In his father’s footsteps

His friends at the University of Colorado in Boulder simply call him Rudy, although he has a name fit for a nobleman – Rodolphe Von Berg - shared with his father. His father had the passion for this new sport and the guts to abandon a budding career as a commodities trader in New York to become a professional triathlete at age 28. His dad was also a triathlon trailblazer in Belgium who scored a top 20 finish at Ironman Hawaii in 1986. This passion and courage were passed on to his son, who became entranced with the sport at the age of five when he watched his father win the 40-44 crown at Kona. Although that joy was marred by an unfortunate row regarding tickets to the awards ceremony, Rodolphe envisions a long term goal where he will find his place on the Kona podium.

Now, at the age of 20, Rodolphe Von Berg has made an excellent start toward his dreams in the sport. As a sophomore at CU Boulder, he won the overall title at the USA Triathlon Collegiate Nationals in March and followed that with an impressive 4th place at St. Anthony’s 5i50 in April against a tough professional field that included five Olympians. After four podiums in 5i50 races this year, he has already qualified for the $500,000 Hy-Vee 5i50 championship and has his hopes set on advancing through the ITU ranks from Continental Cups to World Cups and on to the World Triathlon Series.

Those hopes are not just wishful thinking. He makes the front pack in 5i50 swims, stays with the pro leaders on the bike leg, and has a low 31-minute 10k run. For now and perhaps the foreseeable future, he competes for Italy as his mother shares Italian and U.S. citizenship. Born in Columbus, Georgia, he also has U.S. and Italian passports. He grew up near Cannes on the French Riviera, and thus has a facility with the French, Italian and English languages as well as his father’s tall frame and handsome good looks.

Slowtwitch: What do you know about your father and triathlon?

Rodolphe Von Berg: My dad had some good Hawaii performances. He finished 17th overall in at Ironman Hawaii in 1986 [in a time of 9:35:22.]. He won his age group in 1998 in 40-44 [41st overall in 9:23:57]. And I think he won the TriFed US National championship in 1986 at the Ironman distance.

ST: How did your farther come to the U.S. from Belgium?

Rodolphe: He attended Babson College in the U.S., graduated in 1983 and started triathlon. He then got a job as a commodities trader in New York but gave it up to pursue a professional triathlon career full time in 1984 at the age of 28.

ST: What did the guys on Wall Street think about that?

Rodolphe: I don’t know. Probably thought he was crazy. But eventually he entered the Harvard MBA program and graduated in 1992. Now he works in finance – and continues to compete in age group triathlon.

ST: What led you to sports?

Rodolphe: I have always been attracted to action and movement. I did not like to sit down and I could not stay still. So I did a lot of sports from the time I was 7 years old -- tennis, soccer, football, basketball, running, swimming, skiing and biking.

ST: How old were you when you did your first triathlon?

Rodolphe: My first was the Antibes Triathlon in France when I was 10 years old and it was also my first victory. I was also doing a lot of bike races and cross country running all around the region. It was all in clubs near Cannes where we lived because sports were not linked to school at all.

ST: How good were you?

Rodolphe: I was always up there in contention.

ST: What led you to choose triathlon over all the other sports?

Rodolphe: What triggered my attraction to triathlon was a trip to Kona in 1998 where my father won his age group in the Hawaii Ironman. When I got older, I finally had to make choices in order to become very competitive in one field instead of remaining simply good or even very good in all of them. So I chose triathlon.

ST: What was the first race you established yourself on a regional or national level?

Rodolphe: The first I can think of -- I was second in the French junior national duathlon championship when I was 16.

ST: Did your dad coach you?

Rodolphe: Obviously we talked a lot about training. But he didn’t have an overall plan for me.

ST: Did that duathlon medal spur you on?

Rodolphe: Yeah. I won many races when I was younger, but they were just small races. That was the first national race. It is funny because I realized that every time you do well in a bigger race, you are always thinking about the next step, and moving on to a higher level.

ST: Why did you choose the University of Colorado?

