'Kids of Steel' fun and challenging

ALISON KORN -- For Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:22 AM ET

At "Kids of Steel" triathlons, every kid gets a medal, and every kid's a winner.

Triathlon Canada's pint-sized swim-bike-run series for kids as young as three, kicks off next weekend with an event. We won't call it a race, though some of the older kids will be competing in Caledon on May 27.

The Kids of Steel program is designed to offer kids and young adults the opportunity to experience the sport of triathlon in a positive environment.

Distances are much shorter than those in adult triathlons, and increase as participants mature. The youngest kids typically swim 15 metres (sometimes wearing a life jacket and helped by a parent), bike or ride a tricycle for 100 metres, and run 100 metres.

About 15,000 kids participate every year in Kids of Steel triathlons in Canada, and the International Triathlon Union has now adopted Canada's model to help less-developed countries nurture their young athletes.

"I've always said that every kid is a mini-triathlete," said Barrie Shepley, the 2000 Sydney Olympic triathlon coach who founded the Caledon event seven years ago. "In the summer they ride their bike to the pool, swim around, eat a hot dog, run around the park, then ride home. Most healthy kids are triathletes well before they ever enter their first fun Kids of Steel triathlon.

Kids of Steel distances are short enough that the average kid can complete them without any training. It's only after age 12 or so that the swimming distances get as long as 250 metres (10 laps of a community pool), which requires kids to have some prior practice.

While the focus is squarely on fun, there are also big time success stories to come out of the program. Olympic gold medallist Simon Whitfield started triathlon at age 11 and raced Kids of Steel events for five years. He won Olympic gold in 2000 in Sydney. (The Olympic race is a 1,500-metre swim, 40-kilometre bike and 10-kilometre run.)

"I was a middle of the packer," Whitfield said of his humble beginnings with Kids of Steel. "I was a good runner and not a very good swimmer."

Whitfield has long been the poster child for Kids of Steel, with his cute, grinning 1991 photo featuring in the program, promo materials, but this season a new young triathlon talent is emerging. Junior world champion Kristen Sweetland, 18, last weekend won her first World Cup, in South Africa, the youngest Canadian woman ever to win at that level.

Sweetland got her start in Victoria B.C., competing in Kids of Steel races just five years ago. Now, Sweetland is the top Canadian woman in the sport and ranked third in the world. With the exception of a DNF because of a flat tire in her first World Cup start, the phenom has finished top-15 in all five of her World Cup starts.

"To be honest, I didn't see this happening so quickly. In a word: Wow!" wrote Whitfield, her training partner and mentor.

The popularity of Kids of Steel races has levelled off a bit lately after booming in the years following Whitfield's Olympic win in 2000. There are now about 125 races held across the country every year. Locally, the Caledon event on May 27 is the season's first, with a packed calendar of Ontario races scheduled throughout June, July and August.

"If a race is sanctioned as Kids of Steel, parents can know it's a safe, well-run event," according to Larry McMahon, director of coaching for

Triathlon Canada. In 2002, all provinces adopted a standard set of rules, age divisions and distances for the program. Competitive kids can get points towards a provincial ranking starting at age six.

Other popular Toronto events are the East End Kids of Steel Triathlon on June 9 at Birchmount Community Centre Pool and the Beaches Best Kids of Steel Duathlon on Sept. 22 (see www.familyfunfit.ca). For more information about the Caledon race, visit www.c3online.ca.

"Our program has one priority: To make a fun participation opportunity for kids of all levels," Shepley said. "The champions like Simon will just mature into excellence if you leave them alone and let them have fun when they are younger."


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