Mission "Grow Triathlon" with USAT president Barry Siff | EP#21
Barry Siff is the president of USA Triathlon, and serves as member of the board of the International Triathlon Union (ITU) and the American Triathlon Confederation (CAMTRI).
He has been an integral part of the multisport scene since 1986 years as an athlete, race organizer, writer and executive leader. As an athlete Siff completed his first marathon in 1981 before turning to triathlon five years later while living in Omaha, Nebraska. He has finished more than 60 marathons and 10 IRONMAN triathlons, and was a full-time adventure racer from 1998-2003.
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- The current status of triathlon in the US and worldwide, and how our sport is facing competition from new sports like obstacle racing and Tough Mudder.
- USAT:s strategy for growing triathlon in the US.
- Barry's role in ITU, and what the ITU does for triathlon.
- Adventure racing, and Barry's years racing full time.
- Barry's prediction for what triathlon will be like 10 years from now.
- President of the USAT, Board member of ITU and CAMTRI
- Successful business career until 1998
- Then did adventure racing professionally for several years
- Started triathlon in 1986, was triathlete for 30 years, came from a marathon background
What is ITU and USAT?
- ITU stands for the International Triathlon Union and is the governing body of triathlon in the world. It is recognized by the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and is the reason why triathlon got into the Olympics in 2000.
- The ITU was started in 1989 by Les McDonald with Loreen Barnett and a few others up in Canada. They helped this sport become legit and get into the Olympics. They established rules and requirements. ITU has a president, Marisol Casado, who also happens to be very high up and involved in the international Olympic movement. She is the highest ranking female executive in the Olympic sports, which is very, very impressive.
- From day one, the ITU has been extremely based on gender equality. We have rules in place. I don’t even think we need the rules because we live by it and that is having the right number of females and males on the board and on our committees. Every committee must have a mix of males and females. It is pretty awesome how it is run.
- We have a couple of board meetings every year and I also sit at the liaison to the multi-sport committee which oversees duathlon, long-course, aqua bike, and aquathlon. I am also on the liaison to the Women’s Committee which I’m proud of.
- We meet periodically and I just had a meeting in Korea where we decided where winter triathlon championships will be in 2018, and discussed the relationship between ITU and Ironman.
- We also set the rules for the sport, the governing rules for most of the national federations. There are something like 140 countries that are represented by the ITU. When we were in Madrid, 120 of those countries were there and voted. It is a hugely international organization and we are all about growing the sport.
- The main focus is the Olympics but we go way beyond that.
- The USA Triathlon is our national federation and is the largest by far in the world and the strongest in terms of membership.
- It is a pretty big organization. Where most of these federations around the world might have volunteers for staff, we have 55 people in our office in Colorado Springs, we have a full-time large staff and we have 175,000 annual members and 350,000 who do at least 1 to 3 events a year and pay different fees for that.
- We touch half a million people here in the Unites States a year. It gets complicated. This week for example, we had our national collegiate championships and we had 1,500 college students, university students, competing. I think there were over 100 universities represented.
- We do things like youth activities, youth races, it is a pretty complicated organization and our board of directors kind of oversees that and sets the direction and makes sure we are going in the right direction.
What does the USAT do?
"That is a very timely question. Next week, our board is meeting in Colorado Springs to finalize our strategic plans for the next couple of years and it is very, very, very focused on youth, women, and short-course racing."
- Youth, because that is the future of our sport. We see a lot of kids in swim programs, we see a lot kids out there doing other exercise and we are going after that youth market in a very, very aggressive way and putting money behind that.
- Women, we recognize that the running community, at least at the half marathon distance, is more than 50%, close to 62% women and a large number of runners ultimately become triathletes. So we are making a very concerted approach to running races to attract women to triathlon and we are going to have a very robust marketing campaign in that regard.
- And lastly, short course racing. I think just the bottom line is, you know, I love Ironman, I mean, I’m one of those guys in 1997 who got an Ironman tattoo on my shoulder after doing Ironman Germany.
"I love Ironman, but we have got to redefine triathlon as triathlon. It is not just Ironman."
What is the current status of triathlon in the United States?
