When 11-year-old Benjamin Lausch competes in triathlons, his eye is on beating a boy from Pennsylvania named Daniel.
Daniel competes in a lot of the same races as Benjamin and is “very, very fast.” Benjamin beat him once and hopes that with a little more time and practice he might one day catch Daniel again.
Benjamin ran his first triathlon when he was 7 years old and has become fiercely competitive and hooked on the sport, which includes a run, swim and bike component.
“I like the running mostly,” said Benjamin, who lives in Mount Airy, Md.
Triathlons were once limited to adult competitors but are becoming popular among the younger set as well. Children as young as 7 are participating in the events they watched their parents master.
“We have seen tremendous interest in the sport among youth,” said Linda Congedo, communications director for TriColumbia, the 30-year-old organization that organizes several triathlons in Maryland each year.
The number of youths who are members of USA Triathlon, the national governing body for the sport, has increased from 19,825 in 2007 to 62,345 last year. There were 311 sanctioned national youth events in 2007 and close to 1,000 last year. Older teenagers could always compete in adult competitions, while the youth events opened the sport to younger athletes.
Benjamin’s mom, Christy, signed her son up for a triathlon after years of competing herself. Her older daughter also competes in the races.
The mother organized a kid triathlon in her Mount Airy neighborhood a few years ago and in 2008 started a kid triathlon training team, the Mini Cow Tri Club.
“Now that I’m 40 years old, I’d rather be at a youth event on the weekend watching my team race than doing my own race,” she said.
Kid triathlons aren’t as strenuous as those for adults. The distances are shorter and the swim portion of many races takes place in pools, rather than lakes and other open bodies of water.
The distances can increase for older ages. Kids also “practice” rather than “train,” coaches like to say.
Still, kids should take some precautions when competing in triathlons, just as with any other sport, said Dr. Ashanti Woods, a pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. That means staying hydrated, wearing bike helmets and being careful not to overtrain. It is also a good idea to stretch after competing, he said.
“I wouldn’t want to rain on the parade of triathlons,” Woods said. “From a fitness standpoint, when children properly train, triathlons are definitely a good thing.”
Triathlons attract children from all walks of life. Some are athletes and natural competitors looking for another challenge. But the races can be just as good for kids who don’t play team sports, said John Martin, a spokesman for USA Triathlon.
“Active children can participate in the sport without a lot of specific triathlon training, per se,” Martin said. “It should be challenging and fun.”
Race day is typical of the setup up for an adult competition. Kids get T-shirts and swag bags, and at the end of the race are rewarded with snacks and medals.
“It’s all the makings of a real triathlon, only with little people,” Congedo said. “Kids want to emulate. They want to feel like they’re in a real triathlon.”
Sydney O’Clery was 5 years old when she saw her older brother compete in a triathlon and decided she wanted to do the same. She was too young at the time. When she finally reached the age to enter her first race, she loved it right way.
Sydney proved to be a natural and often places in her age group. She likes the running the best. Transitioning from the swim to the bike ride is the most challenging, she said.
“You have to go kind of fast, and I feel like I’m going to fall sometimes,” she said.
Sydney, also of Mount Airy, said she wants to keep doing the races because she enjoys them so much.
“It’s fun because there’s more than one thing to do,” she said.
Triathlon organizers said the races can help build confidence in children. They also hope it encourages a healthy lifestyle that will last for years to come.
“We feel really strongly about exposing children to a fitness program that can offer them a lifelong opportunity to stay healthy and fit,” Congedo said.