Apparently long-distance freestyle just isn’t punishing enough. Triathlon, though? Now there’s a masochistic activity rising Harvard junior Jenna Shoemaker can live with.
Shoemaker, who swims for the Crimson women’s swimming and diving team, has burst onto the national triathlon circuit, propelling herself from novice to international competitor in just over a year thanks to a second-place finish at the USA Triathlon National Collegiate Championships in Lake Havasu City, Ariz. on April 24.
The runner-up showing qualified her for the World Intercollegiate Championships tomorrow in Palma de Majorca, Spain. But despite her almost immediate success, the leap from swimming to triathlon was neither easy nor without its beneficial strokes of luck along the way.
Recruited by Harvard as both a runner and swimmer, Shoemaker already possessed a requisite level of mastery over two of the three triathlon sub-events. But with practically no experience on a bike, the transition wasn’t quite seamless.
Despite that obstacle, early results only drew Shoemaker into the sport. In only her second triathlon, half the length of an Olympic course, Shoemaker obliterated an overmatched field, encouraging thoughts of pursuing a more serious track.
“In that race I didn’t see another woman the entire time,” Shoemaker said. “I started out swimming and never looked back. I heard about some of those senior national races and thought I might as well just dive in headfirst and find out if I really am good at this.”
But with minimal coaching and little experience against elite competition, Shoemaker failed to make as big a splash as in her first races. Then, according to Shoemaker, came a lucky break possible only in New England—for once.
“I had a crappy race [at junior nationals],” Shoemaker said. “But I was seen by Steve Kelly.”
Kelly, who coaches an elite 10-person developmental team in New England, offered to take Shoemaker on not long thereafter.
“When I first talked to her a year ago, she’d just dabbled in a few events and found some early success, but she still had commitments to her sports at Harvard,” Kelly said. “It’s hard to balance the training that you need to be a full-time triathlete versus the training you’d need for one particular sport.”
But working with Kelly, Shoemaker has cultivated a training program that caters to both her swimming and triathlon requirements—and joined the Harvard Cycling Team to address her weakness.
“[Riding in groups] is one of the things that triathletes have a problem with [because] they tend to train alone,” Shoemaker said. “[Cyclists] hate triathletes because they tend to be so bad at riding a bike, but now I have the mind set that, well, I’m on the cycling team and I am a bike racer.”
According to Kelly, though, it has not been sheer work ethic that has underpinned Shoemaker’s dramatic improvement on the bike in such a short period.
“She has the right attitude to be a good cyclist,” Kelly said. “I think she’s very intelligent and you have to be very smart on the bike. She uses her intelligence to race smart.”
Now immersed in the national triathlon scene, Shoemaker hopes to use the window provided by the upcoming Olympics to get her feet wet against international competition, thereby increasing her world ranking.
Though the construction for the Athens games has not even been completed, Shoemaker is already planning for Olympic Trials in 2008, training and making a name for herself.
“I think, if I don’t qualify for 2008,  would be the next step,” Shoemaker said. “Endurance sports tend to favor more mature athletes, so as long as I stay healthy and somehow support myself financially I’ll be in this for a while.”
But, at least for now, thoughts Shoemaker’s thoughts are focused on overcoming jetlag, not financial adversity.
“It’s going to be interesting, how the traveling plays into this one,” Shoemaker said. “When I went to Portugal, I was there for almost a week. I really don’t have a lot of time to get my body adjusted. Hopefully it won’t be a factor, but it might be.”
—Staff writer Timothy J. McGinn can be reached at email@example.com.