- I have been talking about it a lot lately because after many years of really good growth in triathlon we have kind of flattened out a little bit, in fact saw a little bit of decline last year.
- It is not super surprising, cycling and running have seen a decline in participation in the United States more so than we have and we attribute that pretty solidly to the number of options that have come out here in the States and I’m pretty sure around the world, just a lot of ways to be fit.
- Crossfit is extremely popular, some of the obstacle racing, Spartan racing, tough mudder, things like that which are awesome you know. I am all about getting people fit and healthy and it is great that people are active, but as a result I think they are maybe doing little less triathlon, running, cycling and doing different things. You know, yoga is very popular.
- I think we are facing a little bit of a challenge now to get that sport growing again and that is why I mentioned our strategic planning efforts which we have some solid plans on again how to grow our sport even more here in the States and internationally.
How does that compare flattening or declining participation rate in the US compare to the rest of the world? Is the same phenomenon present in other parts of the world as well?
- No, I am hearing in some spots, where it is probably more mature, like some parts of Europe, maybe a little bit in Australia and New Zealand, but generally around the world it is growing.
- Obviously Asia is a big target right now having the Wanda group out of China buying Ironman. Ironman right now is a huge focus in China and throughout Asia. I think there is going to be great growth outside North America which is fantastic. The sport is definitely growing worldwide, there is no doubt about it.
- I was on the phone yesterday with an American who is in Ethiopia and she helped working on and did a triathlon in Ethiopia a couple of weeks ago.
- One of our commitments here in the United States is to help grow triathlon in Africa and I think we are going to see that over the coming years.
- South America is definitely growing and ITU is really doing a good job of developing triathlon around the world.
- Cuba is another really good example where five or six years ago I don’t know if there was much triathlon and now you know they have a very strong triathlon federation, putting on some great races. They had one about a month or so ago, that had a thousand or so people, many from the United States and Canada and elsewhere.
- Definitely the sports is strong, it is growing, ITU is providing great leadership. Here in the Unites States, we just got a lot going on.
Do you think that one of the reasons that millennials are not getting into triathlon as much as they could and we want them to, is that for people that are maybe still studying or have recently graduated that the cost is prohibitive from starting triathlon because maybe they believe that you need a $5,000 bike to participate, what is your thought on that?
- We definitely see the economics as a barrier to triathlon. It is a problem and it is one of those reasons why our marketing efforts are also going to show how easy it is to get into triathlon
"You don’t have to do an Ironman, you don’t have to have a $5,000 bike and you don’t have to train 20 hours a week."
- You can go out and on 6 or 8 hours a week, doing a couple of workouts, doing a couple of runs, a couple of swims, a couple of bikes. You can easily do a sprint triathlon in a short period of time, I think that is very important.
- As far as understanding and figuring out the millennials, good luck with that. I have been to conferences and I have read lots about it, between Jody and I we have four sons who come close to falling in that range, and you know they are all over the board. They are enjoying life, having fun, doing a lot of different things, nothing with a strong commitment. I think it is awesome but none of our kids personify what a triathlete would be or do.
- That is a challenging area and that is why we are not focusing on the millennials quite frankly, that is why we are looking at youth, younger generations. When we talk youth, we’re talking high school and younger, you know teenagers. Not people in their 20s or early 30s because quite frankly I can’t figure them out and I don’t know anyone who has really defined what attracts them.
- Economics is certainly an issue.
- We know that there is a social factor, I shouldn’t totally say we don’t understand. It is about community, it is about social, it is about doing things with friends. That is another thing I am emphasizing, so a race I am associated with here in Tucson, it is only going to be relay teams. You can’t sign up for this event as an individual, you have to be on a relay team, a three-person team. We are trying to capitalize on this concept of community which I think is important to millennials and to others.
On the flip side of things though, you havea really excellent elite development program, can you talk a bit about that and how you have grown that program to become so successful?
"We felt that if you can find a great swimmer, a collegiate-level swimmer with a collegiate level running background or strong high school cross-country, get that person, help develop them and teach them how to bike because they have the engine already, and teach them the biking skills and they might be successful."
