It started with an Ironman, then an Olympian, then two.
As the secret has gotten out about Santa Cruz being a nearly ideal triathlon training ground, more and more elite athletes have flocked here to take advantage of its ocean access, hilly roads and web of running trails. But next winter the county may see its biggest influx yet of triathlon talent. A squad of as many as 10 recent and future Olympians is considering setting up camp in the area for four months to lay the foundation for the push for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The group, all of whom have been training under coach Joel Filliol, would likely include 2012 Olympians Paula Findlay and Kyle Jones of Canada, Mario Mola of Spain, Richard Murray of South Africa, Vendola Frintova of the Czech Republic and Sarah Groff of the United States. It would also include Aptos native Tommy Zaferes, who has his sights set on Rio.
Zaferes said it was Groff, whose gutsy performance in London resulted in her falling just a stride short of a medal, who initiated the idea of moving the winter camp to Santa Cruz. In the recent past, the January-to-April camp has been held in Clermont, Fla.
"Over the years, I've spent a significant amount of time in training bases all over the world; I've trained in Australia, Switzerland, SoCal, Florida, Spain and Colorado," Groff wrote in an email from Banyoles, Spain, the current base for Filliol's group. "Due to the demands of our three sports and logistics (i.e. proximity of airport, transport, housing, etc), you end up with a wish list a mile long for all of the elements that you want to find in a location.
"To make matters worse, we suffer a bit from Goldilocks syndrome: The weather needs to be nice, but not too hot; we need a smallish community, but not too small; the terrain needs to be hilly, but with some flat etc. Needless to say, it is hard to find somewhere that hits all of our wishes, but Santa Cruz comes pretty darn close! If Santa Cruz was magically raised to 5,000+ feet and the ocean was just a smidgen warmer, it would probably be the most ideal location imaginable."
That said, one major obstacle may keep the group away. It's the same obstacle that has hindered throngs would-be Santa Cruz County residents before them: the high cost of housing.
Zaferes said the group has been looking for places in the Aptos area since the athletes will be swimming daily in the Aptos High pool and often running in the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. Yet a rental house there can break the bank for athletes who will be paying their room and board mostly with their race winnings in a year in which they are trying to focus on long-term goals rather than short-term payoffs.
"Our budget is well under what most houses are going for in Aptos," Zaferes said. "But I'm doing everything I can to get our squad to train there."
That has included posting requests on Facebook, chasing any realtor connections and begging friends to free up their spare room for a few months. In all, Zaferes estimated the group would need 11 rooms for the team, its coach and a massage therapist.
Training close to home is an obvious incentive for Zaferes to make the camp happen in Santa Cruz, but he has an ulterior motive too. After just one camp in Clermont, he said he'd rather not go back.
"You can find something for any workout you want to do," he said of Santa Cruz. "In Clermont, there's only one hill and you have to go 10 times up the same hill. You do the same bike loops three to four times a week.
"Santa Cruz just has everything."
The camp had been held in Clermont in recent years because it that is where U.S. Olympian Jarrod Shoemaker lives with his wife, pro triathlete Alicia Kaye. They helped with housing and logistics and the site was convenient to a pool, roads and a running path. But Shoemaker unexpectedly left Filliol's camp in Spain last week, and Zaferes said he wasn't sure that arrangement would be back on the table this winter.
Even if it was, there's little denying that Santa Cruz has the training grounds of champions. Paul Matthews, who ran the second-fastest Ironman debut time, is credited as being the first elite triathlete to move to the area. More recently two-time Olympic medalist Bevan Docherty of New Zealand made it his home as did, briefly, 2012 U.S. alternate Matt Chrabot.
Groff, who recently started training under Filliol because she wanted to spend more time Stateside, said Santa Cruz came highly recommended to her by Olympic mountain biker Lea Davison. She said Davison does much of her winter training on its trails and liked the area's variety -- in both training and lifestyle.
"The goal of the early season training is to get in volume and strength; the trails, hills and ocean of Santa Cruz would do that perfectly and set us up for a successful season," she wrote. "While the training is our primary focus, it helps to have a community with nice restaurants, coffee shops, farmers markets etc. We can't train all the time -- a little balance is always needed!"