This Saturday afternoon, on the rolling plains of Huron’s Broadland Creek National Golf Course, South Dakota will crown its high school state cross country champions. It will surprise no one if the AA winners are Stevens freshman Tamara Gorman and Central junior Tony Smoragiewicz. They have dominated every race they have competed in this season. It is their moment.
With only days left in the season, the order of the week has been mental preparation, light training, and rest. Rest, rest, and more rest. So why did I find the two most dominant runners in the state swimming laps?
I walk into the Swim Center at Roosevelt Park through a heavy fog of chlorinated steam that burns my eyes, and I wonder to myself; Why I am interviewing them here? It’s an unseasonably warm 80 degree autumn afternoon. Why aren’t they relaxing in the sun after their daily six mile run with cross-country teammates?
Tony is in the pool. Tamara sits slumped against the wall with her head tilted to the side. She is exhausted. It’s the kind of tired when your face turns pale, your eyes are bloodshot, and your words are slow. “She always says she’s tired.” Tony says with a smile from the pool’s edge.
While many teenagers are enjoying Cold Stone ice cream, Facebooking, and friends, Gorman is taking the only five minutes she’s had all day to rest. Later she tells me she misses her friends. She is only 14 years old. She’s already a national champion.
Tony and Tamara will tell you how important cross-country is to them. They both want to run in college. But they are not swimming their way to cross-country titles. They are training for a much bigger goal far, far, into the future.
Gorman is not yet South Dakota’s cross-country champion, but she is a national champion for her age group in the triathlon. Smoragiewicz finished fourth nationally in his age group. They’re at a swimming pool because they are training for the 2020 Olympics. The Olympic Committee has not even selected a host city, but Smoragiewicz and Gorman train every day as if the opening ceremonies are next week, and the kind of running they do as cross-country champions is only a third of what they must master to be triathletes.
“No one pushes me, I do this because I want to,” says Gorman.
“Is it something that you think about when you train? Is that what pushes you?” I ask.
“Yes.” says Tony. “I think about it a lot.”
Tony and Tamara’s day is not like yours, or mine, or even like high school running champions. Their day starts at daybreak–with a short three mile swim. From 8 to 3 they go to school like all their friends. They both get straight A’s. After school they run six miles. This is the cross-country part we all know about. At 6 p.m., when their friends are getting ready for dinner, they head back to the pool for another three mile swim. They also ride 55-85 miles a week on custom road bicycles. This happens Monday through Friday. In winter, they take their bikes off their frames, attach them to high-tech video monitors programmed to simulate a real race, and keep on peddling.
The odds of making it to the Olympic Games are astronomical, but that means very little to Tony and Tamara. It never interferes with their training.
It’s too obvious to say that it takes a different level of dedication to become an Olympian, especially in a grueling event like the triathlon. The proof that these two young athletes have a legitimate shot to get there lies in their actions not words; their grinding, relentless actions.
Tony Smoragiewicz didn’t compete in only one race this season. But he didn’t rest. At daybreak the next morning Tony woke up his father, Jim, and told him that he wanted to go the track. And so as the morning sun shot out its first rays, Tony was already in full stride on the track at an empty Dunham Field. He was working on his mile time for next spring’s track season.
“It’s just something I have to do,” he said. “I wanted to know where I was at.”
I asked Tony and Tamara when their next triathlon event was.
“Why not wait until after the cross country-season to train?” I ask.
“That’s not the way it works. It’s all year round training.” says Tony.
“These two have as realistic of a shot of being Olympians in the triathlon as anyone in the United States,” said Tony’s father, Jim, who was a swimming coach at Syracuse and Toledo from 1979-1995. “They’re going to have to stay motivated, keep training, and stay healthy.”
Triathlon races vary in distance. In the 16-19 year old age group which Smoragiewicz competes in, the race consists of a 750 meter swim (almost a half mile), 20K of cycling (12.4 miles), and a 5K run (3.1 miles). For Gorman, who competes in the 13-16 age group, the distances are cut in half.
The biggest advantage that Gorman and Smoragiewicz have is that they are on the cusp of a new generation of triathletes. In the past, young athletes developed in one sport, went to college in one sport, and then, often on their own, tried to learn the other components of the triathlon. Not any more.
“These kids don’t stop training,” said Jim Smoragiewicz. “It’s been four years since USA Triathlon created the elite youth development program. Instead of waiting for athletes to finish college and start training them, they are starting in middle school. It’s no longer about being great at just one sport, they are focusing on all three at once from a young age.”
The prime age of a triathlete is from 25-30 years old as opposed to other Olympic events like gymnastics where the competitors are much younger. This means that Gorman and Smoragiewicz will be 26 and Gorman 24 when the 2020 Olympics arrive. According to Jim Smoragiewicz this is all part of the plan.
It is no secret that many cross country coaches, high school and college, are not big fans of having their runners train for triathlons. But this mentality is changing, mostly by force. It is hard to argue with success. Some of the top runners in the country are triathletes, and if college coaches want them in their programs, they have to allow them to train in swimming and cycling. Both Gorman and Smoragiewicz strongly believe it is precisely because of their training for triathlons that they have been so successful in cross-country.
“The training correlates,” said Gorman. “Cross training helps a lot and for me there is no getting around that.”
“If I wasn’t doing triathlons during the summer I don’t know that I would be doing anything else,” said Smoragiewicz.
After Saturday can Tamara Gorman and Tony Smorgiewicz finally rest? Not a chance.
“I’m going to compete in national cross country meets,” said Tony.
And besides, there are still a few good weeks of bicycling weather left.