Rodolphe: I chose Boulder because the CU team was number 1 the past few years at the USA Triathlon Collegiate Championships And because Boulder is the triathlon mecca and because of the beauty of the place. I always knew I’d come study in the US because my dad had such a good experience here. And for me Boulder was the only choice.

ST: Did your dad ever live in Boulder?

Rodolphe: Not in Boulder. But he worked and trained and raced in the US. So that was the plan.

ST: What are you studying and why?

Rodolphe: Business. I think it will help me build a career in triathlon.

ST: After that first big duathlon medal, what was your next experience at the national level?

Rodolphe: Actually I didn’t do very well in triathlon at first. I had a lot of problems with my stomach and I still have to be very careful with it. I used to have a lot of cramps on the run, but only in triathlon coming off the bike.

ST: What was the reason?

Rodolphe: My psoas was very tight so that would cramp. So I did a whole winter of stretching my psoas. Then I had a problem with my diaphragm where it would cramp coming off the bike, also in triathlon.

ST: Why did this happen?

Rodolphe: My whole body is very tight.

ST: But your personality is very relaxed.

Rodolphe: Maybe inside I am more stressed and my muscles are tight.

ST: What have you done to adapt for the run after the bike?

Rodolphe: When I am biking, my diaphragm just stays in the upper position. I have learned to do some special breathing near the end of the bike which helps to push down the diaphragm into the right place for the run. In order to make sure it is in the correct lower position, I feel my diaphragm with my fingers while I am breathing. Otherwise, my diaphragm cramps when I start to run. It is like a big warm up stretch before the run.

ST: Have you ever had a professional bike fitting?

Rodolphe: I was thinking of it, but not this season. I never had any professional advice on that. So I look to have an aggressive position – but not crazy.

ST: Have you sought out any coaches here?

Rodolphe: I was thinking about working with the athletes I am training with at the Flatirons pool. But I never really did that. I was thinking of getting a real coach who would give me weekly plans. But for now, with all the studying, it was more practical not to. As long as I am improving, I like to be self-coached.

ST: Who do you work out with?

Rodolphe: I am on the CU Triathlon team and I have a few running buddies -- Kory Skattum, my roommate Davide Giardini, Nick Noone and Tommy Alter – all recent CU triathlon guys.

ST: Who do you ride with?

Rodolphe: I am usually alone or with Davide. Sometimes on the weekends I ride with some of the pros -- Tim Don, Drew Scott and some others. And I swim at the Flatirons Club – that is where everybody goes.

ST: Who runs those swim workouts?

Rodolphe: Either Wolfgang [Dittrich] or Dave Scott. Those are the two main ones. And Simon [Lessing].

ST: Do they ever give you help on your stroke form?

Rodolphe: They give some advice, but nothing very detailed.

ST: How is your swim?

Rodolphe: It has improved a lot. I used to be weak on the swim. I've been working a lot on it and I am still working on it. For ITU races I still have to swim very fast. But in 5i50s it is pretty much first group every time. [in his most recent ITU race in Holten, Von Berg was well off the leaders on the swim. But at St. Anthony’s, he was in the first chase pack].

ST: How did you do your first time out at the USA Triathlon Collegiate Nationals?

Rodolphe: Last year I came 4th. [first CU team member, 45 seconds behind winner Ben Kanute]

ST: Who were some of your teammates?

Rodolphe: Chris Braden, Davide Giardini, Rudy Kahsar and Drew Scott were on it a few years ago.

ST: You probably had some nice track workouts with the CU team?

Rodolphe: Yeah it is a really good group, a fun group. We are all friends. That is why I am planning on being on the team next year again.

ST: How did your 2013 season go?

Rodolphe: Last year I had a stress fracture in the femur that took me out at the end of May through all of June. My first race back was the Italian non drafting championship in Iseo and I won it.

ST: Tell me about USA Triathlon Collegiate nationals this year?

Rodolphe: I knew my form was good. I believed I could win.

ST: Why?

