This is the first installation in a several-part series that will attempt to answer the question: “What does it mean to be a young professional triathlete?” Over the course of the 2013 season, we will follow Chris Wiatr, a 21-year-old, second-year pro, as he deals with the ups and downs of training, competing, working, managing relationships with sponsors, and more. Chris is a Headsweats-sponsored athlete, and this article was originally published on TriTrackers.com.
Part I: First-Year Struggles
Ask the average American to name a professional athlete and you’ll hear “LeBron,” “A-Rod,” “Peyton,” maybe even “Danica.” Recognizable by first name alone, these icons of sport are synonymous with American culture. They, along with their teams, provide thousands of jobs nationwide, create countless secondary markets, and drive fashion trends (sometimes questionably).
The names Craig Alexander (“Doesn’t he work down on the second floor?”) and Julie Dibens (“Is she that pro golfer?”) aren’t likely to inspire recognition, even among well-rounded sports fans.
How about Chris Wiatr? Nothing?
He is a 21-year old senior at Lake Forest College, a small private institution located outside Chicago from which he will graduate in May. He was born in California but speaks with a slight accent that hints at his Polish ancestry.
Wiatr is also a professional athlete, one of the growing number of young pro triathletes across the country.
In a sport that has, until recently, been dominated by converted runners and “swimmers who can run,” Wiatr found triathlon at the relatively young age of 14. By the time most triathletes his age signed up for their first local sprint, Wiatr had been training and competing for five years. He enjoyed a successful junior elite career, finishing sixth in the USAT standings in 2009, but soon aged out of the division and began looking for a level of competition that local events couldn’t provide.
Three years, pro card in hand, Wiatr found himself sitting in the pre-race meeting at the 2012 Lifetime Tri Minneapolis with a who’s-who of U.S. triathlon: Hunter Kemper, Andy Potts, Bevan Docherty, Cam Dye, Sarah Haskins, Gwen Jorgensen, among others. An underdog story if there ever was one, the narrative of Wiatr’s pro debut did not feature a storybook ending. In a 20-man pro field, he exited the water 15th but overreached in the early miles of the bike and was spent before the run ever started. Wiatr finished in 2:05:51, last among the pro men and over 18 minutes behind the winner, Kemper.
For Wiatr, the result was less important than the experience. With the rest of his professional career ahead of him, Wiatr was already counting down the days until Lifetime Tri Chicago, full of optimism.
The field in Chicago was again stacked, but Wiatr was markedly less star-struck. Wedged in between Cam Dye and Greg Bennett at the start of the swim, Wiatr wasn’t fazed and managed to stay in contact with the second pack. Despite heavy rain and cross winds, Wiatr rode well and finished the bike in 1:00:30, improving on his Minneapolis split by five minutes. Wiatr struggled uncharacteristically over the final 5K of the run, but his performance was good enough for 14th among the pro men – a positive note on which to end his first season as a professional triathlete.
What makes Chris Wiatr’s story interesting, however, is what we’ve yet to see. In 2013, for the first time, Wiatr will have a coach. He also began his training in earnest several months earlier than he did last year. And no longer competing for Lake Forest College’s cross-country team, Wiatr can devote his entire year to triathlon.
Last year, “uncharted territory” was a phrase that signified Wiatr’s inexperience at the professional level. This year, that same phrase describes his untapped potential.
To read more about Chris, visit his website, www.chriswiatr.com.