage excellence is for multiple programs striving to be the best."

What, if Anything, did we Learn Today?
Viewers of Morning Joe on MSNBC are familiar with this phrase, which is the coda ending every broadcast. One of several facts and truths I learned while researching the Elite Triathlon Academy is that not all speculative associations are nefarious, particularly the Great Migration of athletes and coaches from Geneva, Illinois to Colorado Sprints, Colorado.

Remember Hugh Freeze, the coach who supposedly rode Michael Oher's coattails to Mississippi? He is now head football coach at Arkansas State, compiling a record there of 28-7. The Red Wolves are riding a 7-game winning streak as of this writing. In between stints at Mississippi and A-State he was head coach at Lambuth University (NAIA), finishing his first seasons with a record of 7-5 on 2008 and the second going undefeated, 11-0, in the regular season.