It was the day after the 2.4-mile Waikiki Rough Water Swim in September, 1979. I sat in the Sans Souci restaurant next to the Outrigger Canoe Club as the scent of sweet plumeria wafted through the open windows that faced the long curve of Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach. I was lunching with one of my two publishing partners, Penny Little, and enjoying the grilled Mahi Mahi and more than a few Mai Tais.
Looking out at the beach I noticed someone doing an odd swimming workout and thought I recognized him. I excused myself, scampered down to the sand, and approached the Speedoed man just as he exited the water. It was Dave Scott. Dave had just won the swim race the day before and I had come in a bit behind.
“Hey, Dave. Good swim yesterday.”
“Thanks. You, too.”
I asked, “So, why aren’t you relaxing and taking it easy?”
“Oh, I’ve got this workout program, and I can’t miss any days.”
“Really? What’re you working out for?”
“Something called the Ironman Triathlon. Ever heard of it?”
“Isn’t that the race that was written up in Sports Illustrated earlier this year?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“You know, I bet you could do alright in that.”
He smiled. “We’ll see.”
I wished him luck and headed back to the restaurant. As my bare feet splashed in the shallow water the wheels in my mind were already turning.
Penny Little, Mike Gilmore, and I had been publishing a quirky swimming magazine for almost a year. It was called SWIM SWIM, and we produced it in a vast, artist warehouse space in Santa Monica, which sits on the beach-and-breezy side of Los Angeles.
We had found a niche—adult fitness and open-water swimming, and the magazine was growing with subscribers worldwide and single-copy sales in speciality aquatic shops and other outlets around America. Penny, Mike, and I had met the year before at a local pool and thought that with our unique backgrounds we could produce an interesting publication for fitness, Masters, and rough-water swimmers (young, Olympic-bound swimmers already had a magazine). It was a nutty idea; nothing like it had been done before.
I was an art director working in Hollywood in the entertainment merchandising field (and had art-directed a couple of magazines before that), Penny was an art consultant and part-time writer/editor, and Mike had his MBA and was working for a company doing mergers and acquisitions. In other words, we had the three main skills for producing a magazine: editing/writing, art direction/production, and business/sales.
We launched SWIM SWIM in our spare time in late 1978. To save money, we used only two ink colors on a coated-paper wrap with a newsprint center section for a calendar, race entry forms, race results, and a list of places to swim. We would use that coated-plus-newsprint format again soon.
Because we loved and covered open-water swimming in SWIM SWIM (and we were also into cross-training—Penny was a strong long-distance runner), it was only natural that we noticed the bump in popularity of multi-sport events: run-swim-runs, biathlons, and, increasingly, triathlons. In fact, our Spring 1980 issue included a news report of the 1980 Hawaii Ironman (with complete results). The one I had asked Dave Scott about on the beach five months earlier.
Looking for any way to expand our shoestring operation, we created a special, one-shot publication in Spring, 1981 called the Rough Water Swimming Handbook. It included: official entry forms for open-water races, training and safety articles, and also a complete open-water swim calendar listing all the biathlons and triathlons we could track down.
The Handbook was bare bones but people liked it. And we also knew there was another step to take. While other sports publications and journalists were starting to write more about multi-sport (San Diego’s Mike Plant being a good example), there was no single, major publication devoted to what was turning into a new sport: triathlon. And this was something we realized we could do. I mean, why not?
We decided to do a real-world test the next year. We created another special, one-time publication with a limited focus on multi-sport events and released it before the start of the 1982 summer season (in the northern hemisphere; we were aiming at the U.S. market). We pushed it through our existing distribution channels and promoted it to our growing mailing lists. We called it SWIM-BIKE-RUN and produced it in our new office just outside downtown L.A.
S-B-R comprised a 16-page, full-color, coated-paper wrap (of mostly ads) around an 86-page newsprint center section packed with 40 race entry forms and the “1982 National Triathlon Calendar” (and also the “1982 Open Water Swimming Calendar”). It also had the complete results of the Hawaii Ironman Feb. ‘82 race (Scott Tinley beat Dave Scott in that one) and the official entry form for the Oct. ‘82 Ironman race (entry fee: $100; first 850 entries accepted, no qualifying). It wasn’t a true magazine with articles and such; it was all event-oriented—a giant calendar. This was the natural next step for us.
Was SWIM-BIKE-RUN a success? Well, we didn’t make a lot of money on it but we had “proof of concept” as business folks like to say. We had hit a nerve. And we were just getting warmed up.
