Triathlon may be a niche sport in Manitoba but that doesn’t mean homegrown competitors are lacking for role models.
Up and coming young stars like Sanford’s Blake Harris can look to Tyler Mislawchuk of Oak Bluff for inspiration. Before that, Mislawchuk followed the lead of Winnipeg’s Sarah-Anne Brault, a 2016 Olympian.
The unifying thread of these success stories is the work being done by veteran Triathlon Manitoba head coach Gary Pallett.
Pallett, who has been coaching in the sport for three decades, has held his current job since 2000. He recalls a very raw Mislawchuk joining his training group 11 years ago.
He saw potential in the 15-year-old still learning to swim competitively.
"He just ran effortlessly so I knew there was some talent there," said Pallett earlier this week prior to a group training session at Birds Hill Park. "It just required a lot of work from there but Tyler was never scared of work...
"You can see potential but especially in triathlon or any endurance-based sport, if you don't do the work you can be the most talented person in the world and you're still not going to go anywhere in the sport... You can see potential but you don't know. There's been a lot of athletes who have a lot of potential and not made it to the next level."
Mislawchuk, currently preparing for the Tokyo Olympics at a training camp in Bentonville, Ark., joined Brault at the Rio Olympics to comprise two of the five members of Canada's triathlon squad.
Pallett's uncanny ability to produce elite performers from a relatively small talent pool hasn't gone unnoticed, garnering praise from superstar Olympian Simon Whitfield, a Canadian gold and silver medallist.
"He's been running a triathlon program for so many years and for that whole community of Manitoba triathlon to produce Sarah-Anne Brault and now Tyler, it's cool," Whitfield told the Free Press.
"It's really a tribute to them when a sport catches on and a group of people get together and say, 'Hey, we should set up a little tri course and do these things and maybe one day we'll put someone at the Olympics.' And now you've got a guy who's gone and won the (Tokyo) test event and set himself up to be a real medal contender."
Brault retired from the sport in 2017 but Harris and former NCAA champion Kyla Roy, a Winnipegger, have begun to take a leadership role.
The 17-year-old Harris doesn't have to look far for inspiration. After joining Pallett's program in 2016, he struck up a friendship with Mislawchuk.
"We just slowly started training more and more together and whenever he's home we kind of train a fair bit together," said Harris, who won his first USAT Series junior race in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., last month. "I just think of him as another training partner that's really fast."
"I pay pretty close attention to (Tyler's progress) and we're consistently talking (or) texting each other. We probably don't go two weeks very often without talking to each other in some way."
Harris, who will be starting Grade 12 at Vincent Massey this fall, will be in the hunt for his second series victory Sunday in Des Moines, Iowa. He said Mislawchuk's success didn't get him into the sport but it certainly opened him up to the possibilities.
"I think I would have done it regardless but I think he's definitely changed the way that I (approached it) because he gave me like a lot of inspiration to trust your training," said Harris.
"You know Gary's program is fairly good when you got people like that coming out of it. And then you got Sarah-Anne at the Rio Olympics also being coached by Gary. Training with (Mislawchuk) has allowed me to see what the next level looks like and kind of give you an inspiration about it."
A large group of Manitobans will both be watching on July 26 when Mislawchuk gets to the start line as a medal contender in Tokyo. Pallett loves Mislawchuk's ambition.
"They could run the race five times and have five different sets of results based on things happening," said Pallett. "Now, everything's got to go perfect on the day for him, same as for 15 other guys that have the potential to win as well. He's not being cocky, but he's getting to the stage where he's got to be outwardly confident that he's got a shot to win because if you don't get to that stage where you believe you can win, your head will prevent you from winning."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.