Big Risk Paying Off for Top Triathlete

BUENOS AIRES — By the end of 2017, Dylan McCullough’s burgeoning sporting career had reached a crossroads.

The New Zealand triathlete had just finished his penultimate year of high school, but he was constantly fatigued and struggling to juggle the demands of schoolwork with his goal of becoming a world-class triathlete.

So McCullough approached his parents with a risky proposition, one that is rarely suggested and almost never granted in New Zealand sporting circles.

His plan: Drop out of school and move away from home to train with the New Zealand national triathlon team.

“My parents weren’t too keen on it originally, but I just persuaded them,” McCullough said. “I told them I wanted to chase my dream, and they’re fully onboard.”

That bold move looks to be paying off, with McCullough being one of the standout performers at the Youth Olympics.

The 17-year-old won gold in the men’s triathlon, before taking silver in the mixed team relay alongside compatriot Brea Roderick and the Australian pair of Joshua Ferris and Charlotte Derbyshire.

“I came here with the intention of wanting to win a medal but gold is just a dream come true, and in the relay, we had a good team but I didn’t think we were up to a medal,” McCullough said.

McCullough was the star of the relay team — the only athlete to complete the course in less than 20 minutes — as his team finished just 20 seconds behind the winning European quartet.

It followed his blistering performance in the individual event, where the talented swimmer burst out to a lead in the opening swim leg, held steady on the bike, and then had to carefully measure his effort during the run.

“If I come off the bike fresh out of the bunch then obviously I’d run a lot better — when you’re off the front [by yourself] it’s hard to run well so you’ve got to pace yourself,” McCullough said.

He did just that, holding on to win by 12 seconds. The victory repaid his parents, not only for the green light to quit school, but also for their support — both emotional and financial.

“Triathlon is a costly sport, there’s a lot of travelling the world, so they sacrificed a lot,” he said.

McCullough acknowledged he doesn’t have a back-up plan — saying there’ll be plenty of time for study and work after his triathlon career — and he is already on a professional 25-hour-a-week training regimen.

Despite his early success, McCullough won’t need to look far for a cautionary tale. The 2010 Youth Olympic Games winner — Aaron Barclay — also came from New Zealand. But he couldn’t convert his talent into a professional career.

Story by IOC Young Reporter Niall Anderson