Up Close with Tri Legends Jim Curl and Carl Thomas
Profile of the pioneering American tri duo who established standard-distance racing
Ever wonder why you swim 1.5km, bike 40km and run 10km? Or, as you set up transition, whose clever idea this racking was?
The answers lie with Jim Curl and Carl Thomas, the dynamic duo who established the world’s first national triathlon series, the USTS, and are this month’s interviewees in the Thanyapura Legends of Triathlon podcast.
From its origins in 1982 to conclusion 11 years later, the USTS would deliver over 120 events in 30 different US cities, host 100,000 entrants and pay out more than $1,000,000 in prize money. But it’s the details beneath those headline numbers that really tell the tale.
Shaping the sport as it made its fledgling steps into the realms of professionalism, Jim and Carl explain how they turned vision into reality, attracted competitors, big name sponsors, front page press coverage, and laid the foundations for triathlon’s ultimately successful bid for Olympic recognition.
Inspired by the 1979 Sports Illustrated article on Ironman, and as Speedo’s marketing manager looking to broaden the brand’s reach, Carl had ambitious plans from the outset to deliver a nationwide annual series to the masses.
“It’s fun to reflect on the craziness, some might call it stupidity, of the original idea,” he recalls.
The goal was to provide a challenge for the weekend endurance warrior that was more attainable than 140.6 miles of Pacific island heat, so they set about designing a format that would have athletes finishing in a similar time to a good standard marathon runner.
While Carl was the brains behind the sponsorship, publicity and marketing, Jim was the foot solider for every event, an unhappy attorney and frustrated trail runner desperate to escape the legal profession.
“I had no idea what Carl was doing, and had barely any idea what I was doing, but thought it couldn't be any harder than getting through law school,” explains Jim as the reason he piled in.
Together they gave it their all, working to the point of collapse as they scheduled and ran five events on the American west coast in the first year and expanded nationally after that.
“It had to be multi city,” explains Carl. “Doing a one off had no appeal. We needed to be a race management company that had the capacity to stage a series that opened mid-June in San Diego and concluded late-August in Seattle.”
Nothing was set in stone, including the distances, so on Scott Tinley’s advice it kicked off with a 2km swim, 35km bike and 15km run. By the end of the second year, Carl, falling in line with single-sporting ideals, settled on the now accepted standard distance.
From five events it quickly ratcheted up to 11, staff were paid in Speedo apparel and entry numbers soared. Eight hundred for each event at a time when Valerie Silk’s annual Big Island showdown attracted around 700 meant USTS was breaking new ground. Hotel rooms were selling out as 4,000 took up the challenge in the first year, necessitating the introduction of wave starts for the first time.
Through marketing, fate or simply lack of alternatives, they drew a stellar cast. In the first event in San Diego the men’s top four finishers read like a who’s who of triathlon. First place Dave Scott, second Scott Molina, third Tinley and fourth Mark Allen. On the women’s side Kathleen McCartney trailed in by Julie Moss made it a similar story. All would win Ironman and have gone down as legends of the sport.
The series also benefited from emotional pulls to attract more mainstream interest. “Like the guy who called us and said ‘I just had a heart transplant and I want to do a triathlon,’” explains Jim. “We flew him from city to city and ‘MAN WITH NEW HEART’ got front page coverage everywhere.
Sponsors climbed on board, from Bud Light to Coca-Cola, with the introduction of the red jersey for the leading performers as they tried to encourage athletes to stick with the series. As USTS grew Carl would recruit race directors for the different cities it travelled to.
“The thing was to paint a picture they were part of something unique, growing, and that had the chance to change the world. I never wavered on that,” says Carl.
For Jim, the challenge was simply to think on his feet to put on the best possible experience for triathletes. “Do events long enough someone is going to smack a bus into your scaffold at the finish line,” he says. “That’s the moment you look at your partner and say: ‘Ok, how are we going to deal with this?’”
For the full insight listen to the Thanyapura Legends of Triathlon interview by visitingwww.legendsoftriathlon.com or download the podcast via iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/podcast/imtalks-legends-of-triathon/id484630310
Victories fade, legends don’t. The Thanyapura Legends of Triathlon is a monthly podcast brought to triathlon fans by John Newsom and Bevan James Eyles. Legends already interviewed include Mark Allen, Greg Welch, Mike Pigg, Scott Tinley, Erin Baker, Karen Smyers, Scott Molina, Simon Whitfield and Spencer Smith.