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One Man's View of Aqua Bike Events

Posted on February 25, 2010

by Chris Coffin

3 years ago I reinvented myself.  No, I didn't change my name and move to a different part of the country.  I didn't sell all of my possessions and take up a new occupation. I was forced to reinvent myself as an athlete.


In 1987 I began my NCAA Division I swimming career at Providence College. During that time I began competing in USLA lifeguard events such as the distance surf paddle and the lifeguard ironman. I transitioned to open water masters swimming and in 1991 I entered my first triathlon. I was instantly hooked on the multi-sport lifestyle. Unfortunately due to poor bio-mechanics and bone structure in my foot and ankle, 16 years of triathlon training and racing had taken its toll. I developed a degenerative condition where my posterior tibialus tendon began to come apart. No, it did not simply tear in half (that would be too easy), it began to shred, break down and come apart like an over cooked pot roast. I went through almost 3 years of repetitive cycles; injury, therapy, crutches, casts, boots, getting better, racing again and re-injuring. Finally after meeting with 3 different sports orthopedists, I was told by each one separately that "I should give up running" or face major tendon replacements, bone grafting, titanium inserts, even having my heel bone cut off and screwed back on into a new position. The doctors said that if the surgery was successful, they could fix my problem, but the likelihood of me running again at the level that I was used to was almost 0%. I was not willing to do that. I had to think about my future and my ability to one day play with my son in the yard, or take a walk with my wife while on vacation and be functional and pain free. So I had to cut my losses and shut everything down for a year and stay off my feet to heal. As you may know physical therapy is tough, but the mental toll it takes on you is the hardest part. To be told that your body has failed you, that you will not be able to be the athlete you once were and partake in the sport that you once loved is a tremendous blow. Contemplating my physical well being, my identity, and my overall state of fitness for the rest of my life was overwhelming. I had no other choice but to cry about it, or struggle to re-invent myself.


In 2007 I was close to pain free, had gained 25 pounds, and was able to walk with a limp. I was back in the pool and able to do a flip turn again. With some strength training I got my muscle tone back and was able to walk briskly and began to ride again. Ice and Advil became my best friends! My old tri friends told me that an incarnation of Triathlon, "AquaVelo" or "AquaBike" as others call it, was being adopted and integrated in to the formats of some major triathlons and grass roots local races.  I thought... Swim... Bike .... Done? Awesome! Where do I sign up?


3 years later I am back to 175 pounds, am in great shape and am competitive in my new athletic incarnation. I have found a new identity and new purpose; I am no longer a triathlete, I am an 'AquaBike specialist! (sounds cool, right?) Even more important is that I have discovered an entire demographic within triathlon/multi-sport that gravitates to AquaBike events for the same reasons I do:

1. We can no longer run due to degenerative injuries to knees, backs, ankles, feet, etc. 

2. We still find joy in being active and participating in the multi-sport lifestyle.

3. We enjoy being part of teams, clubs and informal training groups to socialize and share in a sense of community, instead of being left on the sidelines.

4. We have a renewed fire within us and have the opportunity to compete and test ourselves like we used to.

5. We refuse to let our physical limitations impede the over all benefits of living healthy lifestyles through our involvement in multi-sport.


After 3 years of competing as an AquaBiker on the local and regional levels and achieving a considerable level of success, I wanted to see if I could compete in the AquaBike National Championship. I did my research and found that the USAT held National Championship events in Triathlon, Winter Triathlon, Duathlon, Aquathlon, and Paratriathlon. No Aquabike. The USAT also did not rank its AquaBike athletes for All American status. I was bummed... After re-inventing myself and gaining my health back, I wanted to have the opportunity to compete with the best athletes in my discipline. The unfortunate reality was that although the USAT sanctions AquaBike races, there needed to be more races offered regionally and nationally to qualify for consideration for its own National Championship. Odd isn't it?  We have dedicated multi-sport championships for those who compete in all three sports, all three sports in the cold, championships for those who run and bike, those who swim and run, and of course athletes who are physically challenged, but no event for those who swim and bike? 


