It became clear recently, in some online triathlon debates, that there isn’t a really firm understanding of how the triathlon elite/professional system works. Kelly (another Kelly) and I thought it made sense to lay this all out very simply. So here is being a professional triathlete 101:
To earn your elite triathlete card, there are a number of qualification standards you can meet per USA Triathlon, but the main ones are:
- Top 10 overall amateur at worlds (ITU or Kona)
- Top 5 overall amateur at nationals
- Top 3 overall amateur at a qualifying race, being any race that has a corresponding elite race offering at least a $20,000 prize purse — as a approximation of quality of field and size
There is also a draft-legal pathway for qualification primarily aimed at junior elites and development athletes, but the gist is the same.
You can take your elite card after racing once and qualifying, or you can qualify dozens of times and not take it, keep on racing as an amateur. There are no rules that govern sandbagging. (Cycling, conversely, has a categorization system that starts at the lowest category, 5, and goes to Cat 1. People move up by earning a certain number of points at each category level. Earning too many points above, though, is a forced upgrade. You’re not allowed to keep winning races without moving up eventually.)
If you decide to “go pro” in triathlon, you pay USAT for your license, fill out your application, and you’re a professional. Either nothing changes after that or lots does; it’s up to you.
USAT does not appear to have a public list anymore of how many registered elite athletes there are. The last time I checked, in 2009, there were about 400 elite athletes registered with USA Triathlon. I have heard the numbers now are closer to 1,000, but I don’t know. (Maybe someone else knows where that list is now? UPDATE: Emily also has my belief that the “1,000” number is the number of pros who have raced one race with World Triathlon Corporation, so it’s not just US pros.)
Once you’re a registered elite or “pro,” you can continue to register and race as you always have, but now you’re in the elite/pro fields (which has different drafting rules, fyi, and obviously which means you can be part of random drug testing, but that’s another topic). Many races are free for elite racers. Some (mostly smaller races) also provide host housing for elites. Some races also have prize purses. Some don’t. Typically, a prize purse is split in half for men and women, then about half of that goes to 1st place with a steep drop-off. It is rare for prize purses to pay past 5th or 6th, sometimes 10th at the biggest races. For example, Vineman 70.3 (an incredibly competitive and popular race) pays like so:
1st – $10,000
2nd – $5,000
3rd – $3,250
4th – $2,500
5th – $1,750
6th – $1,250
7th – $750
8th – $500
To be clear, 9th place at Vineman is no joke. Last year, 9th was Luke Bell, who is a full-time professional triathlete and who earned no money at that race. Of course, if you’re just taking your elite/pro license because you want to challenge yourself, or for whatever reasons you might have, then there are certainly perks.
While most USAT-governed races do not require separate registration as a professional triathlete, the Ironman brand (World Triathlon Corporation) does. It costs $800 to register as a professional with WTC for the year, or $430 for a single Ironman or $215 for a single half.
There are, of course, two major racing and points systems that are of concern as a professional triathlete:
1. The Kona Points Ranking – If you want to qualify to Kona as a pro, then you must earn points at WTC races, finish in the top 50 or 35 of the points rankings overall, depending on if you’re a man or woman, and complete an Ironman-distance race. Qualifying for Kona isn’t really my thing, but if I was trying to weigh the amount of points I thought I needed against flight costs and possible races, especially in light of the pro fields being cut from a number of U.S. races last year, well, it would make my head hurt.
2. ITU Points – If you want to race draft-legal and aim for the Olympics, which is the primary goal of draft-legal racers, then there’s another system you need to understand. The International Triathlon Union runs its own rankings. To race at their biggest events, the World Triathlon Series, you have to start at smaller ITU races, move up to things like Continental Cups, then World Cups, and get appointed to the national team. There is funding on the national team level, up to $20,000/year + living at the Olympic Training Center + travel costs, if you meet the highest standards, ie. top 8 in the ITU final rankings of the year. From there down to the developmental level smaller amounts of support vary in proportion to your results.
OK. Got it?
Of course, the other factor of being a professional triathlete is that you are training a lot, so you can’t always work a regular job, so how do you make money?
- Prize money (see above)
- Sponsors (yay! good luck with that — another topic)
- Other triathlon-related jobs, like coaching, speaking at clinics, writing articles, etc.
- Non-triathlon jobs
- Family (lol, no really)
You won’t be surprised that most “professional” triathletes aren’t making professional amounts at triathlon. They do it for other reasons.
To continue racing as an elite, you have to re-qualify once every three years by finishing within 8% of the winner’s time at a race offering at least a $5,000 prize purse. My understanding is that at the end of any year you can opt to not renew your license.
That’s more or less the basics. Though it can get a lot more complicated.