In the beginning, there were runners, there were cyclists and there were swimmers. They revolved in separate spheres and rarely even saw each other, spending many hours a week honing their skills in their respective sports, seeking a shorter marathon time, a better cycling century or a faster 1500-meter swim. The animals that today we call triathletes had not yet been created.
There came a day when some folks in beautiful Hawaii decided to do the unthinkable by marrying these three disciplines, calling this new creation a triathlon. The runners, the cyclists and the swimmers were awed and attracted to this newest thing, this fresh challenge. But now the swimmers would have to learn to ride a bicycle, the runners would have to keep from drowning, and so forth. That is exactly how it was: there simply were no such things as triathletes. But they all were recreating themselves from their original specialties into TA-DA! Triathletes. Thus were they born, attracted by the newness of the sport, and by the possibility of becoming ……. An IRONMAN. (Oooooh!) I know because that is what drew me in.
Bear in mind that the initial metamorphosis happened rapidly in the tropical climate of Hawaii, where the water is never too cold for swimmers, and the air is warm for cyclists and runners. In the sea, there was no need to seek the thermal protection of the clumsy wetsuits that the divers and surfers used. Swim, get out of the warm water, get on your bicycle and ride and run in the ever-present sunshine.
Then something happened. The rest of the world found out about this new sport, triathlon. Word spread like COVID, and the first place to fall victim to it was, as you might guess, California, both north and south. But California is not Hawaii. The temperature of San Francisco Bay in the warmest months hovers in the high fifties, and it only gets gradually warmer as you travel south toward San Diego.
Among the first people to embrace the sport was open water swimmers from the Dolphin Club and the South End Club. (That is when and where the ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ TRIATHLON was born.) “We can do that.” Both of these San Francisco institutions had been putting swimmers in the Bay for over 100 years, and their tradition was to swim almost as close to naked as God made them. Those things called wetsuits? Wetsuits were for weenies. There even were a few ultraconservatives among them who would not even wear swim goggles. (That changed when a rugged retired Marine colonel swam goggle-less into a patch of diesel oil as he swam in from Alcatraz.)
These club swimmers had two advantages over the new open-water swimmers. First, they had years of frolicking in the currents and cold waters of San Francisco Bay. Second, no small number of them carried protective girth. On the other hand, the best runners and cyclists were comparatively skinny, an important body type when you are carrying your weight in a marathon. Still, in those days no one was wearing a wetsuit. Not yet.
I recall seeing one of the new breed of “professional triathletes” finish his mandatory non-wetsuit swim, come out of the water, mount his bicycle, fall over, mount again and fall over again. Mild hypothermia was common in those days, especially for the skinnies.
The skinny guys and gals got angry first, then smart. They decided that for them to be able to compete, they would have to wear wetsuits. The sport now had developed a governing body, and that body ruled that when water temperatures were low enough, wetsuits would be legal. In some races, there were separate categories of competitors: those who wore wetsuits, and the unclad swimmers. There were even two sets of awards, with and without wetsuits. At that point, the club swimmers, the naked swimmers, lost their weight and experienced an advantage over the skinny guys, the runners, and cyclists, the ones they called wetsuit weenies. That was the end of their dominance. The weenies took over the sport.
Wetsuits provide advantages beyond thermal protection. They give enough floatation so the swimmer rides higher in the water, with less friction, and faster times. Energy is conserved by the layer of insulation, so the athlete comes out of the water fresher before the bike ride and running legs of the triathlon. Wetsuits have taken over the sport, even in the Olympics. A big economic side-effect was the creation of a profitable wetsuit industry, with a market for triathletes much larger than when the only folks wearing wetsuits were surfers. Triathletes were now everywhere, often far from the sea.
Nobody dares to the term wetsuit weenie anymore, except maybe for a few of the troglodytes in the clubs in San Francisco. Progress.
Me? I have a confession. Twice, in the past 40 years, have I worn wetsuits. The first time was in 1994, in very cold water, and I might not be with you today without my thick wetsuit. The second time was several years back at Haag Lake. I hated it. It took away my freedom, so I gave it away. The thick wetsuit is still hanging in my closet, decades later. It saved my skin, and I am indebted to it. But I will never wear it again. Maybe I should sell it….?