- Absolutely, I am really proud of that because we haven’t been the strongest country necessarily in the world competitively over the years when you look at Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Great Britain, etc.
- Since the Olympics started 18 years ago until this last one, we only had one bronze medal and we have put together a really fine development program here in the States.
- We had Barb Lindquist, one of our Olympians from years past, one of the great swimmers in our sport. We put her in charge of this task of finding great swim runners.
- Our collegiate program here, if there is anyone who listens to any of the ITU races or watches them online or on tv, listens to Barry Shepley talk about our university swim programs and we have hundreds and hundreds and thousands of colleges across the United States with great swim programs.
- We felt that if you can find a great swimmer, a collegiate level swimmer with a collegiate level running background or strong high school cross-country, get that person, help develop them and teach them how to bike because they have the engine already and teach them the biking skills and they might be successful.
- It has definitely happened and certainly the best example is Gwen Jorgensen, who was founded in this what we call college recruitment program. Others would be Katie Zaferes, Renee Tomlin, Kirsten Kasper, Summer Cook, these are all great collegiate swim runners who have come up through our program.
- It has made our program the best in the world, the strongest in the world. We could have had two teams represented in Rio based on the qualification standards, two teams of three, but it hasn’t translated on our men’s side.
- While we have had a few men come through our ranks who could have been right at the top they ran into issues. Lukas Verzbicas had a bad bike crash and he was definitely capable of running with anybody in the world. Kevin McDowell at the age of 21 or 22 had to deal with a cancer issue, he is on his comeback trail.
- But just like when I look at Bret Sutton and Siri Lindley as coaches and they have been very successful on the women’s side, they haven’t quite successful on the men’s side. I think we are running into that same challenge trying to figure out those buttons that need to be pushed on men.
- There is clearly a gender difference in how athletes react to coaching and to development and it is a bit harder on the men’s side we are finding. So we’ve made some adjustments and changes and some different direction that we are going in.
- We got a huge program like our youth and junior program. You see it all the time when we go to world championships. We got a lot of great young people. On the men’s side, when you rattle off, Javier Gomez, Mario Mola, Richard Murray, the Brownlees, their top-end speed is just insane and we haven’t been able to match that yet.
Are you able to talk about anything about those differences that you are implementing on the men’s side compared to the women’s side?
- Well, here’s the deal, so we had this great young triathlete who had been competing with Lukas and Kevin six years ago at the junior level, Tony Smoragiewicz, as competitive as anyone around the world, you know when he was 15 or 16 years old. He then gets a running scholarship to the University of Michigan and goes to Michigan for four years on a running scholarship. He now has graduated and is coming back into triathlon. We are hopeful that someone like that is going to go to the top level again. He has all the capabilities in the world.
- However, what we are thinking is, we have to help some of these male athletes go to college and stay with triathlon through college instead of going into a swimming program or a running program. As you may know, we are starting an NCAA collegiate women’s program where women can get full scholarships, go into certain schools to do triathlon. Arizona State University won the National Championship this year and they have got 8 or 10 girls who are getting full scholarships, several of them are getting full scholarships to go to college and do triathlon while getting an education. We are not doing that on the men’s side and that is what we call a title IX issue, it is complicated, it is a gender equality program that the United States implemented many years ago but maybe we need to help some male athletes go to college but stay with triathlon. So that is certainly something that we are looking at.
- There may be different standards for men but nothing super radical or nothing that I am able to talk about at this point quite frankly.
One more thing that I wanted to talk with you about is adventure racing because as you alluded to earlier, you have a very strong adventure racing background. So really, the mic is yours, take it away and talk about adventure racing.
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- My whole life was changed in January of 1998. I had a very, very, very big business career. I was senior vice president for a $7 billion corporation, hugely successful, doing the usual living on a golf course, blowing the country club, all that crap. I got fired, our entire executive team was let go on a Monday, which I will never forget, and I was in Colorado figuring out now what do I do.
- I had the ability to wait awhile on the side what I was going to do and kind of like how people say that they get into triathlon because they saw Ironman on television, while I saw Eco-challenge on television and it was like the most incredible thing in the world.
