The transition area is what sets triathlon apart from other sports. Nowhere else does the scene shift so quickly, so completely, with such frantic intensity. In 2014, transition areas are still chaotic, even at the elite level, where seconds and even small portions of a second, can mean the difference between a paycheck and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
But if the modern transition area is a bit neurotic, back in the 1980's it was wide-eyed insane. "Area" was a term often loosely interpreted. Bike racks came on to the scene only gradually – and often fell over once they did, depositing 25 or more bicycles in a heap, attracting a swarm of volunteers like wasps to right the mess before the next swimmer came out of the water. The bikes were usually undamaged; most of them had been dragged the week before out of the dark recesses of a garage and were well used to that kind of abuse. Finding and racing in the correct pair of shoes was a matter left to the competitors themselves to sort out.
Early transitions, even for the emerging corps of elite athletes, were not fast. They were just nuts. In most cases, T-times were measured in minutes, not seconds. It wasn't until the mid-80's that the pros starting racing International-distance (later Olympic-distance) events start-to-finish in Speedos; age groupers were still lugging half the back-packing aisle at REI to the bike racks. Changing tents for short races were an operational expectation. Into the tents the swimmers went, and out the cyclists came (finally), wearing socks, black cycling shorts, wool jerseys, cycling gloves, headbands, wrist bands, lace-up cycling shoes with cleats, water bottles and pre-Powerbar bags of snacks for the 25 miles ahead, perhaps even a helmet if the race director was being a hard ass.
And actually, all that was downright modern -- once folks had come to accept triathlon as an individual sport. In the really early days (pre-1982), most triathletes were part of a three-person relay. Back in 1980 at the historic Chuck's Triathlon on San Diego's Fiesta Island, future mountain bike great Ned Overend finished his run (the first event) and leaped onto his bike to a chorus of "Ooos" from the a large crowd of spectators, collectively impressed that someone was actually doing the entire race by himself. Behind Overend came the rest of the horde, equipment flying in all directions as family members waved frantically and fought for space to hand off bicycles and secure discarded running shoes. Babies changed hands from dads to moms; gentle collisions at slow speeds tangled arms and legs and clogged the road. You've seen the peloton go down in a heap during a field sprint at the Tour de France? This was that, but in slow motion, in gym shorts and tank tops, with only a modest degree competitive intensity.
The sport of triathlon was being invented on the fly. Throw the damn thing out there, see what works, change what doesn't. There were, inevitably, missteps. At the 1982 Bud Light USTS in Long Beach, the press area was set up on a platform directly over the porta-johns. The odor might well have reduced the attending media's enthusiasm – we're in not for the fact that the platform also afforded a birds-eye view into the men's and women's changing tents. Similarly, race officials at an early all-women's triathlon in Northern California did not account for the filmy, largely transparent nature of the changing tent walls when backlit by the early morning sun. Respectfully, the media turned its collective head. Or its camera lenses, at least.
I was fortunate in being there to document the early transition areas. There were other photographers around me, of course – a few, at least – but I seemed alone in my awareness that I was witness to a growing phenomenon and that the details would, someday, be of interest. They are now, I guess. The collection of photographs that follow are, if nothing else, good for a laugh or two. Somehow, we survived.