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An in-game academy with 75,000 enrolments. Each Zwifter having to complete six bike workouts, four run workouts, and one bike and one run race to be in contention. The performance data crunched before being paired with swim data and race results. Welcome to the first steps of the Zwift Academy Tri Team 2020, an exhaustive selection process that’s enough to make the judges of Britain’s Got Talent wince.
It’s also a recruitment window that closes imminently on 12 January 2020 and, with it, the chance for age-group athletes to enter 2020’s edition of quite probably the best-supported age-group triathlon team in history, complete with the greatest gear, racing support and mentors.
The Zwift Academy Tri Team began life in 2018 as an offshoot of the Zwift Academy program, which aimed to identify under-the-radar cycling talent using the virtual training environment of Zwift. And the end goal of the Zwift Triathlon Academy? To propel triathletes to success at the pinnacle of multisport: the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
And yet it was far from just free kit, flights, training plans, Specialized Win Tunnel sessions and Zwift subscriptions for the chosen triathletes in 2019. The squad of eight long-distance triathletes would have to exhibit plenty of hard graft, sweat and tears on their rollercoaster rides (and swim and runs) in qualifying for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
After impressive results in 2018, the Zwift Triathlon Academy team stepped up a level in terms of size and success in 2019, with podium placings and age-group victories come the 43th edition of Kona in October. One such athlete reaping the benefits of the Academy and Zwift’s virtual software was Natia Van Heerden (below), a 28-year-old South African chef with a decade of triathlon under her race belt.
“My goal for the 2019 season was to really improve my biking and the Zwift Triathlon Academy really came in and helped with that,” enthuses the South African. “I spent a lot of time on the indoor trainer and exported my sessions to Zwift to really focus on the watt output. The social side of Zwift really helped my biking, whether that’s group, long or short rides or stage races.”
After six previous attempts to secure a Kona spot, Van Heerden wouldn’t be denied and qualified for the full Ironman Worlds after winning Ironman 70.3 Hawaii overall. And it’s here where being part of the Zwift Academy truly becomes like every age-grouper’s triathlon fantasies. “Zwift paid for our Kona qualifying slot and the full trip to Kona. In Hawaii, they really took such great care of us in terms of bike maintenance and a private chef that cooked all our meals. They absorbed all our stress pre-race so that we could just focus on our preparation and race day. Partnered with the Zwift Academy were incredible brands such as Specialized, Science in Sport, Roka and Wahoo who made sure we had the best available equipment.”
Natia was part of an eight-strong squad aiming for Kona success and, despite residing thousands of miles apart in South Africa, Europe and North America, the team bond was strong thanks to that shared Ironman goals, a vibrant WhatsApp group and, of course, getting to train together on Zwift.
“I loved the team,” adds Natia. “We all got along really well and supported one another’s goals. We really wanted everyone to qualify for Kona and happy that everyone did qualify in the end. The team was strong this year so we could train together and push one another.”
In a sport loaded with likeable pro athletes, Tim Don and Sarah True (above) are possibly the most likeable of the lot. Two huge characters with four decades of tri experience between them. And two athletes who have experienced nearly everything over their racing careers, including multiple world championships titles, Olympic Games showdowns, lightning-fast Ironman times and M-Dot heartbreak with enough drama for an acclaimed film, Don’s The Man with the Halo.
As the mentors for the Zwift Academy Tri Team, Don and True became central to the success that came in qualifying for Kona and on the legendary 226km course in Hawaii for the Zwift Academy Tri Team members.
“I became a mentor on the Zwift Triathlon Academy in early 2018,” says Don (pictured below), who produced the fastest Ironman time in history in Brazil in 2017 and will return with True as a mentor in 2020. “There were eight athletes in 2019 with the goal of qualifying for Kona. All podium potentials. We had a training camp at Morgan Hill in California where the athletes went through the Specialized Win Tunnel in April. They all qualified for Hawaii and were there two weeks before the race. They could use me as a sounding board as much or little as they’d want.”
“And what a brilliant bunch of athletes they are, with all of them having excellent races at Kona. Ruth Purbrook won her age group and was the fastest female age-grouper. Natia won her age group and was third age-grouper overall in the women. Yvonne was third in the F50-55. Maggie raced her third ever tri and hadn’t run for seven weeks and still came second in her age group. On the men’s side, Phillip Herber came fourth in his age group. The British guy, Paul Lunn, finished top 10 in his age group, while Levy Hauwert finished sixth.”
And what was it like to have Don and True as a personal Ironman coach? “Ah man, Sarah and Tim were such fun to get to know,” laughs Natia, who topped the F25-29 age group field. “They’re such humble people and they really wanted to give us advice regarding Kona, how to race the course and what to expect. I picked their brain regarding salt tabs, tyre pressure, heat adaptation and nutrition.
“It was so helpful to be able to chat to professionals who have massive amounts of experience. The week leading into race day were filled with tips and tricks on how to conquer Kona and stories of their experiences on the island. The finish line was so special and I was overcome with emotion. So many years and months of hard work came down to that one moment. It was pretty overwhelming.”
And what can 2020’s lucky group of six expect once they’ve successfully navigated the painstaking selection process? “The Academy provided us with all the opportunities we could dream of and, without them, I definitely wouldn’t have achieved my goals in 2019,” adds Natia. “The biggest change the Academy made in my training and racing was the Win Tunnel testing at Specialized HQ and to be properly fitted on a bike. It’s something that really held me back in previous years and I believe it has made a huge difference in my racing.”
Earning a spot on the Academy was a career-changing experience for the South African, but she’s aware there are plenty more miles – both on the virtual trainer and on the road – to log if she’s to ensure her next multisport step is another successful one.
“I’ve taken my pro triathlon card for 2020,” Van Heerden adds. “It wasn’t planned but, considering my result at Kona, we decided that it’s my next step. The Academy gave me so much confidence in my racing and training. I know I have the best equipment and now it’s up to me to put in the hard work.”
The Zwift Academy Triathlon program began on 11 November 2019 and ends on 12 January 2020. Graduates being considered for the Zwift Academy Tri Team will advance to a final selection process that runs from 13 January to 9 February 2020. The 2020 Tri Team will be notified after 10 February 2020 with a public team announcement following soon after. Head to zwift.com/academy/tri for more information.
All images are courtesy of Jeff Thoren/Zwift. More from Jeff is at www.instagram.com/jeff_thoren/