Is there an Olympic event -- summer or winter -- that demands more from its athletes than the triathlon? The event itself is grueling, and the training that precedes it is both impossibly time-consuming and borderline inhuman in terms of sheer output. That's to say nothing of the financial and personal sacrifices.
The situation is set for American women competing in the 2012 Olympics -- Gwen Jorgensen and Sarah Groff qualified for London last fall. However, the men's team is not quite as confirmed. The U.S. has qualified to send two male triathletes to compete at the 2012 Games, and 29-year-old Jarrod Shoemaker and 28-year-old Matt Chrabot have separated themselves as two most likely to swim, bike and run through London. The U.S. triathlon Olympic trials, or "Judgment Day" as the two triathletes call it, is May 12 at the ITU World Triathlon event in San Diego. SI.com gets a few minutes with the two hopefuls together on the phone where they give an insider's voice on the sport, and what to expect for the upcoming race and heading into the London Games.
SI.com: Explain where you are in the Olympic qualifying process.
Jarrod Shoemaker: At this point, as a country, we've earned two spots for the U.S. [at the London Olympics] -- Matt and I are both ranked in the top 20 in the world, so we have earned two start spots. At the race in San Diego, if two Americans come in the top nine they're automatically on the team. If no Americans come in the top nine, it becomes a discretionary pick. So basically the first American at the San Diego race is definitely going to be on the team. We've got six guys, maybe seven, who are vying for that first American spot, and then some guys may have to make a case for themselves for a discretionary pick.
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SI.com: What did you do training-wise today?
Shoemaker: Today I went for a five-mile run, I swam 4500 meters in the pool--kind of a race simulation set � and then went for a super-easy, what we call "ostrich ride" which is just kind of 45 minutes going as easy as you can on the bike. Then, I worked with my biomechanics coach in the afternoon.
Matt Chrabot: I did a 10k run in the morning, I swam 5,000 yards this afternoon, and I just got back from an 18-mile easy bike ride. I'm going to do some stretching and light core training right after this.
SI.com: Do you usually hit all three events every day during your training?
Shoemaker: I swim six days a week, bike five or six days a week, and run six days a week, so pretty much every day I'm hitting all three.
Chrabot: Yeah, I'm hitting all three on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. So four days a week I'm hitting all three.
SI.com: What separates an elite triathlete from a very, very good triathlete?
Shoemaker: That's a good question.
Chrabot: What we call elite amateurs are committed most of the time, but when you're not training you're usually working to support yourself. Whereas if you're doing it full-time, or as a professional, then it takes up your whole day. For the whole entire week, [triathlon is] our main focus. So in between training sessions you're either getting ready for your next training session or getting some serious downtime, like a nap or a massage. That way you can get as close as you can to 100 percent before that next workout. An elite amateur might be going at 75 percent going into their last workout of the day.
Shoemaker: Yeah, we get more time to focus on the little things, and we can focus on recovery. An elite amateur might go out and have a hard bike ride just because he's with a bunch of buddies, but for us every workout and every session has a specific goal and specific purpose. My 45-minute ride today had a specific purpose which was to relax and just flush my legs out.
Chrabot: Same thing goes for all sports, like the difference between a college basketball player and an NBA player. A college player has classes and other stuff. NBA guys, during the season, it's full-on. Almost everything in their life is about basketball.
SI.com: Are elite triathletes born or made?
Shoemaker: I think your capacity, in terms of your "engine" -- that part you're born with. But it takes a lot of dedication and training to become a really good triathlete. I have a friend who can run 27:30 for a 10K, so he's got the engine, obviously. But he can't swim. I don't know of any other athletes who train as much or as hard as triathletes do. I've heard other athletes say that they do, but I can guarantee that if anyone came out and tried to spend a day or two doing as much as work as we do, they wouldn't be able to stand.
SI.com: In your opinion, is there another Olympic event that asks as much from its athletes in terms of sheer output and the potential for physical and mental exhaustion?
Shoemaker: The biggest thing about triathlon is that it's three totally separate sports. To be at the swimming level that we're at, to be at the biking level that we're at, and then to be at that running level and try to win a medal -- having those three distinct skill sets is rare.
Chrabot: And obviously we do them back to back to back without stopping. The decathlon in track and field might be tougher, but it's spread over two days. With us there's one day, one event, one race, there's no prelims or semifinals or anything. It's just go out there and get it done.
SI.com: Is burnout ever an issue? Some days you've got to be like, "Another swim and bike and run today? Really?"
Chrabot: Yeah, but LeBron shoots free throws for a half-hour a day. I'm sure he doesn't want to shoot free throws, but you've gotta make 'em when you're in the game.