- Five to ten days of racing out in the middle of nowhere with team mates and doing every kind of possible sport.
- At that point, I was just a triathlete and I hadn’t done anything else.
"Adventure racing is an event that you do as a team and it can include any physical activity that is non-motorized. So you may ride horses, or even camels in Morocco, you might ice climb, rappel off a giant mountain, white water rafting, white water canoeing, white water swimming, trekking, we did not call it running because you would be going for 40, 50, 60 kilometers at a time, and mountain biking, lots of mountain biking. The essence of the sport is definitely trekking, mountain biking, and white water or some type of paddling but there are all kinds of activities like inline skating which we did in China for example."
- Mark Burnett founded Eco-challenge, he is the guy who is famous for The Apprentice, Survivor, and many successful TV-shows but he really started with Eco-challenge.
- We did races around the world and that is what I got into. I saw it on TV and I went to hear to hear a couple of people speak about it and I said to them, “Hey, can I play with you guys?”.
- I started going out with them on bike rides and runs and like I said,I have never been on a mountain bike, paddled a boat, had a rope harnessed around my waist, and in a matter of months I was adventure racing with this group and by the end of the year was doing expedition races which are 5 to 10 day races, where you carry all your own stuff between checkpoints.
- You had to do all your own navigation, no GPS, no marked trails. You just plot the course they give you , the checkpoints where you have to be. You have to go from point to point by map and compass. It was crazy stuff.
- I ended up co-writing the first book on the sport which was called “Adventure Racing: The Ultimate Guide” and Liz and I, my partner in training and racing, we traveled to over 20 to 25 countries, over 6 years, racing full time.
- That is all we did and we put on camps ourselves teaching people how to adventure race. We put on some smaller races in Colorado, 24-hour races, and we helped to a small degree grow the sport here in the United States but mainly we were playing those 6 years all over the place having a blast.
- Today, it is a much lesser known sport because Eco-challenge went away. Mark Burnett was amazing, he had it on television and it was the most amazing racing ever, in my opinion. I loved it!
How many races are there available to people in different parts of the world at the moment?
- I don’t follow it that much but I know that there is still a World Championship Series, so people are still doing those long expedition races but without being on television and without it getting the proper media it is not nearly as big.
- Here in the States, there are smaller 24 hour races around the United States but again I don’t hear about it or see too much about it.
- One of the keys I should point out is you're racing continuously. You sleep as little as possible.
"Our team always had a rule that we would race the first 40 hours without sleeping."
- So we went almost 2 days without sleeping and mentally we were prepared to do that and whatever team mates we had, had to be prepared to do that. We would do it, you go 40 hours, and then if more than one person is exhausted and can’t go any further, you might take a one hour, but generally the first sleep is two hours.
- After that it is power naps and one hour rests. I remember one of our final races, we went 7 days on about 11 hours sleep. Sleep deprivation and how you manage sleep is really critical to the success of the team.
"Ee went 7 days on about 11 hours sleep"
Going back to triathlon, when you look at triathlon 10 years from now, what do you think triathlon will be like?
- That is a really, really tough question. I think here in the United States it could be a collegiate program much like track and field and cross country.
- I think it will be a trademark program of the Olympics. I think it will be much more viewed on regular media, what we call mainstream media as opposed to just triathlete magazine online.
- I look toward women in leadership and women in critical and important positions within triathlon leadership like now, Marisol Casado being the president.
- I see it very vibrant and strong. Again, I can not only speak for the Unites States but here in the United States having a strong collegiate program where kids can go to college on a football, basketball, or on a triathlon scholarship and pursue their dreams while getting an education.
Rapid fire questions
- What is your favorite book, blog or resource related to triathlon? I don’t really go to resources so much. I rely on Twitter and Facebook extensively. I am big on social media and that is where I get a lot of my information.
- Do you have any people in triathlon that you particularly like to follow on Twitter and Facebook? No, I don’t. I look at everybody.
- What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success? It is getting up really early in the morning and getting lots done.
- What is your favorite race, whether it be a particular race like an Olympic race or specific event? For me, it is pretty much any WTS/ITU race. As far as doing a race, it is any adventure race.