Could This Be Love?

Triathlon, the arcane sport of masochists, is poised to hit it big, with a high-profile Olympic debut and two camera-ready hardbodies in a duel for glory. Will America fall for the seduction?

Jun 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
For $450 a month, Radkewich gets the top-floor flat of a formerly grand Victorian residence near the old downtown area of Colorado Springs. It's a prototypical jock's bachelor pad, with clothes and gear strewn about the rooms amid piles of magazines and CDs. Today, the living room vibrates to a Metallica video. Kemper and Dapice have just arrived, stationary bikes in tow, for a long session with the Computrainer, a $1,500 software system that simulates the terrain and intensity of an outdoor cycling workout. "It's quite a gadget," Kemper explains, wiring a heart-rate monitor and wheel sensor to Radkewich's computer. "We don't have to worry about traffic or flat tires. We can count on getting our heart rates up. Hit a key and we can e-mail the results directly to our coaches."

Radkewich emerges from the bathroom, his two-week stubble replaced by a carefully sculpted goatee. A small tattoo of a scorpion atop a heart fashionably stains his bare left shoulder. As Kemper mounts his bike, Radkewich ejects Metallica and inserts the movie he has chosen for diversion during the long afternoon: Slap Shot, a 1977 Paul Newman film that tells the story of a minor-league hockey team. "It catches the reality of an athlete's life better than just about any other sports movie," Radkewich says with the authority of an inveterate film buff and, of course, a lifelong athlete.

Radkewich came out of Notre Dame holding distinguished running credentials in addition to his amateur national championship. A luminous future as a pro seemed assured. But he entered the sport during the early nineties, just as American triathlon was spiraling downhill. By that time, most of the international triathlon community had abandoned Ironman-length races in favor of shorter contests that attracted more spectators and, more significant, television coverage. The abbreviated race format permitted drafting, the once illegal practice of accepting and giving wind-shielding aid during the bike leg. Americans resisted the change, especially the old guard led by such Californian warhorses as Scott Tinley and Mike Pigg. A split developed: Europe, Australia, and the rest of the world converted to a shorter, faster, more entertaining style of triathlon, while Americans stuck with the grueling (read "boring"), no-drafting Ironman-length events.

Still, Radkewich was fortunate enough to pluck a modest bouquet of sponsorships, including Saucony shoes and Mrs. T's Pierogies, which together with his parents' support allowed him to launch a career. Long, dues-paying years ensued. Radkewich logged eighth- through 12th-place finishes with depressing regularity, solid performances landing him just out of reach of the prize money. He limped along until 1998, when his attenuated lifeline of stipends and sponsorships finally snapped. There were still two long years until the Olympics. Discouraged, Radkewich nearly quit the sport, but his coach convinced him to keep on plugging. He'd need to swallow his pride, however, and take a day job. He went to work selling suits at Dillard's department store in Colorado Springs.

Radkewich was good at it. He had a natural eye for fabric and color, for the drape of a jacket on a customer's shoulders; he soon became the top salesman in the menswear department. Management loved him, except for the fact that he was always a few minutes late for work.

"They thought I was lazy," Radkewich recalls with a sour smile. "They didn't realize that by the time I was supposed to start at the store I'd already been up for three hours training."

He finally broke through in late 1998, winning four races in a row and the U.S.O.C. Triathlete of the Year title. The prize money and renewed sponsorship contracts enabled him to make a decent, if continually uncertain, living from the sport. But Radkewich knows that another day job is only a few bad races away.

"I'd be lying if I said triathlon was still a lot of fun for me," he says. "Racing well remains a constant intellectual and physical challenge, but I've spent too many hard years for the sport to be a pure kick anymore." He falls silent for a moment, his eyes straying back to the movie. "If I make the Olympics, I'll have achieved everything I set out to do. If I make it to Sydney, I'll take some time off afterward to reassess."

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