Under My Wing Triathlon Summit

Angela Naeth can hardly contain her excitement as she races through the middle of her story so she can deliver the punch line. She is telling our table about a recent trip back to Colorado from her hometown of Prince George, British Columbia. Before flying home, her father - an avid year round fisherman - filled her suitcase with frozen salmon, enough for the pint sized triathlon star to feast off for the upcoming months. However, going through customs upon reentering the US, an agent flagged her and questioned her about the contents in her bag, expressing dismay that she was lugging a whopping 39 pounds of frozen fish filets across the border.

Naeth’s boyfriend, Tim Snow, a former pro triathlete now the head coach at Boston-based QT2 Systems, interrupts the laughter by suggesting they had packed enough filets so they wouldn’t have to go back and visit again for awhile.

“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” says Snow, in his thick Boston accent.

Naeth and Snow aren’t the only ones thankful to be sitting here in Boulder on the 6th floor at the University of Colorado’s Performance and Sports Medicine Center, a stunning view with sun glistening on the majestic Flatirons serving as a backdrop. 16 college student athletes from around the country are taking up the remaining half-dozen tables in the room and are busy shoveling down breakfast after a rigorous morning swim session, swapping stories from the previous evening’s kickoff to Red Bull’s Under My Wing triathlon summit.

The popular Full Cycle bike shop recently converted half their show floor into a bar, over a dozen local craft beer on the menu, ideal for hosting after hours shindigs like the one we are all here for. So while the adults sip on local brews recommended by the bartender from Upslope and Avery, the under-21’s in the room listen intently as Naeth takes the stage and reveals the program for the upcoming days.

The Red Bull Under My Wing summit is part of a global initiative from the world’s leading energy drink company to connect with a younger generation of athletes, offering the most advanced technical expertise from leading experts in the sport. Athletes like Naeth, a long-time Red Bull sponsored athlete, did the heavy lifting behind the scenes to bring this all inclusive, no-stone-left-unturned learning opportunity together for the selected students.

Naeth stands in front of the students and explains her inspiration to host the camp. She didn’t find triathlon until 2008, a few years after graduating from college, where she was a middle distance runner and completed a degree in physical therapy. Much of her early sporting career had been trial by fire, gaining experience while learning hard lessons along the way. Despite her late start and early career obstacles, she persevered, and the 17-time Ironman 70.3 winner has twice dipped under the nine hour mark in an Ironman and won the Ironman North American Championship in 2015.

This summit intends to provide the student athletes with learning opportunities to gain world class insight from leading experts in wide range of categories like swim technique, physiological and metabolic testing, bike fit, diet and nutrition and everything in between. The way Naeth sees it, to avoid pitfalls she struggled with during different stages of her career.

After laying out the ground rules for the summit, Naeth introduces Ben Kanute, a Rio Olympian and 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championship runner-up, as a special camp guest for the week. The 25 year-old American graduated from University of Arizona in three years and was a two-time collegiate national champ during that time and is here to share his own experiences having balanced studies and sport at a high level during his time in college.

Over a hundred applicants were carefully reviewed and Red Bull selected 16 students who they determined showed aptitude as high achievers in their academic lives and a passion to better themselves on their journey as triathletes.

In a scene reminiscent of a freshman college orientation, students march up to the front of the room and one by one and answer a handful of questions, some serving as icebreakers (What was the first concert you went to? Taylor Swift the most common answer) and others with the intent to showcase the diverse backgrounds of the group (What challenge have you had to overcome? Lots of previous injuries in this group).

The cap on the night was a Goldsprints elimination style roller tournament. Naeth and Kanute faced off first and despite a two second head start, Kanute finished the 250m sprint ahead of the camp hostess. Two at a time, students took their turns spinning as fast as their legs would take them, while the Goldsprints’ hype men coaxed them to “remember to breathe” while injecting a healthy and entertaining dose of ridicule too.