Rodolphe: One thing that helped - I got shin splints in January this year and I stopped running for three weeks. And so for a while my mileage was pretty low on the run. I think that helped. I was training a little but my legs were pretty springy and I was feeling good on all the training runs and races.

ST: After your enforced rest, did you ramp up your training?

Rodolphe: After I recovered from the shin splints I got in much more training than last year. My body was able to manage heavier workloads and so I had big, big training weeks. The year started very well with a 31:16 personal best at the Prom Classic 10k in Nice. And then I won at Collegiate Regionals at Lake Havasu in March.

ST: So you knew you were in form. How close was your opposition at Collegiate Nationals?

Rodolphe: We got of the bike in a little group including Bill Jones, Steve Mantell, Tyler Rodgers and a few other guys. And then it was Bill Jones and me on the run pretty much.

ST: When did you break him?

Rodolphe: After a mile or two, I just ran alone and finished with a pretty good gap.

[Von Berg combined a 13th-best 18:19 swim, a 13th-best 51:29 bike split and finished with a 5th–fastest 33:12 run that brought him to the finish in 1:44:41 with a 1:24 margin of victory over Jones.]

ST: What did your family say about your win – the race you call your proudest moment?

Rodolphe: My parents were in France and when they heard about it they were really proud and super happy.

ST: You had a few races against afterwards that might have been more impressive.

Rodolphe: After that I went to St. Anthony’s 5i50. That was a big race and I placed 4th overall. It was a good field [five Olympians] and I was surprised with my result. Going there I told myself I’d be very happy with a top 10.

ST: Take me through your preparation and the race itself.

Rodolphe: First thing, I was still studying for finals through May and I was trying not to race too much. I had three weeks between Collegiate Nationals to St. Anthony’s. And before that, I had another three weeks with no races. So there were good gaps which made for good training.

ST: How did your race develop at St. Anthony’s?

Rodolphe: I had a good swim and I managed to stay with the main chase pack on the bike. There were so many strong cyclists nobody could drop anybody.

ST: Did you ever try to break away?

Rodolphe: At the start of the bike I started moving up. But then I saw I was just losing energy and there was no point in it. So I stayed in the back and waited for the run.

ST: Off the bike what position were you?

Rodolphe: About 10th, I would say.

ST: Were you discouraged?

Rodolphe: No. Cam Dye was 45 seconds in front, but the second guy was not even 10 seconds in front of me. When I started the run, I was with a lot of strong guys -- Hunter Kemper, Tim O’Donnell, Greg Bennett and Jimmy Seear.

ST: Was it exciting to be in the mix with the stars?

Rodolphe: Oh it was great. I was just feeling good. It was very motivating.

ST: How confident were you?

Rodolphe: At Collegiate Nationals I ran 33:10 but that was not 100 percent -- I had a big lead. So at St. Anthony’s I was feeling good, running well and passing people.

ST: You must have felt you were living the dream?

Rodolphe: Really. I was thinking to myself, ‘Wow, I am running with these guys. I am feeling good. I could do well.’ I kept reminding myself that I really have to push this.

ST: You had a little conversation with yourself?

Rodolphe: Yeah. It is always to push myself harder. A funny thing is, I always think of the Brownlees. They are always hurting so much. So I was saying to myself ‘I am not hurting enough. I should be hurting like the Brownlees.’

ST: Ever meet them?

Rodolphe: No. I have just seen them on TV. But I read the book [Swim, Bike, Run: Our Triathlon Story] they wrote about training.

ST: Would you like to have a brother like Jonathan to train with?

Rodolphe: Yes. But it would not be so good for racing. Because the Brownlees are always their own biggest rivals.

ST: Did any of those top guys talk to you after the race at St. Anthony’s?

Rodolphe: TO was cool. He congratulated me and told me it was a breakthrough race for me.

ST: What happened in races after that?

Rodolphe: At Memphis in May 5i50, I put together a pretty good run and I was second to Jimmy Seear. Then I did the ITU PATCO sprint race in Mexico. The field was not as good, but it was still some quality ITU guys. It was very, very hot and I didn’t feel that good. So I was pretty happy with 5th, [25 seconds behind the winner] and got some points for the ITU list.