Most people will agree that 1982 was the watershed year for triathlons. The year when the sport stood up on its wobbly legs and started to walk steadily forward. Key events that year:
— appearance of the first, shorter-distance, multi-city race series with a uniform format (U.S. Triathlon Series);
— first meetings to form a governing body for the sport (United States Triathlon Association);
— Sally Edwards publishes the sport’s first book: Triathlon: A Triple Fitness Sport;
— ABC TV Wide World of Sports’ coverage of Julie Moss’s excruciating crawl at the February Hawaii Ironman;
— more races popping up, and entries to all races going through the roof.
So with all this excitement about multi-sport plus the success of our SWIM-BIKE-RUN pub, we decided that we would roll out the first real magazine for the sport of triathlon right after the beginning of the new year (1983). But we had to get a few things organized first.
To start, we needed money. Hard to launch a magazine without it. So, in addition to our own seed capital, we began talking to successful businessmen (and women) who were drawn to the sport and wanted to be part of something unique. Which meant a lot of bike rides, runs, and swims in San Diego, L.A., and points further north. If you had some discretionary funds and you liked triathlons, we wanted to talk to you.
All three of us also decided to go to the October, 1982 Hawaii Ironman. Penny and I wanted to participate to really understand what it was about, and Mike wanted to schmooze with potential investors and advertisers.
The Ironman was grueling but great. And we talked to a lot of people to get their views on what they wanted in a magazine. We were full of ideas when we flew home.
By the end of the year, we had raised enough outside funding to launch this new part of our business, and we were ready to finalize the magazine for its early 1983 debut.
While we were fundraising, Mike was lining up advertisers, which we knew would make or break the venture. We already had a good start with the swimming companies from SWIM SWIM, but Mike began reaching out to multi-sport race directors and then attending the trade shows: sporting goods, cycling, running. He tells the story of flying the red-eye from L.A. to NYC, hitting the YMCA to shower and shave, and then starting his round of meetings and flying home the same day. We were counting our pennies.
Distribution was its own challenge. We couldn’t get on the national newsstands with a first issue (that would come soon), so we hired the ever-smiling Daemon Filson, a sales dynamo, to call every bike shop and running store in the U.S. and get them to agree to stock the magazine on consignment. Most did. Then we came up with the best idea yet: we created a “Free Race Bags” program. We sold inserts into generic, plastic race bags (with our name printed big on them, naturally) and then sent the bags out free to any multi-sport race director who wanted them. We included our subscription card and invited our friends and athletes for pizza parties at the office to help stuff and box them up. The race bags were a major success in increasing our subscriber base in those early years.
And all this time, Penny and I were developing the editorial side: the writers, the articles, the photography, and the graphic design for the new publication.
Just before our launch date we moved into our third office a few miles inland, in an old industrial area in Culver City. We were staffing up and needed more space and a more convenient location.
Finally... Ta-Da! The first issue of Triathlon Magazine hit the streets at the end of February, 1983, with 64 pages (all slick, standard magazine format, no newsprint this time), lots of ads, and even more hopes. As before, Penny was Editor, Mike was Publisher, and I was Art Director and PR Director. Writer Katherine Vaz came aboard to help Penny as Senior Editor, and designer Patti Benner helped me with the art direction and production.
The list of contributors for the first issue was a virtual Who’s Who in the sport including: Mike Plant, Sally Edwards, Dave Scott, Scott Tinley, Bob Babbitt, John Howard... We got a lot of help from a lot of friends in the sport to make this happen.
We used a traditional magazine format with Features, Columns, and Departments to cover all the bases. And we had some unique items:
— A long cover story about the October, 1982 Ironman (written by Mike Plant; photos, including that great cover shot, by Pulitzer-Prize-winning photographer Skeeter Hagler)
—How-To advice columns for each of the three separate component sports plus a Triple Training one as a Q&A with Dave Scott;
—a big Calendar (“Special Guide to Early Season Triathlons and Other Multi-Sport Events”; the full year would come in the next Summer issue)
—Race Notes: a special section with highlights of triathlon events from around the world. We were actively soliciting submissions from anyone who wanted to send us the info
—Finish Line: a single clever or ironic photo on the last page;
—Finally, because we were talking to so many people about triathlons, I got it in my head to write a gossipy column called “Informer: Triathlon News & Rumors,” which had the little tidbits we didn’t have room for elsewhere. It was in the first issue and stayed there for as long as I was around. It started off as just text as though it were flying off my typewriter (remember, there were no computers or word-processing back then). By the end of the first year, we started adding photos, and the Informer became a versatile place to put short items with different authors and editors in charge of it over time.