Eli Pugh had a leg up on the rest of his peers and the 6’5 computer science major from Stanford went undefeated on the men’s side, before challenging and beating Kanute as part of his victory lap. On the women’s side, Paisley Sheehan from the University of Colorado was unchallenged amongst her peers and then outsprinted Naeth in the final match of the night. The biggest cheers though belonged to John Terrell from North Texas, a Paratriathlete who lost his left arm in a car accident a few years earlier. His sporting background as a bmx racer came in handy on the fixed gear bikes and Terrell held the lead early before Pugh pipped him at the line in their quarter-final match up.

Day 1

There was no time to let the fatigue of being at altitude (Boulder’s elevation is 5430 feet) seep in as the morning kicked off with a swim session. Snow was on the coaching deck of the Carlson Pool and put students through an hour practice focused on dramatic pace changes. No set featured more than a 100 yard rep. Easy swims were instructed to be exceedingly easy and faster sets were to be done at top end speed. A game within a game ensued in the quickest lane with those pushing off the wall last fighting tooth and nail to keep from getting lapped by Kanute. Unable to hold off Kanute while leaving at 5 second gaps, Snow encouraged athletes through a set of fast 100’s to “swim on one another’s feet and hold on”. The session ended with a vertical kicking set in the deepest part of the pool culminating with hands and elbows raised overhead. 30 tortuous seconds based on the contorted facial shapes and guttural noises coming from the students.

After the hour long swim it was straight up to breakfast on the top floor of CU’s Sports Medicine and Performance Center where they were prepped on the schedule for the day. Athletes broke into four groups of four and spent an hour at each of the four coaching and testing stations.

“Swimming is like surfing and salsa dancing,” exclaimed world class swimmer and technique instructor Eney Jones, as she worked together with Julia Mace from Cal Poly.

Jones worked on stroke technique with each athlete in the SwimLab flume offering up a seemingly endless array of drills, each with their own creative nickname (aka Eneyism) so not to be forgotten (Monkey Punch Drill, Mullet Swimming, Happy Family and Pirate Breathing were all frequently used Eneyisms). Jones pointing out visual cues being captured by the 360 cameras from the SwimLabs flume. Jones was so dynamic while pointing out visual cues being captured by the 360 degree flume cameras she tasked Naeth and Kanute to serve as notetakers so each athlete could take the notes home to refer back to their lesson.

On the same expansive floor down the hall, Matthew Schafer, a mechanical engineering student at University of Michigan, stands under DARI and stretches his arms overhead and bends down in a squat at the request of Jess Elliott. The motion capture system is being used to track his natural body movement patterns, detecting where injuries might occur or where imbalances are present. Exercises are then prescribed to each student to focus on strengthening or stretching those highlighted areas.

Across the hallway in a cycling studio with World Champion and Tour de France winners jerseys lining the walls, University of Santa Barbara’s Alexandra Romanova is the midst of a blood lactate threshold test. Every few minutes the intensity increases and exercise physiologist Jared Berg pricks her earlobe with a needle so blood samples can be captured and later analyzed.

Each athlete gets a turn at this session to establish their unique athlete profile and then spends a few minutes with Ryan Kohler, Director of the Performance Center and the former BMC Mountain Bike Team Director - discussing how to apply those values into training zones for them to use in their training once back home.

Sufficiently knackered with the promise of another full day ahead, students bypass the temptations of downtown Pearl Street and head back to the hotel where some plopped down in the lobby to play Euchre while the majority retreated back to their rooms in anticipation of another big day.

Day Two

Back on the pool deck at 6:15AM to start the second day of camp, Snow debates whether to put in the lane ropes today. He decides against it in order to keep the pool churning, more closely resembling an open water swim environment.

The main set today is a broken mile (16x100’s) each rep faster than the previous one. Halfway through the set Kanute has already started catching those pushing off last in the fast lane and Snow starts fidgeting and knows he needs to adapt the set on the fly. “No gap. Stay on feet. Go,” he barks out, trying to give those falling off the pace a chance to make the interval by swimming in the wake created by the person in front. This works and everyone looks flogged at the end of the set.

