Time for locals to make a splash

June 9th, 2015 6:51 pm

First Posted: 8/16/2014

As a grade school kid growing up in Dallas, Sean Mulloy watched curiously as a trendy new sport wove its way through the Back Mountain.

And for three decades, he’s kept thinking it would be cool to try it.

Today, he’ll finally get that chance.

Mulloy will join about 20 other first-time triathletes who will hit the waters of Harveys Lake today at 7:30 a.m. for the start of the 33rd annual Wilkes-Barre Triathlon, an Olympic-distance swim/bike/run event that’s as challenging mentally as it is physically.

“It’s right in the backyard,” Mulloy, now 42, said. “I remember seeing it as a kid, when it finished at Misericordia (University). I always thought about doing it.

“Thirty years later…”

He’s grateful to still have that opportunity.

The main reason the event has sustained such longevity — a rarity on the local level in the world of triathlon, competitors say — can be found in its fabric.

The Wilkes-Barre Triathlon has changed course, making period tweaks to its bike and run routes and now finishing on the campus at Penn State/Wilkes-Barre after ending at Misericordia during its first few years.

The event has changed names, starting as the Back Mountain Triathlon, then becoming the Wilkes-Barre Triathlon, morphing into the Greater Wilkes-Barre Triathlon and circling back to the current Wilkes-Barre Triathlon designation.

It’s fluctuated in terms of prestige, beginning as a local curiosity in 1982, drawing pros from the around the world as an Ironman qualifier and national championship race by the end of that decade, then easing back into an amateur event that’s very highly regarded around the state.

But the people who make it all go — the volunteers who dedicate themselves to tireless preparation and endless good will to give the triathlon a friendly community feel — have drawn raves from competitors for more than three decades.

“It’s not tedious at all,” said Joanne Gensel, the long-time director of the Wilkes-Barre Triathlon. “The weekend preparation of fencing is kind of tough. But it’s quite enjoyable putting it together. We really have good people. From the police department to the fire department and the volunteers, it’s very well-organized.

“Overall, I think it’s just as good of a race as when we had the pros.”

Now they have newbies.

Over the past 20 years, a team division — where one person swims, another bikes and a third finishes with the run — became popular in the field and attracted new-found interest in the sport.

“That’s exactly what the team was intended for,” Gensel said, “somebody who can swim really well and bike but doesn’t run very well, so they get a runner. It’s giving everybody a chance to participate in the triathlon.”

Today, competitors are offered a chance to compete in a scaled-down version of the race. The Wilkes-Barre Triathlon introduced a “Sprint Division” last year, where athletes can complete the course by themselves covering half the distances of the Olympic standard.

More than a dozen first-time triathletes will take advantage of it today.

“I’m a runner,” said Jared Kotsko of Mountain Top, a cross country runner for King’s College and an assistant cross country coach for Crestwood High School. “I already have one component. I thought, why not?”

While Kotsko isn’t fretting about his ability to complete his first triathlon, he left little to chance while preparing for it.

“I trained a lot more than a beginner,” said Kotsko, who said he did 13 workouts a week for the past two months covering running, biking and swimming. “I went a little overboard, just to get myself ready. I’d say I went so hard because I want to do the best I can.”

Jonathan Porcano of Stroudsburg figures doing the Olympic distance course of the Wilkes-Barre Triathlon today will give him the best chance of preparing for a new job.

“I plan on going into Navy Seals training,” Porcano said. “I figured this would be a good test. This is the closest (triathlon to his home) I could find.”

Some first-time participants expect to find a sense of excitement by venturing into the unknown.

“I was more of a runner, wanted a new challenge,” said Marcus Magyar of Forty Fort. “And Wilkes-Barre’s in my backyard.”

And others are just trying to jump over a new fence.

“I was a collegiate Division I swimmer,” said Katherine Weaver, a Vermont native who now lives in Scranton and competed in her first marathon race last year. “I figured why not just get on a bike, too? I didn’t have to travel far for this one. I started training a year ago.”

With wide-eyed optimism, all of them will jump into Harveys Lake looking to make a splash, and expecting the thrill of crossing the finish line of their first triathlon today.

“Unless,” Weaver joked, “I can’t change a flat tire.”