With summer turning to autumn, most Kiwi triathletes are figuring out how else they'll keep fit during the shorter days.
The Tri NZ National titles were handed out in January; Dougal Allan stormed Challenge Wanaka in February; the Sovereign Tri Series wrapped up with Age Groupers of the Year on Sunday in Takapuna; and on Saturday Terenzo will again try to topple king-Cameron in Kellogg's Nutri-Grain Ironman NZ.
For us in Tri NZ HP, the year is just beginning, with WTS Abu Dhabi kicking off the 2016 ITU World Series on Saturday, followed by the opening ITU World Cup in Mooloolaba next weekend (and very soon, our own World Cup with ITU New Plymouth on April 3).
It shapes as a fascinating year. Obviously the Rio Olympic Games stands as a beacon, but we're three years in to an eight-year plan, so have a long-term rebuild to go with the short-term goals. The great thing with the ITU structure now is that it presents challenges across this spectrum, and these few weeks nicely frame the goals across the HP pathway: We have seen the Talent Squad juniors rise to the fore in the Continental Cups in Kinloch and Takapuna; we will see Development team Nicole van der Kaay and Deb Lynch make their World Cup debuts in Mooloolaba; and we will see World Series veterans like Ryan Sissons and Nicky Samuels stake their Rio claim in Abu Dhabi. Train to train, train to compete, train to win.
In our own "Tri Brothers", Liam and Sam Ward, we have a neat illustration of this pathway in action: Younger brother Liam started the family year on a high, charging away with the NZ Junior Championships in Wellington. This secured his place for Junior Worlds, and he pushed to his limit to make top 10s in the elite fields in both Kinloch and Takapuna. Meantime, older brother Sam has his sights set on the U23 Worlds, and his bread and butter will be top 10s and higher in World Cups (last year, he kicked off with 13th in Chengdu). However, he starts the year with a stretch, trying to break World Series top 20 in Abu Dhabi. For each, this is new ground and signs of real progress over pre-season.
It's important to respect the progression and be patient in stretching each individual. Globally, time and again we have seen young athletes break before reaching their peak, or move in to a competition level and "survive" rather than compete. In rebuilding the NZ team, from Talent Programme, through Development Squads, to Podium, we must take care with individuals and the long-term plan.
We turned in to 2016 with a couple of related lessons to build on, and are pleased with progress: We experienced multiple injuries in 2015 and faded as the year went on. Rigorous collaboration between coaching and medical teams has brought us in to this year largely free of even niggles. Nicole van der Kaay showed in Kinloch what she can do when fit, and Nicky Samuels will blow racing cobwebs away in Abu Dhabi after months of painstaking rehab. Similarly, Tony Dodds will return in New Plymouth when fully cleared from last year's bike crash. Only Sophie Corbidge remains "red-shirted", and has an expert team around her as she recovers from viral fatigue. Chapeau indeed to our medical team.
Of course, this must remain the norm, for what in ITU triathlon seems to be an ever lengthening year. Rio will peak in August, but we again press well on in to September for the World Champs in Cozumel. As the calendar has become increasingly northern-centric, we've had a trend to being strong in April and fading later. We must instead peak for the pinnacles, so this year will travel less with focused international stints. Indeed, for many development athletes, don't be surprised to see them back home and competing single-discipline in winter.
For those with Rio on their mind, it will of course be a big year. There are four World Series races remaining to both qualify quota spots and earn selection. After Abu Dhabi it's Gold Coast, Cape Town and Yokohama, after which our selectors will pick the team. We're currently tracking three women's and two men's spots, and while the max of three and three may appear the New Zealand norm, we'll take quality over quantity while continuing to rebuild. It's worth recalling that on the Carter-Docherty glory day in Athens, Samantha Warriner was the flag-bearer on the women's team. We'll wait and see who joins three-peat Olympian Andrea Hewitt in Rio, for what will be a classic carnival of a Games, with a surf swim and hills to suit the strong.
At whatever stage of the pathway, we are confident that the athletes will rise to their respective stretch, and equally excited to recognise the emerging coaches behind all this: Alongside the HP team of Jon Brown and Tim Brazier, we are pleased to again be working with Chris Pilone and the experience he brings to Olympic campaigns; in the development field, that same Sam Warriner and Athens teammate Nathan Richmond are joined by Jen Rose, Bruce Hunter, Shane Reed (and wife Tammy), Matt Randall and others as elite pros now making their mark in talent coaching; and led by Juls Clonen, Jen, Val Burke, Axel Reiser, Tony O'Hagan and Chris Willett are doing wonders with the Regional Youth Squads (Chris's Central North currently leading the National Junior Series).
Many thanks to all for your passion and skill, and looking forward to the weeks and months ahead.
Graeme Maw (High Performance Director)
Editors Note: We will in future weeks have blogs from leading athletes, coaches and support staff around the sport of Triathlon.