So what was the response to Triathlon Magazine’s premiere issue? The retail stores and the subscribers and other readers ate it up. And just as importantly, the advertisers loved it. Why? Because we now had a physical product to show them. It wasn’t just talk. They could hold it in their hands and understand that triathlon was a real, new market for them. And it wasn’t only about the Ironman.
We were off and running. The sport of triathlon had its own magazine.
Soon after our inaugural issue of Triathlon came out, we heard there was another publication getting started. It was produced by William R. Katovsky in Northern California (San Francisco Bay area), and I finally saw it at an event that summer (1983). A free, monthly tabloid, it aimed to be “the Rolling Stone of triathlon,” Bill tells me now.
We didn’t know much about Bill, but from other sources I discovered that he was a political science teacher at University of California Berkeley and very interested in the socio-cultural effects of sport. A bit different from us, but we all shared a passion for the tri-sport phenomenon.
We actually welcomed Tri-Athlete (note the hyphen in name) as a positive sign of the market’s viability. Besides, a little competition was a good thing.
But Bill’s pub would soon be changing as he brought in an outside investor within a year: Jean-Claude Garot from Belgium. Jean-Claude was publishing the cycling magazine Winning Bicycle Racing Illustrated, which had started in Europe and expanded to the U.S. He wanted in on the triathlon action, too.
And the first thing Tri-Athlete did was change from a primarily regional tabloid to an all-glossy magazine distributed nationally starting with their April 1984 issue. In other words, like us. Now there were two slick magazines covering the same sport in the U.S.
There was a friendly rivalry between the two magazines, but I got along fine with Bill. We would frequently end up bumping into each other on the dance floor at the same after-race parties. Bill was a character, for sure. But then, weren’t we all?
Magazines always reflect the personalities of their editors and owners, and the two magazines’ different styles came out. In my view, Triathlon was more mainstream than Tri-Athlete. Where they might go for the jugular with their hard-hitting commentary—I remember one article blasting me in an article titled “Poppycock Mr. Johnson”—we had a more commercial approach. For example, we were doing equipment and fashion guides early on. And running our own Triathlete’s Sportshop and Bookshop, and even travel tours to major events. I also thought we had better training and competing advice. They, on the other hand, were stronger in European race coverage since they had an office and were being produced there (in Belgium). But overall, I thought both magazines did a good job in covering the new sport. The main problem would be the word “both.” See more about that below.
Another major difference between Triathlon and Tri-Athlete was that we were, in my opinion, more active in developing and promoting the sport itself. We communicated regularly with the national news media trying to hype triathlons. We also created the Triathlete of the Year Awards (see below).
And we were very tapped into the triathlon industry and its power structures. One result was the formation of the first governing body of the sport, the United States Triathlon Association (in 1982), which would ultimately morph into the current USA Triathlon by way of Tri-Fed/USA. We (Triathlon Magazine) organized the first meeting of this embryonic group at a local beachside restaurant. I made the restaurant reservation. (We quickly merged with another group headed by John Disterdick doing the same thing a few miles away.) And I was voted to be the association’s first Executive Director, but I bowed out as soon as I could.
We spent the rest of the 1983 keeping up with the growing sport. And what growth it was! By the end of that year, 250,000 triathletes had competed in more than 1,000 races in the U.S. alone. In fact, our second issue (Summer 1983) had a Calendar of Events that was 12 pages long!
Our office in Culver City soon became a busy place. In addition to triathletes dropping by, there were advertisers and inventors pitching us their latest multi-sport products and services. Swimming wetsuit prototypes, bike carrying cases, new endurance drink concoctions, tri camps and training centers... we saw it all, and usually first.
There was also a feeling of camaraderie and shared purpose with other triathlon entrepreneurs. People like Carl Thomas and Jim Curl of the U.S. Triathlon Series. It felt like we were members of a special club, our own version of Silicon Valley for multi-sport start-ups. But we were also criticized for what some thought was an incestuous clique of insiders with too much control over the new sport. The “California Mafia” some called it. Maybe, but that’s another article for another time.
Nineteen-eighty-four brought changes to Triathlon Magazine. We increased our frequency to bi-monthly (six times a year), and we were busier than ever. The sport was booming and we were working hard keeping up with it.
We hit 116 pages early in 1984 and brought on more full-time staff to help with advertising (ad sales rep Karen Cosgrave, ad coordinator Nancy Tamayo, and Daemon Filson moving to ad sales), circulation (manager Nancy Mock), office (finance director Mark Wendly), and editorial. We hired Terry Mulgannon away from City Sports to be an Associate Editor to help Penny and Katherine.
