EAGLE COUNTY — Vail Valley native John O’Neill wasn’t always a triathlete.
But now that he is, he wants to be the best.
Stumbling into the sport after a successful career as a NCAA Division 1 cross-country runner in college, O’Neill started small, learning the biking and swimming components of the sport and winning a few amateur events.
By the start of this season, he was feeling stronger than he ever has as a triathlete, and he even hit the podium at a Pan America Cup event in Mexico in March.
“That trip was how a race trip is supposed to go,” O’Neill said. “Before I left, on the plane ride down, at baggage claim, at dinner, in the hotel room before the race and on the start line all I could think about was a high finish.”
The Pan America Cup could be compared to the North America Cup of skiing — one level below the World Cup. Finishing third there in March gave O’Neill 150 International Triathlon Union points and bumped him up to 12th in the U.S. on the union’s ranking profile. With six spots from each country allowed at World Cup events, O’Neill knows exactly where to set his sights as far as short-term goals are concerned.
“If I could get into the top six for Americans, life would get a lot easier,” O’Neill said. “USA Triathlon would provide me with a lot more funding, and I would essentially get to pick and choose which World Cup races I wanted to do, rather than having to take the ones I can get.”
With only 75 competitors allowed entry into the next International Triathlon Union World Cup event — scheduled for May 10 in the Sichuan Province of China — O’Neill found himself in the first alternate spot a month before that event. If one person decided he couldn’t make it, O’Neill was to be given the first right of refusal on that person’s spot.
O’Neill got the call last week that indeed someone had canceled, and he started packing his bags for China.
TWO BRONZES FOR BRONZE
For O’Neill, a 2008 Battle Mountain High School graduate, getting to a World Cup event isn’t as simple as informing USA Triathlon that he has decided to compete.
He also has to take off work.
“Of every American in front of me on the ITU rankings, and the next seven behind me, as well, I’m the only person who has a full-time job,” O’Neill said last week. “I have some great sponsors who help me get to races and things, but one of the big reasons I have a job is so if I get into, for example, this race in China, I can get up and go. USA Triathlon will cover most of your expenses, but not all. They’ll probably buy my plane ticket, they’ll put me up while I’m over there and I’ll maybe have some per diem for food, but I had to get a $300 visa just to go to China. So you have to be able to afford that kind of thing, plus just rent and food and everything here at home.”
USA Triathlon offers gold, silver and bronze levels of funding for their athletes. A top-six ranking would put O’Neill into the bronze level of funding, which would pay for his coaching, provide him with a living stipend and health insurance, and fully cover all of his travel.
“Now, every time I race a Pan America Cup, the goal is to get on the podium,” he said. “Two more podium and I’ll be in the top six.”
RIO ON THE MIND
But there’s another goal looming for O’Neill, as well.
While World Cup is often the top echelon of a sport, in triathlon, there’s another, more competitive series above the World Cup for which O’Neill is gunning.
“The World Triathlon Series is the best of the best,” O’Neill said. “Any WTS race will have basically the same start list as the Olympics. ... The Rio Olympics are a long way out, but Olympic qualification starts May 15 of this year.”
For O’Neill to get there, he’ll need to not only graduate into the World Triathlon Series, but have a few respectable finishes there over the course of this season and next. O’Neill says not only is that possible, the timing is perfect, as far as his competition is concerned.
“The U.S. has some really good athletes, but we don’t have any one person who’s well above and beyond the rest,” he said. “We don’t have any Lindsey Vonns or Mikaela Shiffrins on the men’s side who are just dominating competitions. Right now, for male triathlon racers in the U.S., the carrot is extra orange and it’s just dangling in front of everybody.”
Follow O’Neill’s progress at www.johnrobertoneill.com.