ST: What are your immediate goals?

Rodolphe: In the near future, I would like to qualify for and do some WTS races.

ST: School is out until August. What are you doing this summer?

Rodolphe: Right now I am going to Europe so I will race Continental Cups in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain. If I do well, I could earn some points which would lead me to get selected for some World Cups. When I get a lot of points and good results in those races, it will qualify me to race in the World Triathlon Series. In addition, I am taking an online class – I usually do that to spread out my credits and catch up because I usually take less than 15 credits /semester (15 is the number you need per semester to finish in four years).

ST: You are now racing for Italy. Do you have Italian relatives?

Rodolphe: I don’t feel very Italian. My grandparents used to live there and my mother is Italian and American. I am American also -- and I am thinking of making the switch to racing for the US.

ST: What are the pros and cons for the two national programs?

Rodolphe: The Italians are not being very supportive right now. But that is mainly on me, because I don’t have a lot of ITU points. Right now I compete for Italy and Andrea Gabba is my coordinator.

ST: You still have decision to make in the short run?

Rodolphe: Yes. I will probably decide for next season. It is important for sponsors to know for which country I will race. Since all the sponsor stuff gets done in August and September, I will have to decide at that point.

ST: I hear you have a lot of sponsors.

Rodolphe: Willier, Powerbar, Rudy Project, Santini, fi’zi:k, Vision, Mavic, Continental and also and Sordello Cycles. Management is taken care of by Sport Time.

ST: Has anyone from USAT spoken to you?

Rodolphe: No. [Because Von Berg is competing for Italy, USA Triathlon is not allowed to contact him] I am not sure anybody knows I am American. I was born in the U.S. I have an American passport. But Italy has a pretty good team now and the U.S. men are not as strong as they once were. So that could be a factor in which nation I will choose going forward. The main thing now is that is living in the US is much easier.

ST: What do you like about the US?

Rodolphe: I probably feel more American than Italian because I live here and I can identify with Americans.

ST: Your slight accent marks you as European. Do your friends here accept you as a fellow American?

Rodolphe: For them I am definitely foreign. But I don’t think it is a problem.

ST: What are your long term triathlon goals?

Rodolphe: Long term would be Hawaii. That is a shining star.

ST: Do you remember watching your dad race at Hawaii?

Rodolphe: I went with my dad and watched him race three times already. My first time [1998] I was five years old. That was very exciting obviously. Probably that is the bigger shining star.

ST: Your dad had an unfortunate confrontation with Kona race officials after the 1998 race. The issue was tickets to the awards banquet. Do you recall much about it?

Rodolphe: I was five years old and I don’t really remember much. I heard he got banned from Ironman races for a while afterward. I was told they didn’t have enough tickets for our family and they wouldn’t let us in.

ST: Do you have any sense of injustice about this?

Rodolphe: I would have to know more details. I was young and I don’t have a strong feeling about it.

ST: How proud are you of your dad?

Rodolphe: Super proud about how he built his whole lifestyle around triathlon and his dedication to the sport. I am proud of how hard he worked for triathlon, how he trained and how he raced. I learned a lot from that.

ST: How far does he think you can go in the sport?

Rodolphe: My father thinks I can win Hawaii. So he believes in me at least. That's good.

ST: Do you have a girlfriend?

Rodolphe: No. It is hard to find a girl in the college that is doing the same stuff. Most of the girls have a very different lifestyle. They party a lot. So no girl for now.

ST: You are not out partying every night?

Rodolphe: I party also. But more in the off season, in October and November. Then when races come, I don’t party any more.

ST: When do you feel happiest?

Rodolphe: Pretty much when I am racing, doing well and feeling the good form coming. People always ask me, ‘When do you like to let go? Just party and go to bed at 4 AM?’ I say that is not what makes me happy in life. I like to go to races, beat everybody and improve.