We reached out to more contributors and hired freelance photographers when we could. Tracy Frankel was our go-to cover and event freelancer. Dave Epperson was the other magazine’s top shooter, although we used him occasionally, too. And we did a lot of photography ourselves.
One of the grooviest things we started in 1984 was the Triathlete of the Year Awards. Top triathletes were now the best endurance athletes in the world so why not celebrate them? These awards went much further than a line on an athlete’s resume; they helped spread the triathlon word to the general public.
In the first year, it was pretty low-key. The magazine staff picked Scott Molina for his outstanding race performances in 1984. We did a feature story about him, listed all his major results, and explained our methodology for picking him. Mike met him at LAX airport as he was switching flights and presented him with a $500 check. It was a 10-minute ceremony.
The following years, we turned up the Triathlete of the Year volume significantly. We would select one male and one female athlete, and also include a Readers Poll. And beyond simply publishing our picks in the magazine, we created a gala awards ceremony and invited everyone in the sport to dress up and attend. For the annual “TOY Bash,” we started out at a country club meeting room, but in the following years, we pulled out all the stops. These were now black-tie events at the Queen Mary docked in Long Beach. It was the Oscars of triathlon.
So things at Triathlon were looking good in 1984, but internally, the three-way partnership between Penny, Mike, and me was fraying. Most partnerships end up disintegrating and ours was no exception. Interests and ambitions change. Personal lives change.
Penny was the first to leave that spring (1984), and she sold her shares to Mike. I took over all editorial responsibilities as Editorial Director of both the swimming and triathlon magazines overseeing the other editors, who moved up a notch. Senior Editor Katherine Vaz also left around the same time to write her book: Cross Training: The Complete Book of Triathlon (“with the editors of Triathlon Magazine”), and Terry Mulgannon became editor of Triathlon. Mike was still publisher handling the business side of things.
At the same time, we decided to let SWIM SWIM sink beneath the waves; we were focusing on Triathlon Magazine.
At the beginning of 1985 we increased our publishing frequency to nine times per year and added more columns (“Tri Stars: Presenting the Sport’s Local Heros” and “Sports Health”) and bigger and better features, especially product guides.
To keep up with the growing list of triathlon races, events, people, and products we expanded the editorial staff again by bringing on board C.J. Olivares, Jr. as Associate Editor in mid-1985. C.J. was a local triathlete who actually had articles from the magazine pinned to his apartment walls for inspiration. Now he was helping to create them.
Because we didn’t have the resources to send more than one person to all the different far-flung events, each of us had to be able to act as reporter and photographer. I coached Terry and C.J. (and eventually Rich Graham) in our style of sports photography, and we all started to gel as a team for race event coverage as we each headed off to different points on the globe. I, of course, took the plum assignments. Tahiti? Sweden? New Zealand? Okay, you talked me into it.
And we kept evolving the look and feel of the magazine.
By 1986, the Triathlon operation was running smoothly. We were still publishing nine times per year, and we kept tweaking things. We added a classifieds ads section in the back. Our calendar of upcoming races and events hit 15 pages. And we were doing a lot more equipment, apparel, energy drink, and fashion features. Plus more top-triathlete profiles and more international race coverage. And everything seemed a bit more sophisticated as we got better at what we were doing.
And then things changed.
In early 1986 it became pretty clear to us that there couldn’t be two competing magazines operating in the same arena. As Mike Gilmore explained it to me, advertisers simply would not support two magazines in the same market space doing basically the same thing (they thought).
So we started having secret meetings with Jean-Claude Garot, then publisher of Tri-Athlete (Bill Katovsky was Editor-in-Chief). What if we combined forces? Companies did it all the time in other industries.
It took a couple of meetings, but we hammered out a merger with these deal points:
— The new magazine’s name would change to Triathlete (no hyphen). Why? At first, there was little concept of someone being a “triathlete,” which is why we originally named our publication after the activity: Triathlon. Like Bicycling magazine. But within three years (1986), people could actually see themselves as Triathletes, so it made sense to use that more personal title. We agreed to the slightly hybridized: Triathlete. And with a new logo design that we created with our staff.
— They (Garot) would run the circulation, production, and printing from their Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Brussels offices.
— We would keep control of all the art and editorial, and the advertising sales. Katovsky and his crew were out (although Bill would come back some years later).
