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A New Challenge for Professional Triathletes: Toppling Ironman Inc.

  • December 04, 2020

That is only part of the down side of professional triathlon, a sport that began as a lark in the 1970s in California and Hawaii. The dirty secret about elite triathletes, with their chiseled physiques, $8,000 bikes and training schedules that allow for unlimited chocolate cream pie, is that for most of the pros, the pay is relatively lousy.

Kevin Durant of the Nets will approach $40 million this season, not counting the millions more he earns through sponsorships. In 2019, Jan Frodeno of Germany, the reigning Ironman world champion and something of a deity to triathletes, got paid like a decent accountant for his victories, taking home $158,000 in prize money. Katie Zaferes of the United States, who led the prize money list for both men and women in 2019, earned $347,500. Just $80,000 in winnings was good enough for a spot in the top 10 on the money list. For the best of the best, endorsement deals can boost income — to the range of a bad middle relief pitcher — but since triathlon is barely on television, those lucrative endorsement deals are increasingly hard to come by for all but the superstars.

“The best triathletes are doing pretty well, but the ones in the middle and the bottom are hurting,” said Rocky Harris, chief executive of U.S.A. Triathlon, the sport’s national governing body.

Alissa Doehla, was a professional marathoner until 2016, when she decided to pursue the triathlon. She estimates the switch required about a $20,000 investment in equipment. She had five top 10 finishes in half-Ironman events in 2017. Then she got hit by a truck while training in 2018. She has returned to competitions and said while it’s possible she broke even that first year she certainly has not since then.

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