Sunday, June 7, 2009


(L  - Elite Wave launch at '09 Pigman Sprint. Photo courtesy of R -Kevin O'Connor en route to victory at the Oakdale Duathlon. File Photo by Erik Hull.)

(Palo, IA - June 7, 2009) Kevin O'Connor wears his smile like a wedding ring. He almost never takes it off.

It's not always easy to know what's going on behind Kevin's smile. A man of few words, especially adjectives and adverbs, he likes to keep his emotional states to himself. This is not to suggest that he is unfriendly. He is quite the opposite, actually. Kevin seems to care more about others than he does about himself. Getting the 38-year-old owner/operator of Gear West Bike & Triathlon to be forthcoming about his magnificent victory at the 17th annual Pigman Sprint was a bit like pulling teeth.

Kevin's amateur win at Little Pig, the 7th time he has done so, lowered his own course record, albeit by the slimmest possible margin, and was his 2nd W in three starts this season. One could argue that he is actually undefeated in '09, as he was credited with the amateur win at The Apple, though he was beaten by 16 seconds by "bubble amateur" Matt Payne, who raced in the Elite Wave. A "bubble amateur" is one who has the opportunity to accept an Elite, i.e. pro, slot for Worlds if his performance warrants it. (He finished in the 1st pass-down position.) If he qualifies and accepts the slot, he must relinquish his amateur license and obtain a pro card. Payne has yet to hear from USAT. 

Would Kevin have beaten Payne at Apple if Matt had raced as an age grouper, that is, if he hadn't had the advantage of being pushed and pulled along by a gaggle of pros? Kevin was asked this question the day after Apple. His smiling answer was brief.

"Maybe." His tone was not as equivocal as his one-word reply, though.

So, when asked if his Pig Sprint triumph was a pleasing experience, his response was characteristically understated.

"Well....yeah." Some people are truly uncomfortable talking about themselves, especially if it makes them appear self-congratulatory.

Kevin, the conditions must have been conducive to speed?

"It was warm and the roads were damp." The temperatures hovered around 70, there was little wind, which is rare in Iowa, and a storm the previous evening made for steamy air and darkened pavement.

Not the best racing circumstances, huh?

"I like those kind of conditions."

He must. His bike split (36:01 for 20K), the second fastest of the day (Devon Palmer rode a 36-flat) and a full 30 seconds faster than that of pro winner Daniel Bretscher, was incredible. (Note: Bretscher, a 2nd-year pro from Indiana, was the 2007 USAT Athlete of the Year and 2008 USAT Elite Rookie of the Year.  His time at Pig Sprint was 1:01:35, 32 seconds off David Thompson's pro record, and only 49 seconds faster than Kevin's clocking. Kevin beat Daniel off the bike but Daniel, a former collegiate runner (DePauw University), went on to turn in the fastest run split (16:25 for 5K) of the morning.)

Duluth's Brian Bich, an eight-time Pig Sprint amateur champ, chopped 13 seconds off his own masters record on June 7. His excellent 1:02:33 put him in 3rd overall/2nd amateur just 9 seconds behind O'Connor. At 43, the odds that Bich will pick up his 9th career win here are becoming increasingly slim. This could mean that the end of a glorious era is near. You see, until August of 2008, when Chaska's Curt Wood finished in front of him at Brewhouse, Brian had not been beaten by a Minnesota amateur since 2003, when Minneapolis' Chuck Smith finished four places ahead of him at USAT Age Group Nationals in Shreveport, LA. (Chuck was 6th overall; Brian was 10th.)

Accepting his first place awards at Lake Waconia and Heart of the Lakes last season, Bich noted that the "youngsters" are catching up to him--Devon Palmer, 21, was only 8 seconds behind him at LWT; Sam Hauck, 24, was only 20 ticks back at HOLT. 

And now some of the not-so-young guys--Wood is 30, O'Connor is 38--are catching up, too. This is NOT because Brian is getting slower.  Both Curt and Kevin beat him on days when he set a PR. Like Tony Schiller before him, his legacy of excellence has forced the competition to improve. (A six-time World Champion and former USAT Athlete of the Year and USAT Master of the Year and perennial All American, Schiller, now 51 and residing in Spring Park, is perhaps America's most decorated amateur triathlete ever.) Tony and Brian should continue to turn in national and world-class efforts for the remainder of their respective careers.

Other Minnesota men who cracked the top 10 at Pigman Sprint are St. Paul's Devon Palmer (5th) and Curt Wood (7th).

Apple Valley's Cathy Yndestad, a two-time USAT AOY Honorable Mention, recorded her third consecutive Pig Sprint win on June 7. Yndestad became a triathlete in 2002, a year she was a rather marginal nominee for Minnesota Rookie of the Year. Her competitive career since then has been meteoric, replete with the aforementioned national attention, being crowned 30-34 National Champion and collecting a spate of MMAs. Since winning her first multisport race in March of 2003 (Arizona Xterra), she has gone on to post 34 other victories. Her Pigman win was her third in four starts this season. Her margin was a tighter-than-usual 52 seconds over former Iowan (now of Colorado) Jenny Jackson. Two-time USAT National Champion (2006 & 2007) Jen Garrison of Naperville, IL took 3rd.

Three Minnesota girls finished in the top 10 this year. Joining Yndestad were the amazing Jeanne Fleck of Proctor who placed fourth in a masters record 1:13:13, an elephantine 2:48 lowering of Heidi Keller-Miler's 2006 mark, and 2006 Minnesota Rookie of the Year Marta Lewinski (9th) of Bloomington. Health and confidence issues have prevented Marta from performing up to her enormous potential over the last two seasons.