Kona Dreamin' with Zwift's Academy Tri Team

In only the second year of their Zwift Academy Tri Team program, the company whittled down thousands of applicants to select a final team of eight age-group athletes with the primary stated aim to get each to the starting line in Kona for the IRONMAN World Championships.

According to Craig Taylor, Director of Growth Marketing for Tri and Run at Zwift, "We want them to be great brand ambassadors but we looked at their personalities. Triathlon is an individual sport but we are trying to create a team."

Taking this approach meant Zwift was able to select athletes of different ages, each with unique personalities, and an even balance of men and women, all with the same goal of Kona qualification.

What does race week look like for these athletes provided the upmost support from some of the most respected brands in the sport? We embedded ourselves with the team in the days leading into their most important race of the season to find out what being an athlete on the Zwift Academy Tri Team was like.

Even though most of the athletes selected had incredibly strong race resumes, getting to the start line in Kona was far from a guarantee.

Only two of the athletes had already qualified for Kona prior to the March 2019 final team announcement. Great Britain's Ruth Purbrook won the 25-29 Kona age-group title in 2018 and American Maggie Walsh won IRONMAN Maryland overall despite it being her first ever triathlon. Otherwise, the remaining six selected athletes had to achieve qualification.

Great Britain's Paul Lunn and American Justin Lippert punched their tickets with relative ease at IRONMAN Cairns and IRONMAN UK respectively. Australian Levi Hauwet was the top age-grouper at IRONMAN Texas despite his bike frame cracking in transit and Canadian Yvonne Timewell and South African Natia Van Heerden both qualified at IRONMAN 70.3 Hawaii.

Despite having a 8:56 finish in Kona to his name, German Philipp Herber, was in jeopardy of missing out following a bike crash at Challenge Geraardsbergen that left him with a broken collarbone. In the final weekend possible at IRONMAN Copenhagen, Herber raced to an emphatic overall amateur win in 8:19.

Upon selection, athletes on the Zwift Academy Tri Team were provided incredible resources and support throughout the season from partners at Specialized, Wahoo, Roka and Science in Sport. Beyond receiving top notch products they were also plugged in with team mentors Sarah True and Tim Don, who served as sounding boards for the athletes throughout the season.

Taylor reiterated Zwift's increased commitment after year one of the program saying, "the first year was really a test to see if it was worthwhile and this is us showing we at Zwift believe in it. We put together a full force team to come here. From tech support to make sure their bikes are tuned up so they wouldn’t have to worry about any logistics and be able to focus on their race all the way to bringing out our content team to tell their stories to people back home."

On Wednesday morning our Slowtwitch crew met up with the orange-cladded team at the Kailua Pier at 6:00am. As we fully expected, each athlete had a bit different workout based on their own unique training schedule, with most opting to swim for 30-40 minutes mixing in various intervals.

It was evident within the first minutes of being introduced to the team, there was a genuine camaraderie between the athletes, with jokes flying between one another.

Taylor confirmed, "they are constantly chatting together on What’s App. Sarah and Tim are on there too and then the eight athletes. The banter back and forth, obviously they don’t race as a team on race day but the information sharing that goes on behind the scenes is pretty special."

After the seemingly obligatory stop at the Kona Coffee Boat on the way back to the pier, the group split up with some athletes staying in town for a run workout or to visit with family. The rest piled into a rental shuttle and zoomed ten miles out of town up the mountain in the vicinity of the infamous Kaloka climb to Zwift's race week rental property for breakfast.

Back at Zwift's palatial estate, where each of the eight athletes had their own guest houses, athletes met at the dining house where breakfast had been prepared by a chef and a bottomless pot of hot coffee was available. This was a common area where everyone ate, but also lounged about during spare moments throughout the day. Across the room from the meal table the content creation team staked out there space and were hard at work editing videos to send out across the company's social channels to relay the sights and sounds from inside the Zwift huddle to the outside world.

After breakfast, we tagged along with Purbrook and Timewell who were heading up the main house which had been converted into a Zwift workout studio. Four Wahoo KICKR trainers were set up inside with two treadmills out on the balcony, all running Zwift workouts of course. Purbrook had an hour ride on schedule with a mixture of hard intervals, and periods of easy pedaling.

Out on the balcony, Timewell and True ran next to one another, in what appeared to be a casual pace as the two chatted away.

In what appeared to be the most intense workout of the day, Lunn had a series of high intensity interval efforts.

Near the end of Lunn's workout, the youngest team member, Lippert rigged his bike up to the neighboring station. It was during this brief overlap Taylor pointed out Lunn is a father to four kids, and also a grandfather, while Lippert represented the brash up-and-comer having just turned 23 yet with five age group short distance national championship titles to his name.

Both Zwift and Specialized brought mechanics to Kona with them to ensure athletes had equipment in excellent working shape. Here Ian Gonzalez gets a wheel ready for an athlete.

Newly launched over the summer, Specialized brought S-Works Turbo Rapid Air tubeless tires for any athlete wanting to go the route most of the top pros are gravitating towards.

After her sunrise swim, Walsh was content to spend the rest of the day resting and hanging with her four year old daughter Fiona at the pool. Kona will be Walsh's third triathlon, following two overall first place finishes at IRONMAN Maryland and IRONMAN Boulder. The 37 year old newcomer to triathlon was a competitive high school swimmer and more recently a top ultra runner.

The Zwift Academy Tri Team set aside time to attend the Slowtwitch Gathering in town.

While most of the team went back up to the house to get ready for dinner, Herber opted for a sunset swim in Kailua Bay, a 30 minute dip with a series of 30-60 race pace efforts.

Meals and snacks all week were prepared by Annie Thoren from Sweden. At the family-style dinner, Gonzalez and Don jokingly share the meaning of the word doppelganger.

After dinner it is all about relaxing and enjoying one another's company.

Taylor is not only one of the Zwift Academy Tri Team directors, he is also racing Kona for the second straight year, having qualified in April at IRONMAN Texas.

Do you aspire to race in Kona? The Zwift Academy Tri Team already has over 5400 sign ups for their 2020 program. Click here for more details.

All photos taken by Aaron Palaian.