Snow ends the workout with a set of race simulation starts where each swimmer sculls in place a few feet off the wall before churning out a series of fast 50’s and topped off with two mass start 25’s with all 16 students starting at once occupying every available inch of the width of the pool. Once down, everyone clears the pool deck unscathed and the race up to the breakfast room is in full swing.

Waiting on the 6th floor for the students is QT2 Systems owner and Core Diet founder Jesse Kropelnicki. A former bodybuilder turned endurance athlete, Kropelnicki is not a dietician himself but has two on his staff, but has experience in spades and personally works with 13 pros, including both Kanute and Naeth. He hammers home the importance proper diet and nutrition have on endurance athletic performance and overall healthy living.

After wrapping up his talk on nutrition, Kropelnicki is peppered for an extra 30 minutes with lingering questions students had from their previous days testing, and he shares insights into putting together a comprehensive yet workable training plan soup to nuts. Afterall, Kropelnicki and his coaching staff shepherd hundreds of age-groupers and pros through the rigors of cycling, triathlon and even ultra running programs.

Fueled up following breakfast, students take the elevator down to the second floor and break out in groups applying lessons from the first day towards a series of workouts followed by a recovery and stretching session.

Kohler has a treat for those starting in the cycling studio, offering up a custom designed 90 minute Sufferfest workout. The workout gives athletes the taste of various efforts using the wattage zones determined from the previous day testing. During the most intense efforts, bike fit specialist, Brian Hughes, observes and takes notes of the riding style and position athletes gravitate towards.

Later in the afternoon, the FIST certified fitter and owner of Boston-based Fast:Splits triathlon store, spends time with each student working towards practical bike fit solutions.

In an adjoining room, local bodywork specialist Dan Meinerz, takes athletes through a range of stretches, emphasizing areas perpetually tight amongst triathletes including hamstrings, glutes and shoulders.

Following the end of the afternoon sessions while students are packing up bikes to get ready for the next day’s return home, Naeth announces a surprise visitor is waiting for them in the conditioning room for one final class. As they arrive in the room they find reigning Steeplechase World Champion Emma Coburn sitting on a step aerobics bench. Coburn, a Red Bull sponsored athlete herself and a recent Colorado grad, spends the next 45 minutes leading the students through her personal strength and conditioning routine, an intense series of functional movements, holds and stretches using only bodyweight.

Faced with the impossible task of topping the workout with Coburn, Naeth and Red Bull staff called it a day, and the hungry students piled into the designated camp shuttle affectionately dubbed “Church Van” and were shuttled downtown to Pearl Street where they were treated to a sushi dinner at Hapa’s.

Day Three

No trip to Boulder and Colorado’s Front Range could be considered complete without a hike. Naeth and Snow selected Mt. Sanitas for the incredible views back into Boulder, to see where the mountains meet the plains, an inspiring way to end the activity portion of the camp.

Once safely down the mountain and back at the hotel, students piled into a conference room and each found in their designated chair, a Polar M200 heart rate watch, to be used to more accurately track their training values once back home.

Waiting for the students on a Skype conference call is Human Performance Specialist and bestselling author Dr. Craig Manning. His book The Fearless Mind: 5 Essential Steps to Higher Performance coupled with mental coaching sessions had helped Naeth navigate through a difficult 18 months between 2015 and 2017 when she was sidelined with a series of foot injuries. Manning encouraged students to take action upon returning home and together the group put together a framework of how to apply the knowledge and insight gleaned over the past few days into daily actionable steps.

While not every student has the goal of a podium placement or even a high finish, they all suggested USAT’s Collegiate Club Nationals on April 27 & 28 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama is their primary focus this season and that triathlon is a sport they envisioned keeping as a significant part of their lifestyle through their college career and beyond. If this group is any indication of the future generation of athletes coming up through our sport, triathlon has a very bright future.