Wednesday, March 23, 2011

K-Swiss Issues $1 Million Challenge to Raelerts


Inspired by the vision of professional triathlete Michael Raelert, the California-based shoe and apparel company K-Swiss will take its triathlon commitment to a new level at this year’s Ironman World Championships. Raelert has vowed to cross the finish line in tandem with his older brother Andreas Raelert in an effort to take first and second place in the event held every year in Kona, Hawaii. In response, the company’s CEO has pledged to award a total of $1 million to the duo if they successfully meet the challenge.

The bonus would mark the largest sum ever awarded in the competition’s 33-year history, putting the payout in the range of such events as Wimbledon and the Masters. In 1990, World Triathlon Corporation offered a 100,000 bonus for breaking the course record, but in terms of sponsorship pay outs, this is a true first.

"This puts some intrigue into an already compelling race."

The German-born Raelert brothers, just four years apart in age, currently stand as two of the world’s leading triathletes. In a profile on the two he wrote for Issue 04 of LAVA, writer Jay Prasuhn sagely interpreted the current stage of Ironman as “The Raelert Era;” this recent development—even if it doesn’t mark any definitive changes in the sponsorship structure of the sport—does says something about the brothers’ rise to the top.

And it’s not a rise the two have won purely through luck or good breeding. Andreas, after going pro over a decade ago on the ITU circuit, debuted his long-course racing career at the Clearwater 70.3 World Championships in Clearwater, Fla. in 2008. This was followed by a win at Ironman Arizona—his first attempt at the iron-distance race. In 2009, he placed third in Kona and second at Ironman Germany, and this year he bagged first at the Ironman European Championship and second in Kona in a head-to-head battle with eventual champion Chris McCormack.

Andreas' younger brother Michael has applied equal dedication to the sport since he burst onto the 70.3 with a Clearwater win of his own in 2009, followed by a stellar 2010 with wins in Oceanside and Wildflower. He has never raced in Kona, however, or any race Andreas has entered out of admiration for his older brother, and it is this kinship and dedication that K-Swiss is calling the chief motivation for their newly issued challenge. In doing so, they hope to reward the athleticism and drive that so often goes unrecognized in the sports world.

Last year at Kona, Steven Nichols, CEO of K-Swiss, asked Michael why he wasn’t competing. The athlete told Nichols that ever since he was a child, his brother Andreas has been his hero, and that he simply couldn’t race against him. “Michael said that the only way he would compete against Andreas was if they finished in unison,” Nichols said. The athlete’s response moved and motivated Nichols: “This really shows the world what the triathlon community is all about—we hope to meet them at the finish line in Kona with a check in hand to award that dedication.”

Through a grassroots effort broadcast and shared on the company’s Tumblr page (www.kswiss.com/triathlon), K-Swiss hopes to draw attention to the sport of triathlon and its passionate community. Erik Vervloet, Vice President of Sports Marketing for the company, says the decision was motivated by the brothers’ dedication to the sport and each other. He said that even though every October something incredible happens in Kona, for whatever reason, there aren’t very many eyes on it. It's true that most people outside the Ironman community see it as crazy and unattainable, not as an entertaining and inspiring event—even for those who don’t run, bike, or swim.

“It’s a shame. The spirit of Kona is incredible, the beauty, the history, everything,” Vervloet said. “This is sport that changes people’s lives. A sport where the amateur starts in the same water as the pros. This puts some intrigue into an already compelling race. People tune in when there’s money on the line. People don’t watch poker because it’s nine fascinating people sitting around the table.”

For K-Swiss, a company that has sat at the forefront of the team model in triathlon, it all comes back to cameraderie: “Triathlon is a lonely sport, and it’s difficult to win Kona on your own,” Vervloet said. “But two brothers training, supporting, and winning together would be a game-changing moment for the sport.”

Issues of rules and regulations will surely follow in the wake of the company’s decision to essentially pad the prize purse. And whether or not other companies and race organizers follow suit is, of course, a lingering question. But one thing is certain: this is a significant move in a sport that’s slipped under the public radar for reasons many of us lament.