By Craig Chval Sr.
Notre Dame is celebrating its 125th season of varsity football in 2012. The Irish played their first men’s basketball game in 1898. Even sports that more recently attained varsity status at Notre Dame have roots that extend for decades.
To be sure, Notre Dame has had its share of sports pioneers, most notably Knute Rockne and Gus Dorais, who are widely credited with popularizing the forward pass in 1913, under head football coach Jesse Harper. For the most part, though, the Irish sports pioneers did their trailblazing in the distant past.
But don’t tell that to Nick Radkewich.
A five-time monogram winner in cross-country and track at Notre Dame, Radkewich helped the Irish to a third-place finish in the NCAA cross-country championship in 1990. But his greatest athletic accomplishments came in triathlon, and since triathlon is not recognized by the NCAA as a varsity sport, those accomplishments occurred away from Notre Dame.
That’s not to say that Radkewich’s triathlon accomplishments didn’t warrant notice.
Indeed, the Michigan native qualified for the United States Olympic triathlon team for the Sydney Games in 2000, the first year triathlon was included in the Olympics. After qualifying fourth in the U.S. Olympic Trials, Radkewich finished 30th in Sydney.
For Radkewich, who competed in his first triathlon at age 14 after his family had moved to Florida, the announcement in 1997 that triathlon would be a part of the Sydney Games was a long time coming. While ironman competitions and other signature events have raised the profile of the sport dramatically, it wasn’t always that way.
“It’s kind of a cool sport to do these days,” says Radkewich, before reflecting on the old days with a laugh. “But in those days, it was more of an underground sport. When you’d tell people that you did triathlon, they’d say, `What is that? Is that where you shoot people?'”
There is no shooting in triathlon (that’s the modern pentathlon – and competitors shoot targets, not people), which consists of swimming, bicycling and running. Standard race distances for adults vary from 400 meter swim/10 kilometer bicycle/2.5 kilometer run (“super sprint”) to 2.4 mile swim/112 mile bicycle/26.2 mile run (“Ironman Triathlon”). Olympic distances are 1.5 kilometer swim/40 kilometer bicycle/10 kilometer run.
Not only was the public perception of triathlon different in the 90’s, so was the sport itself. Equipment, coaching and resources were all primitive in comparison to current standards. Radkewich marvels at the improvements – and corresponding increase in price – of triathlon bikes, which run $10-12,000 these days.
“When you go into a bike shop and see a triathlon bike, there’s a financing tag on it,” he chuckles. “That certainly wasn’t the case when I started.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge of the “early” days of modern triathlon came in terms of options for young competitors – and that’s something Radkewich finds himself right in the middle of today.
Since the NCAA does not sponsor triathlon competition, triathletes typically elected to compete in swimming or track/cross-country at the collegiate level. Radkewich excelled both as a swimmer and a runner in high school before deciding to attend Notre Dame. Only recently have elite triathletes had an opportunity to earn scholarships to train and compete as triathletes while earning a college degree.
The Elite Triathlon Academy, launched in September 2011, is dedicated to helping the world’s best triathletes gain the resources needed to reach their goals of competing in the Olympic Games. Partnering with the United States Olympic Committee, the Academy provides scholarships and training facilities at the Olympic Training Center. The Academy is located in Colorado Springs, CO, at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, where the triathletes earn their undergraduate degrees.
Radkewich joined the Academy in a part-time capacity, but it soon became apparent that the arrangement wasn’t providing the triathletes the full benefit of what Radkewich had to offer. He now works as an assistant coach/program manager with the Academy, although he still commutes from New Hampshire, where he resides with his wife Susan Fitzgerald and their five children – Taylor, Jack, Duncan, Owen and Isabelle.
The triathletes at the Academy gain from Radkewich a perspective that very few – if any others – can offer. Traveling with the Academy team, Radkewich helps with everything from race strategy to logistics to unexpected equipment issues – “TSA can be pretty rough on bikes,” he half-jokes.
Most of all, the triathletes get the benefit of a true pioneer who had to figure out for himself how to make himself into the best triathlete he could possibly be. In Radkewich’s day, there were no triathlete coaches, there were swimming coaches, track coaches and cycling coaches.
“It was pretty much coach by committee,” he recalls.
Radkewich’s notion that an individual sport can benefit from having a team aspect traces back to what Radkewich learned from his Notre Dame coach, Joe Piane.
“The team environment was something I brought from racing at Notre Dame,” says Radkewich, who goes on to describe how Piane and the team incorporated the strategy of having the entire team run together for the first five kilometers of that 1990 NCAA championship cross-country race.
“The top runners on that team could have had better individual finishes, but they willingly agreed to run as a team to help us get the best team result,” Radkewich explains.
“That was the reason I chose Notre Dame,” he says. “The team atmosphere was amazing; everybody was so supportive. That’s what separated Notre Dame from the other schools.”
Radkewich was so impressed by Notre Dame during his recruiting visit that he canceled a recruiting trip to Michigan, much to the dismay of the many family members who were Michigan residents and Wolverine fans. Piane was out of town due to a family emergency during Radkewich’s visit, but he didn’t neglect to set the record straight before Radkewich signed on the dotted line.
“I told him that when you come to Notre Dame, you’re a track athlete, not a triathlete,” remembers Piane. “Your efforts have to be directed to track and cross-country, and that’s what he did.”
Prior to arriving at Notre Dame, Radkewich had won the first-ever triathlon youth national championship, and upon graduating from Notre Dame, he picked up right where he left off, running his first professional race a week after earning his Notre Dame diploma. From there, Radkewich established himself as an elite triathlete, including being honored as the 1998 USOC Triathlete of the Year and 1998 USA Triathlon Triathlete of the Year.
A couple years after the 2000 Olympic Games, Radkewich retired from the sport – or so he thought.
Following a stint in retail management, Radkewich’s wife encouraged him to pursue a graduate degree in sports recreation management and get into coaching. Along with helping to coach the men’s and women’s cross-country teams at Rivier College in New Hampshire and his role with the Elite Triathlon Academy, Radkewich operates Avenger Racing (www.triavenger.com). There, Radkewich offers triathlon coaching and consulting, utilizing personal consultations and online and email communications to provide personally-tailored programs.
Radkewich sees his work with young triathletes as an opportunity to give back to the sport. Piane, who has been giving to cross-country and track as Notre Dame’s head coach for 37 years, didn’t necessarily envision a coaching career for Radkewich.
“Most of our kids after getting a Notre Dame career, want to go out and earning a living,” Piane observes. “Why go into coaching and be poor?
“Hopefully, he likes to be poor,” jokes Piane.
Actually, it sounds like Radkewich is driven by some of the things that have driven Piane for so long.
“I get a chance to share what I have experienced,” says Radkewich. “And the kind of kids I’m working with makes it all worthwhile.”