A national powerhouse
By ANDREW SEIDLER - aseidler@kcchronicle.com

GENEVA – Jennifer Howland’s friends are like any other 14-year-old’s.

“They just think I’m crazy,” said Howland, who is entering her freshman year at Kaneland. “I’ll tell them I got up early and rode 60 miles today, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I just woke up.’ ”

An average week with the Geneva-based MultiSport Madness Triathlon Team has the Elburn resident cycling 150 miles, running 40 and swimming 16. Practices are once and twice a day, six or seven days a week, year-round.

“Burnout – people ask me about that all the time,” MultiSport Madness founder Keith Dickson said. “Now, take this line with a grain of salt, but really, that’s the goal.

“We’re not looking for weekend warriors. We’re creating passionate athletes that will start at a young age – 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 – and work like crazy through high school and college to become elite athletes before they hang it up and get jobs and start families. … They’ll take a lot of lessons with them from that kind of hard work and commitment.”

A three-time national triathlon champion – first in the youth (11-12) division, then the past two years in youth elite (13-15) – Howland has reaped handsome rewards from her intensive regimen with MultiSport Madness.

Her success as one of a 15-member core that began in 2002 has mirrored the team’s ascension to national prominence. MultiSport Madness has won the USA Triathlon national championship the past three years, ballooning to 60 members in the process.

“I really didn’t know what I was getting into at first,” said Howland, a former club swimmer. “But being part of this team is really exciting. We’re getting bigger, but they’re all like my brothers and sisters. But I really didn’t think it would take me this far.”

The man with the plan

Six years ago, when Dickson began forming MultiSport Madness, the triathlon world was without a sound model to his way of thinking.

That didn’t bother him. The North Carolina native’s distaste for convention rivals his passion for hard-core training. Still, he needed something to draw on because triathlon, for him, merely was a hobby he had picked up three years prior.

Dickson did, however, know business given his career in trading, and he knew high-level swimming from his days competing at the University of Florida. Calling upon both, Dickson’s Tri-Cities brainchild, fueled heavily by local athletes, quickly has become a national triathlon power.

“I jumped on this thing and saw those inefficiencies in the sport because it was a very young sport,” Dickson said in his soothing southern drawl. “Now that I see I was right, I just want to step on the gas, punch down that pedal and say, ‘See ya later.’ ”

Each of the partners at Fox River Financial, a private investment group in Geneva where Dickson works, has a heavy-involvement “pet project.” Dickson’s is MultiSport Madness.

It’s not a money-making scheme. That’s an important distinction, said Dickson, who says many teams put a premium on numbers and profits over individual development.

Fox River Financial absorbs 60 percent of the estimated $300,000 annual team budget, and Dickson can spend 30 hours each week coaching, making travel plans, soliciting sponsorship, even pumping the occasional tire.

“I do a little bit of everything, but our mission [at Fox River Financial] is to build value in people, places and things,” Dickson said. “I feel like we’re accomplishing that with these kids. ... Through swimming, I saw the world. I just say to these kids, ‘If you do the work, you can see the world, too.’ ”

Creating the environment

MultiSport Madness has picked up national titles in Bellingham, Wash., Bridgeport, Conn., and Longmont, Colo., over the past three years. The team races all over the country and, increasingly, the world – in Vancouver, Hamburg, Germany and Mazatlan, Mexico.

The opportunities are the byproduct of rigorous training, sound coaching and a culture of family.

“There is no secret sauce in coaching,” Dickson said. “Sure, the right training puts some spice in the sauce, but what’s really important is the environment. That’s the trick, and that’s what we’ve created here.”

Dickson picked up that trick through swimming. He grew up in a swimming family in Charlotte, N.C., where elite club swimmers would stay with his family during training. At Florida, Dickson was on a national title-winning 4x200 relay team and lived with several Olympians. Dickson himself swam at the 1976 U.S. Olympic Trials and the 1978 World Championships.

When he began mulling the possibility of forming a triathlon team, Dickson reconnected with his former college coach, Randy Reese. Reese’s seal of approval confirmed Dickson’s suspicion that he was onto something with the burgeoning sport, still barely 30 years old.

“I think it’s a great sport that’s only going to grow because you get so many different activities ... without wearing yourself down too much or injuring yourself from the repetition,” said Reese, a 2005 International Swimming Hall of Fame inductee. “That kind of cross-training is a very good thing. You can see that this is a big time for the sport.”

In addition to frequent consultations with Reese, Dickson has surrounded the team with talented coaches. Adam Zucco, a triathlon competitor and coach who volunteers his time to MultiSport Madness and whose impact Dickson called “absolutely vital,” designs the team’s training.

Given the rapid growth at MultiSport Madness, in March Dickson brought in Cortino Garcia as a full-time coach and team director. Garcia previously coached in Colorado with Riptide Multisports, which merged with MultiSport Madness in 2007.

“This is a very exciting place to be right now, here with this team,” Garcia said. “I loved Colorado. When Keith initially asked me, I thought , ‘No way I’m moving.’ But it was an opportunity to work with a team that has the chance to change the face of triathlon in this country.”

Chicago, 2016?

The beginnings were rather humble. The original MultiSport Madness roster depended heavily on Dickson’s own family. Four of the 15 members were his children.

A flier here, a phone call there and, one by one, the team grew.

“It was a word-of-mouth thing,” Dickson said. “I always look for a good swim-run combo. … But willingness to work hard, and I mean really hard, is the most important part.”

While the team’s core remains local, Dickson’s goal to create a destination program is gaining traction.

After meeting the team at a triathlon camp in Colorado last summer, Ryan Bice, a 16-year-old from Logansport, Ind., contacted Dickson, and in April joined the team. He attended a weeklong summer camp in Galena and periodically comes to Geneva and stays with the family of teammate Kevin McDowell. He currently is in town for 10 days of training, and plans to keep up with it in the years to come, despite the 3 hour, 15-minute car trip.

“It really is a close group. We compete with each other, and that just makes me want to train even harder,” Bice said. “It’s a lot easier training with this group than when you’re on your own.”

The other piece of the MultiSport Madness puzzle is expanding beyond the developmental levels, where the team reigns supreme nationally.

“The goal is creating a self-sustaining blueprint that spits out elite athletes, starting at age 8 and up to 28, for 20 years,” Dickson said. “But we’re not there yet.”

While Dickson is guarded about a long-term forecast, Garcia said the mission is clear.

“We want to build the program all the way up,” Garcia said. “Our goal is to put kids on World Championships and Olympic podiums. That’s the goal.”

Which makes the 2016 Olympics, where Chicago remains a host city candidate, all the more tantalizing for the team’s budding athletes.

“I’m hoping to make it there,” Howland said. “That would be amazing.”

Crazy, even.