USAT's Nationals Through the Years

We’re within the week from USA Triathlon’s Age Group National Triathlon Championships over the Sprint and Olympic distances. As are you, I am at once critical and proud of our National Federation depending on the subject, just as I am of every other form of government under which we all live.

Mostly I’m proud of USAT because Triathlon is relatively new, it has no development “help” to speak of from high schools and colleges, and yet the U.S. Federation is probably among the top half-dozen federations under 45 or 50 the USOC umbrella when it comes to health, finance and structure.

I think Nationals is a good proxy for why that is. Above is a pic by Paul Phillips of the 2014 race in Milwaukee that drew almost 6,000 to this race. Mind, it hasn’t always been that way.

USAT traces its National Championships back to 1983, held in Bass Lake, California, just outside Yosemite National Park, and for that and some years thereafter it was more just TriFed (the Federation’s name back then) latching onto the Bud Lite Triathlon Series Nationals. Bass Lake was the site of the Bud Lite Nationals in ’83 and ’84, and then it moved to Hilton Head, SC, for the ’85 thru ’87 years.

By 1989 TriFed had struck out on its own with a Nationals in Hammond, IN, the site of Leon’s for those who remember that race and its irrepressible head man Leon Wolek. It remained there through 1991 and them moved around the country.

Above is the finish line from the 2002 race in Couer d’Alene. I attended my first Nationals since the 1980s when I raced in Shreveport in 2003 or 2004 (I don’t remember, and it was there for both those years) and only about 700 attended. Below is a pic of that 2004 race.

I felt, and said, at the time that USAT was holding itself back by demanding a modest site fee as a condition of any successful bid. If you imagine an entry fee of, say, $125 (back then), and you multiply that $125 by the 1,300 additional people who could and should attend an attractive site, you’re giving up north of $150,000 in revenue to pocket a site fee a fraction of that size. At some point USA Triathlon seemed to have gotten that memo and with all respect to St. Josephs, MO, and Shreveport, in 2007 and ’08 the race was placed at popular Hagg Lake in Oregon.

If you place Nats in a location people like, then they come. Here’s another image from Paul Phillips above from the 2010 race in Tuscaloosa that drew about 1,700 registrations for the combined Sprint and Olympic races.

In 2011 the race moved to Burlington, VT, and registration for combined Sprint and Olympic not only crossed 2,000 for the first time, it crossed 2,500. Word got around, and the 2nd year in Burlington the combined registrations crossed 3,500. Above is Lee Krohn's pic of that 2012 Burlington race.

Now Nationals was really on the map, and when the race moved to Milwaukee in 2013 the race modestly increased again, to 4,300. Milwaukee proved a hit with athletes and in 2014 combined registrations for Sprint and Oly topped 5,700. Below is a Phillips image of that 2014 race.

Notwithstanding the downturn in tri in the U.S. between 2013 and 2018, Milwaukee’s 3rd year still saw registrations above 5,000.

Another boon to Nationals was simply letting athletes know they’d qualified. This was not only marketing genius, it was good for the sport. Why say “no” to people when you can say “yes”? USAT has usually been pretty good at that.

But sometimes the Federation needs to relearn its lessons, and when Nationals moved to Omaha for 2016 and 2017 this location didn’t seem to capture the imaginations of those who qualified. Registrations for both races fell to below 4,000 and down to 3,600 by year-2. Below is a pic of the 2017 Omaha race by Archi Trujillo and you can see the difference in production quality from the early years to now. Still, the venue matters.

One might wonder if this was just a function of the sport’s attrition during a tough 5-year stretch? A move out of Omaha to Cleveland answered that, with an uptick in attendance by more than 50 percent. Which takes us to present.

While I don’t know, it’s my guess that Cleveland may be a little down in attendance for its second year. Last year the race had some bad luck. The swim was “brutal” for the Olympic, as the lake went from flat calm to bumpy swells, and the eventual swim appeared to measure quite long according to Slowtwichers. The swim was canceled for the Sprint. The bike course faced some logistical problems with road construction and the multi-lap run was congested.

This ought to be a good year for Nats, though, because USAT and the City solved a lot of the problems. The bike course road construction is complete; the run has been expanded to 1 loop; and some logistical parking issues have been solved.

USAT just announced a move to Milwaukee for next year and the year thereafter. Judging both from the historic registration numbers, and from the poll we just took of Slowtwitchers over the past week, Milwaukee is a good decision (it even outpolled, as you see, Burlington, which was a surprise to me).

There’s a discussion of the upcoming race in Cleveland on our Reader Forum, and another just a few days ago. There’s also a robust discussion of the move back to Milwaukee for the next 2 years.

If any qualifier wants to take advantage of this year’s event, registration is here. I confess I’m still noodling it myself. I’m on a Google Flights fair tickler. I just raced in the Federation’s Legacy Tri in Long Beach last week, and today I signed up for the Draft Legal Nats in Tempe this mid-November. (I find that these championship events the Federation is putting on are starting to appeal to me more than in the past.) Plus, I fly American and they just reduced our bike fees to regular checked luggage. Maybe I can squeeze one more race in.

I’m getting ready to sign up for another National Championship, this time in a single sport, and it’s a federation governing a sport much larger than triathlon. I’ll tell you now, this race is not going to be a fifth the size and the moxie of USAT’s triathlon Nationals. The U.S. NGB hasn't always made the wisest moves with this event, but it has lately, and when I compare it to the other Nationals I attend in other sports, well, let's just say I'm being a gentleman by not naming the other Nationals I'm signing up for today.