The new, merged magazine appeared in July, 1986. No more Triathlon. No more Tri-Athlete. Now it was a combined publication: Triathlete.
To help with the extra work of combining both magazines, we added Rich Graham as Assistant Editor in September. Rich came from the world of roller hockey and was a fast learner in our busy office. Terry Mulgannon was still Editor; C.J. Olivares was Associate Editor. Patti Benner continued as Art Director. And I was in charge of the whole art and editorial side—everything between the ad pages, which Mike Gilmore was still managing.
Because of our new European partner, the magazine now had more continental flavor. Or as I said in the From the Editors of the next August 1986 issue: “We plan to cover the European scene more frequently because the benefits of this well-planned triathlon explosion in Europe are clear to Americans. Not only can we travel to and compete in well-organized races with fierce competition, and vice versa, but the Europeans will lend credibility and impetus to the worldwide triathlon movement that may one day lead to an Olympic triathlon and a sport that will be as accepted as McDonald’s hamburgers.” And what do you know... it actually happened!
By 1988, things at Triathlete were changing once more. We moved back to Santa Monica to a new office literally one-half block from the original SWIM SWIM office (on the new Third Street Promenade). We were back at the beach where we started, closing some sort of geographic historical loop.
By mid-year, Jean-Claude was making moves to take over the whole operation. I could have stayed on, but my inner clock was ticking. My professional efforts typically last about 10 years. After that, I lose momentum; I start getting itchy. And by Summer 1988, the itching was fierce. I needed to move on. I said my final goodbyes in the July ‘88 Triathlete, 24 issues after the merge, and 10 years after co-starting SWIM SWIM.
I left the magazine in the editorial hands of C.J., Rich, and Patti (Terry had left in May), and Mike and his team on the advertising side. Within a year, Mike was gone, too, and the second act of Triathlete Magazine was over. All of the original founders of the first triathlon magazines had moved on to new adventures. By the end of the 1980s other triathlon publications were now going or being founded around the world. Triathlete itself was one of them and it kept evolving under different managements. It’s still going today.
In storytelling, the resolution ties up the loose ends. In our case, Penny Little (Hawks) went back to her art roots as a fine-art consultant and now splits her time between Los Angeles and New Mexico. She maintains a regular fitness routine that even includes weighted hula-hooping on Venice Beach!
Mike Gilmore became President of Tri-Fed/USA and then helped Canadian Les McDonald grow the International Triathlon Union (ITU), ultimately becoming its Managing Director. Working with Les, Mike lobbied the IOC for Olympic status, created the ITU World Cup and expanded ITU World Championship events in Duathlon and Long Distance Triathlon. He lives in Washington state operating a sales agency in the credit card processing industry and continues his fitness regimen with swimming and walking.
Bill Katovsky tells me he came back to the sport in 1993 to launch Inside Triathlon as a sister mag to VeloNews, then a stint back at Triathlete in 1994, then onto writing books on media, politics, fitness, and running.
As for me, I started a marketing communications agency with my new wife in Santa Monica. We eventually moved to the central Virginia countryside where I authored several books on digital printing, created some interesting photography apps and websites, and do international consulting and writing to this day. I regularly swim, power-hike through the woods around my house, and jump on the elliptical trainer when the weather’s bad—still cross-training!
Whenever I meet a triathlete at my local pool I always ask what they’re training for and sometimes give them a quick swim tip (they usually need one :). When they ask if I know much about triathlons I just smile and say, “A little. It was a long time ago.”
It's hard for me to grasp that it's been 30+ years since I and a couple of friends started producing multi-sport publications, including Triathlon and Triathlete. I mean over 30+ years! And, yes, those subsequent years of my life have been filled with all kinds of exploits and the usual ups and downs of existence.
But there was something special about those early tri years for me. Not only did I feel grateful and lucky to be making a living chronicling (and experiencing) the outdoor, fitness-oriented lifestyle that formed the heart of triathlon, but I was very aware of and thrived on the excitement of a unique period in time when a new sport was forming. New businesses were launching, great friendships were established, and loves were won and lost. It was a fascinating era.
I recently re-read my goodbye to Triathlete Magazine readers in 1988, and the final sentence stands out: "Don't take anything, even the triathlon, too seriously. Instead, have fun and stay healthy." I've been trying to follow my own advice ever since.
Harald Johnson is a co-founder of Triathlete Magazine. He is a Masters Nationals swimming champion, a winner of the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, and he was first on the bike (yeah, he was surprised, too) at the October, 1982 Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. He didn’t win; Dave Scott did.