In the debate about whether or not Devon Palmer should turn pro in 2010, the ONLY certainty that anyone can bring to the speculation is, "We don't know."
Devon appears to have the ability to be a great professional triathlete. After an outstanding 2008 season, I fully expected him to improve and have a great 2009 season; he did that and then some, blowing away my highest expectations for him. Clearly, at only 22, he's already set a pretty high standard and there's no reason to expect he won't just keep getting better and better. If his passion to excel keeps pace, he could enjoy a long and successful career in the pro ranks.
But is he ready now? I don't believe so, not yet. I base that on his few rare losses and his relatively small margins of victory against other local age groupers. While we're pretty competitive here in Minnesota, some of those fellas he's battling with are getting pretty long in the tooth (sorry Kevin, Brian) and wouldn't likely fair well in pro races (sorry again). For that reason, I believe Devon is still one more year of solid improvement away from being able to step into the pro ranks and consistently vie for prize money.
The real questions than are... is it better to go learn from the school of hard knocks and take all your lumps in a hurry, until you get sick and tired of losing and start to figure it out? Or is it better to have another year of mastering the skill of winning under all conditions, circumstances, types and lengths of courses and against all comers? Put another way, is it better to start 2011 on the heels of a tough and grinding campaign and believing you're ready to finally break through, or is it better to come off a year of domination and confidence building, believing you're ready to blast onto the pro scene?
Those questions weren't written to persuade an opinion either way. They were posed to frame the discussion. The approach that works best for one won't necessarily work best for another. I could make a case for either approach for Devon:
Turning pro now will give him certain experience he can only gain from being a pro, and the benefits of that will show in 2011 and later. Many top pros did it this way by grinding through the ranks, one step at a time until finally reaching the top tiers of the sport. Conversely, countless more aspiring pros couldn't make it work this way... when each and every race requires an epic effort just be an also ran, it can be very tough on an athlete who is used to winning suddenly isn't winning at all. It (losing) can take a toll and only the mentally toughest athletes can keep battling, keep having fun, and not have their self-confidence destroyed if the progress doesn't meet their expectations.
Major league baseball knows this better than most sports... they've learned that almost every ballplayer does better by working his way through the ranks from Instructional league to A to AA to AAA and a long enough stint there before advancing to the Bigs. On a rare occasion athletes will skip over A ball and jump straight to AA, and some will jump from A to AAA, but big league teams rarely rush a player through AAA, even when they are tearing up the league, simply because the competitive level at the Bigs is so intense and most players not quite ready for it will do more damage to their career than good.
Baseball has found that most players do better at the start of their big league careers after having an entire second season at AAA after they tore up that league. That would be the best case to be made for Devon waiting another year. He's proven that he can win at AAA and now 2010 could be his year to tear up amateur racing, locally and everywhere else. By dominating all age group challengers in big races and places like the ITU age group world championships, Devon could bring to the pro ranks a resume of winning that few pros could match. It could very well make his 2011 rookie pro season a big success, and propel him to higher pro success in the years to come than if he rushes into it and struggles out of the gate.
No matter which path he chooses Devon would be well served to enter 6-12 running road races each year to keep improving his run. And lastly, no matter what he finally decides, he must believe with 100% certainty that it's the right path for him. No matter what, even if he races as a pro and loses occasionally to local amateurs when racing at home, he must realize that those good days and bad are all part of the plan and never look back or question his decision. Either way, it's full speed ahead.
I'd love to be 22 and trading places with him.