Shoemaker: I definitely have hit some stages of burnout, and I think a lot of it, for me, comes from not just the training and the racing, but the travel. But if you want to win a medal you've got to maneuver your way through it, and if that means taking an easy day or taking a couple of easy days or just going and just sitting on the beach -- those things are very important to our training. The recovery piece is just as important as the going-hard piece.
SI.com: How do you two keep the bills paid?
Shoemaker: For me, sponsorships, and my wife doing really well in non-draft racing. (Jarrod's wife is pro triathlete Alicia Kaye. "Non-draft" refers to events in which competitors are not to gain the advantage allowed by bunching together.) USA Triathlon also does an amazing job. They pay for us to go to these races. But you have to earn that spot, of course.
Chrabot: To clarify: draft-legal is what we race at the Olympics. We're making tons of sacrifices. Like, Jarrod, I think, would make an excellent non-drafting athlete. He could go after the Ironman or the half-Ironman or whatever, but when you strictly focus on the Olympics, we don't get much media coverage unless it's the lead-up to the Olympics itself, so we just kind of disappear. The non-draft, Ironman athletes get a lot more attention, and sponsorship dollars migrate in that direction. I'll do a couple of those kinds of events early in the year or late in the year -- like the Chicago Triathlon or Escape from Alcatraz -- just to pick up some extra cash and make my sponsors happy ...
SI.com: How would you describe your relationship, your rivalry?
Chrabot: I don't know, how would we?
Shoemaker: I don't know. I don't like Matt that much.
SI.com: That totally comes across.
Shoemaker: No, Matt and I both understand the work that goes into being good at this level, but I think we're very different athletes. I came from a pure running background and worked hard to get my swimming and cycling where they needed to be. Matt came from a swimming background and then picked up cycling in college and has worked really hard on his run.
Chrabot: Jarrod made the 2008 Olympic team, and he was training in Florida and Boston, going back and forth for a few years. We've trained together a little, and our training styles differ. As we've gotten closer to judgment day, which is coming up here on May 12 -- I was one of those high-volume, a lot of intensity type of athletes, while Jarrod is one to lean toward lower volume, and just focus on the most important sessions of the week, and go high-volume when you have to. But as we've gone on, my style has started to parallel Jarrod's. Being the two highest ranked Americans -- and numbers 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 are just miles behind us in the rankings -- I felt like we've started to bond and form sort of a brotherhood, like, thinking we're the reasons the U.S. has these two spots. We're almost playing defense now, like everyone's trying to take what we've earned for our country.
SI.com: What is your mindset when you're transitioning in a race from the swim to the bike, or the bike to the run?
Shoemaker: I think my internal monologue goes something like, "AAAAAAAAAH, GO AS FAST AS POSSIBLE!" (laughs) Fast transitions kind of become ingrained in you as a triathlete and practicing transitions is actually one of the most important things that people don't spend time on.
SI.com: Any tricks to the trade, Matt?
Chrabot: There are a few. For example, in San Diego we're probably going to be wearing wetsuits [during the swim], and we're not allowed to take our cap and goggles off and throw them. But if you take them off and let them go as you're taking off your wetsuit, then they'll stay inside the sleeve of your wetsuit. If you discard your cap and goggles before you throw them into this little box next to your bike then that's a 15-second penalty, and a 15-second penalty when everyone is together is huge. Next thing you know you're riding by yourself.
SI.com: What should we expect to see in San Diego in a few days?
Shoemaker: Well, it's a big race for the athletes from Great Britain in terms of trying to make their Olympic team; same thing for the Russians. It's going to be a knockdown, drag-out fight between everybody out there. It's not just our trials.
Chrabot: There are a lot of different agendas going on.
SI.com: Like what?
Chrabot: Like I said earlier, Jarrod and I have earned two spots for our country at this point. Some of the other countries that are a little further back, they have a realistic shot at getting three guys on the start line in London.
Shoemaker: I know that the Aussies are trying to finalize their team, the British are trying to finalize their team, so all those guys have really got to show that they can potentially [make the] podium. Also, we've never raced this course before, and it's pretty flat, pretty pedestrian. On the bike, there's a couple of 180 turns but they're on wide roads. There's a bridge, so I think we might climb 40 or 50 feet, and there could be some wind, so ...
Chrabot: Yeah, I think it's right along the boardwalk in Mission Beach so we could get some wind coming off the water ... That's the only factor we may have to deal with.
SI.com: Let's say you're in London, and you two finish in an absolute dead heat for the gold and the judges rule that the tiebreaker will be an arm-wrestling match between you two. Who wins?
Chrabot: Ha! Jarrod. He's got bigger arms than me.
Shoemaker: I have longer arms than you, but you have short arms.
SI.com Short arms could be an advantage.
Chrabot: I would obviously beat Jarrod if I started training for it now.
Shoemaker: Yeah, and you probably will start training for it now.
Chrabot: Yeah. Just in case.