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No time to pause, gotta run

For pupils who enjoy swimming, cycling and running, the triathlon - cut down to youth endurance levels - can be good fun, writes Roddy Mackenzie

The triathlon may seem the most gruelling of sports but in Scotland children as young as eight are being encouraged to take it up.

They are not, however, being asked to complete a standard adult race of a 1,500m swim, 40km cycle and 10km run.

Triathlon Scotland, the sport's governing body, hopes to recruit children who have good all-round ability in the three disciplines, even if they don't excel in one.

The sport, which started only 30 years ago in California, is proving popular with children. At the Scottish Youth Triathlon Championships in Galashiels a fortnight ago, more than 70 youngsters took part in five age groups (8 and under, 9-10, 11-12, 13-14 and 15-16). The youngest had to swim 50m, cycle 1,000m and run 900m, while the oldest competed at distances of 400m, 4,000m and 3,000m.

"I think more people now know what triathlon is and the Olympics in Sydney four years ago (when the sport made its Games debut) and Athens this year have undoubtedly helped," says Caroline Wallace, Triathlon Scotland's youth coach.

"I think children see that there can be a future in the sport and elite athletes can go full-time and make a career of it.

"We are now attracting youngsters from all sorts of backgrounds, especially swimming clubs and athletics clubs, though not so many from cycling clubs.

"Some clubs are now looking at setting up junior sections. A few are a bit wary about taking children, although I'm sure that will change as they see more and more children taking part in races."

Triathlon Scotland is working hard to identify talent. The governing body hopes to expand its series of aquathon (swimming and running) races throughout Scotland, which have acted as a stepping stone to triathlon for children. Last year, more than 200 took part and many went on to take part this summer in the second Scottish Schools Triathlon Championships in Edinburgh.

"A lot of youngsters who come to triathlon are from swimming clubs," says Triathlon Scotland's director of development, Jackie Meekison, who is keen to get more children involved. "We are trying to work more closely with those clubs to give them another option if they feel they are not going to make it as swimmers.

"We are not looking to poach the best young swimmers," she explains , "but to work together with the clubs and show children there is an alternative."

A lot of the aquathon events are based in schools, which helps to cultivate interest in triathlon, but Triathlon Scotland has no formal school links.

"Our only contact with schools is to persuade primary and secondary schools to put up posters advertising our events or to hand out fliers," says Miss Meekison. "But getting into schools is something we are actively looking at.

"I've recently been in contact with a PE teacher who wants to introduce the sport to three schools in Edinburgh, but that is still at an early stage."

There are 35 triathlon clubs in Scotland but no full-time office for the sport, which still relies largely on volunteers.

Many children come to the sport because their parents are involved with a club or have taken part in races, says Miss Meekison, and word of mouth has helped to make races more popular.

"More children are showing an interest. We had around 90 taking part in the Scottish Schools Triathlon Championships in June and the weather that day was terrible, so it shows there is plenty of enthusiasm around." (Last year over 70 triathletes entered the inaugural event.) "The schools event has brought more and more children to our attention," says Miss Wallace, the youth coach. "After the championships, we selected a group for a training camp in Aberfeldy."

"The youth camps work well for us as we can work on core skills such as cornering a bike," says Miss Meekison, "and we aim to draw children to the programme and keep them there."

The Scottish youth squad of a dozen or so athletes aged 12-16 meets four times a year at the recreation centre in Perthshire. Resources are limited but there has been no shortage of success. The team won the British Youth Inter-Regional Triathlon Championships at Liverpool almost a month ago, successfully defending the title it won at Loughborough last year. Hatty Floyd, a pupil at Balfron High, Stirling, also won the British individual youth title earlier this summer.

"It is a considerable achievement considering there are no paid employees at Triathlon Scotland and there are over 40 full-time development officers in England," says Miss Meekison. "But we must be doing something right.

Everyone was out to beat us this year after our success last time.

"Last year there was no kit for the children but sponsorship this year meant we were at least able to give them T-shirts with 'Scotland' on the back."

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