Young triathletes aim high

  • Article by: CHRISTY DESMITH , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 10, 2011 - 10:34 PM

The north Minneapolis team V3 and its young members are winning triathlons all over the country.

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Bobbie Elliott, left, gave run instructions to Julia Hertelendy, 9, and her brother Becket, 7, during a recent workout at the North High track. The Hertelendys are members of V3, a team of youth athletes from north Minneapolis.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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Most of the 30 kids gathered near a swimming pool on a recent evening were laughing and sharing photos on their phones. ¶ But Enoch Elliott, 13, had more serious matters on his mind. He was showcasing his collection of triathlon trophies and gold medals: Life Time Kids Triathlon 2010, Hy-Vee Iron Kids Rochester 2011.

"Are the others here as fast as you?" someone asked.

"Only him," said Enoch, pointing to his friend, 14-year-old Jacob Totall.

"We're like Macca and Stadler," said Enoch, referring to Chris McCormack and Normann Stadler, professional triathletes and onetime rivals.

The buddies are part of V3, a team of young triathletes ages 7 to 17 from north Minneapolis who happen to be part of a growing trend. Last month, the MiracleKids Triathlon in Chanhassen was the biggest youth triathlon in the country, with more than 1,000 participants.

USA Triathlon, the governing body for triathlons nationwide, reported that the number of youth events has risen from 193 in 2004 to 383 in 2010. There are six or seven in Minnesota each summer. The number of children and teens who are USAT members (more than 37,000) has nearly tripled in five years.

"Triathlon is a fun and exciting way to combine all three activities at age-appropriate distances and keep kids active," USAT spokesman John Martin said. "Having fun is the most important thing with youth triathletes."

Dedicated kids

The kids on V3 -- which means victory in the three stages of a triathlon: running, swimming and biking -- are competitive but good-spirited. Just recently, Jacob edged out Enoch to win the 2011 Life Time Kids Triathlon. "That's the race where we always battle it out," Jacob said, turning to Enoch with a warm grin.

When it was time to practice, the kids on the side of the pool started jumping in. Side by side, Enoch and Jacob began their hourlong swim workout, which is alternated with practice on bikes and on the track.

They were among the first members of V3, which was founded five years ago by Erika Binger, a member of the McKnight family who also serves on the McKnight Foundation's board of directors. The team is one of the nation's only teams for inner-city youth triathletes.

V3 boasts ambitious coaches and athletes alike. "I want to build V3 into the premier triathlon team in the country," says Binger, who also serves as head coach.

While Binger shops for a permanent training facility in north Minneapolis, her team of 45 kids has picked up wins at triathlons throughout the country. Most impressive, V3 was the top team at the USA Triathlon junior and youth championships in San Diego this summer. Next up, eight V3 triathletes are headed for the Iron Kids U.S. Championships in Des Moines on Saturday.

A level playing field

V3 has had its share of challenges, particularly in its early days against better-equipped teams. During its first full season, the fledgling team traveled to the 2007 Junior and Youth National Triathlon Championships in Wisconsin. "We were on mountain bikes," says Binger. "I was absolutely shocked by the other kids' equipment -- thousand-dollar triathlon bikes, aero [dynamic bike] pedals."

Rather than dwelling on the disparities, Binger sought to "level the playing field." She encourages the children to earn their own gear. One child traded his Xbox for a new bike. Others have approached local businesses about sponsorships. Many concentrate on earning "V3 dollars" for every 30 minutes they spend training outside of practice. These can be traded for running shoes, sports watches and more.

With its impressive record of wins, V3 is making a name for itself. The team is attracting members from south Minneapolis and nearby suburbs. And it's become a fashionable cause within the adult triathlon community.

Businesses including Gear West, Flanders Bros. Cycles and Urban Tri have provided donated or discounted equipment. Individual triathletes are contributing gear, especially used bikes.

One of the team's aspiring Olympians, 14-year-old Natalie Norberg, recounts how she landed her high-performance triathlon bicycle. "It was someone I met for five seconds," she says. "The woman liked me. And she told my coach she wanted to donate a bike."

Christy DeSmith is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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