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

Nick Radkewich runs the Garden of the Gods in the shadow of Pikes Peak on a shimmering jewel of a Rocky Mountain morning, nine months before the first Olympic triathlon in Australia.

The Garden of the Gods: serpentine canyons of carmine sandstone, daggering against a cobalt-blue sky. Once a refuge for Utes and Apaches, later a beacon to prairie-schooner pilgrims, now a Colorado Springs city park and convenient workout site for athletes from the town's U.S. Olympic Training Center. The OTC provides weight-room and dining-hall sustenance to starving-artist athletes such as Radkewich, practitioners of the off-brand Olympic sports who orbit out of obscurity and into the network TV sunshine once every four years.

Triathlon in particular will be soaking up the limelight at this year's Games. Thanks in large part to the sport's enormous popularity in Australia, the men's and women's races will kick off the first two nights of NBC's Olympic coverage. The course, consisting of a 1.5-kilometer open-water swim, a 40-kilometer bike ride, and a 10-kilometer run (a mere fraction of the epic distance covered in traditional Ironman-length events), winds through Sydney Harbor and past the landmark Opera House. It's the stuff of telegenic dreams, and an auspicious image boost for a sport that in the United States has largely been dismissed as the monotonous pastime of obsessive-compulsive geeks.

"One of the top ten memories of the Games will be the wide shot of triathletes diving into the water to begin the swim," promises Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports.

Should they hold true to form and ace the Olympic Trials in Dallas on May 27, two of those triathletes will be Radkewich and his boyhood companion from central Florida, Hunter Kemper, winner of the 1998 and 1999 Triathlon National Championships and a model for the RLX line of Ralph Lauren Polo Sport. Given the two men's intertwined lives and careers, USA Triathlon, the sport's national governing body, sells the pair to the media as a boxed set, the lead roles in a kind of endurance-sport buddy-movie script.

This morning, hammering steep half-mile hill repetitions at 6,200 feet, Radkewich takes center stage: a hard-bodied young American running under sandstone spires in pursuit of Olympic gold and the greater glory of God, country, and primary sponsors. He and his training partner, Josh Dapice, readily accommodate me and my reporter's notebook, although, to be honest, they'd rather do these repeats on an unpaved trail that didn't shred their quads on the downhills. But magazine pages, like TV time, are hotly coveted on triathlon's maiden Olympic voyage. And at age 29, after seven hardscrabble years as a professional triathlete, Radkewich fully understands his PR responsibilities. He parks his Jeep beneath the camera-ready peaks and gamely goes to work.

"This will be a strength-building session," he says patiently, accustomed to explaining triathlon to uncomprehending outsiders. "Given the hilly course in Sydney, we don't have to worry much about killer speed-training. Coming out of the bike-run transition, there'll be a pack of 20 or 30 guys going balls-to-the-wall. You absolutely have to be a strong runner."

Radkewich flashes a wintry grin. He's a wiry, medium-size man, with a spiky two-week growth of beard and the hollow-eyed stare of a soldier on a long forced march. A few days earlier, he and Kemper returned from a weeklong trip to Sydney, where they taped a TV commercial for Visa that will air before and during the Games. Anticipating the pair's earning two of the likely three spots on the men's U.S. team, NBC has already filmed their mini-bios. Radkewich still feels slightly lagged from the Australia job. He and Kemper worked eight- and nine-hour days on the set, essentially losing a week's training. Now comes this morning's quad-buster.

It's a cruel cycle, the daily grind of a triathlete. Like other aspiring Olympians around the world, Nick Radkewich spends his life either working out, recovering from a workout, or preparing to work out. He stitches approximately 250 miles of cycling, 60 miles of running, and 15 miles of swimming into 60-hour training weeks, seeking to hit the bull's-eye rhythm that will deliver him in consummate shape to Sydney in September. For Radkewich, Olympic exposure would yield a veritable bonanza in sponsor bonuses and new and renegotiated contracts. He might finally earn a living wage. No more house-sitting. No more selling men's suits for minimum wage plus commissions while Kemper, the kid who used to tag along behind him at swim meets and who followed the trail that Radkewich blazed in college and professional triathlons, makes big bucks modeling sportswear.

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