The bottom line is that AquaBike needs more race directors to embrace the idea of integrating the discipline into their traditional triathlon format; it is very simple to do. Ask Rob Vigorito, President the of Columbia Triathlon Association and race director for Eagleman 70.3 and Chesapeakeman Ultra Triathlon and has been integrating AquaBike, (or AquaVelo as Vigorito calls it) into his races for years. The Buffalo Springs Lake 70.3, orchestrated by Mike Greer has also embraced the integration of AquaBike competitors for a long time. This past fall the Redman Triathlon hosted the National Club Championships and successfully integrated Aquabike into their format, in two distances!  Mandy Braverman, director of the Nutmegman 70.3 and Michael Larkin, director of the Long Island Gold Coast Sprint Tri are also supporters of AquaBike divisions within their triathlon formats.  I could go on and on citing race directors who enthusiastically see AquaBike as an important incarnation of mult-sport events, but the reality is that we need more.  We need more races locally and regionally and they need to be sanctioned by the USAT so that the USAT can see the numerical reality that the sport of AquaBike is growing.


Over the past 3 years, I have met numerous athletes who travel far and flock to triathlons to specifically participate in AquaBike divisions because there just are not enough races out there. I have met sympathetic and supportive race directors who understand the benefits of including AquaBike within race formats. I have also met race directors who simply did not even know that the sport of AquaBike exists or what is was! I have met directors who know of AquaBike, but are confused as to how to integrate it or see it as a hassle to do so. I have also met race directors who are extreme triathlon purists and do not want anything to do with Aquabike because they refuse to recognize or support it. (I find this incredibly offensive seeing that I was a triathlete for years before succumbing to an injury.)  Regardless, what is apparent is that there is a fast growing sport within the multi-sport community with a definitive demographic and it needs to be recognized and legitimized.  Race directors need to take the lead and learn from the examples set forth by Rob Vigorito and Mike Greer, and begin including AquaBike in to their race formats.  As I said, it is very easy to do:

1. Commit to including AquaBike into the format. 

2. Advertise its inclusion! 

3. Create a definitive AquaBike wave.

4. Work with those running the timing system to simply configure the timing chips to halt timing when the AquaBike athlete enters transition number two. 

5. Provide awards and place finishes just as they do for the triathletes; do not make the Aquabike athletes feel any less than those who are competing in all three sports.


This past year numerous discussions and emails took place between race directors, athletes, coaches, and USAT representatives to discuss giving AquaBike (or AquaVelo) the legitimacy it deserves. Through successful lobbying via numerous parties, it was determined that in 2010 AquaVelo will have All American status and age group rankings. In the future I can only hope that the groundswell of support will move the USAT to give Aquabike its own National Championship event. Lastly by adopting a new incarnation of multi-sport we must realize that it will draw a new type of athlete and increases overall USAT memberships as well as increase revenue for race directors via sign-ups for AquaBike supportive races. But beside elite level competitions, membership, advertising and revenue streams, we have to realize why most of us got into triathlon and multi-sport in the first place; probably for the immediate and long lasting health benefits, to challenge one's self, to set a goal, to achieve a goal, to be part of a community, and to live an enduring multi-sport lifestyle. 


We have a new subset of triathlon called AquaBike that is growing dramatically. We need to support it, integrate it, and embrace it as one of the many triathlon incarnations. If you are an athlete, reach out to your local and regional race directors to include the sport of AquaBike. If you are a race director, please consider its inclusion. Thank you to Skip Gilbert, Bob Wendling, Rob Vigorito, Mike Greer, Mandy Braverman, and Michael Larkin for helping to pave the way for AquaBike and for the advancements in the sport over the past year. (I know there are many other supportive race directors not mentioned, but can not list them all.) Please feel free to look up any of the mentioned race directors on line, contact them, and see how you can successfully include AquaBike into your race format.


Gotta' Run!  (no, wait... I can't do that!)

Chris  Coffin

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