Triathlon is more of a team sport than you might think—and, luckily for Jack Larkin, he’s a member of two great teams. Both played a major role in the 15-year-old Upper Merion resident finishing 2018 ranked second in the country for youth elite triathlon.
Larkin began competing in triathlons in 2014. Two years later, Jack and his younger brother, Ben, 13, joined Superkids Multisport in Wayne. “You train with a team because it’s easier on you mentally and it helps push you,” says Larkin. “Within a race, you can strategize with your teammates. If you’re on a bike by yourself, the wind resistance is going to destroy you. But if you’re with other people going in a paceline, it’ll save your legs.”
Larkin’s head coach is Richard Gossow, a certified USA Triathlon coach. “Jack is still developing his strength as an athlete, but he was born with the mental strength and ability to apply himself with passion and focus,” says Gossow, who was USAT’s Volunteer of the Year in 2015.
The last few months have been all about “leveling up” for Larkin. As a freshman at Upper Merion Area High School, he ran varsity cross-country in the fall, dropping his time to under 17 minutes for the 5K in the district finals, where he was the top finisher for the Vikings. He then transitioned right into his winter sport, where he earned a spot on the varsity swim team and has times in both the 200 and 500 freestyle that warrant district championship consideration.
This past November, Larkin visited the Olympic Training Center in Colorado, attending a mini-camp for elite junior triathletes to prepare to compete as members of Team USA. “That was a ton of fun—just being with the people who I race with all the time,” he says. “For the actual triathlon portion, I learned a lot of little things that are going to improve my races.”
Larkin has leveled up in triathlon as well, moving from youth to juniors, where he’s competing with athletes as old as 19. The distances double, so he’s now swimming 750 meters, biking 20 kilometers and running a 5K. “People have art, music or school, but triathlons are my outlet,” says Larkin. “This is my one thing.”
The intensity of his training picks up in the spring. Right now, he’s “on the grind,” with morning swim practice, school, afternoon swim practice, a bike ride or run, homework, and dinner. It’s all in preparation for his qualifying races: the Junior Elite Cup Race and the mixed relay on May 5 at the East Coast Triathlon Festival in Richmond, Va., and in the Junior Elite Cup Race on June 2 at the Pleasant Prairie Cup in Wisconsin. The top 17 finishers in each race qualify for nationals. “Getting into nationals is a must for me,” Larkin says. “I’d like to do really well for the next couple of years.”
Larkin’s ultimate goal is to attend Arizona State University, which offers Project Podium, a program designed to develop elite male triathletes who can bring home medals in major international competitions and eventually qualify for the 2028 Summer Olympics.
Larkin has a solid “home team,” too. His mom, Elizabeth, is no stranger to 4 a.m. drop-offs and filling a cooler with enough food to sustain a teenage triathlete for a day. “It always comes back empty,” she says of the cooler.
“Yeah,” Larkin says sheepishly. “I just don’t stop eating. My mom buys meal bars as snack bars—every protein product possible. I just burn through all of them.”
As for school, Larkin is a straight-A student and a member of the National Junior Honor Society. “I’m a little nervous for next year, when I have my dad,” he says.
His father, Ryan, teaches AP European history for 10th graders. “It’s not that weird,” says Larkin of his dad’s occupation. “I’ve grown up with him always being a teacher.”
It’s also not weird for an influx of feelings to overcome parents as they watch their children compete. When triathletes dive into the water, they’re often kicked in the face. Competitors are pulling on them. Pushing. They’re riding 30 miles an hour on bikes, inches from each other. “It hurts, but you keep going anyway,” says Elizabeth about her son’s ability to power through fatigue. “I’ll yell, ‘They’re coming!’ But there’s nothing I can do at that point. I’ve fed him enough, made sure he’s slept enough, made sure the shoes and wet suit fit. Triathlon teaches life skills about working toward something for a long time, mapping it out. You can do everything perfectly, and crap goes wrong.”
In 2017, Larkin was ranked No. 37 before he began his climb into the top five. “When we started out during our last triathlon season, Jack felt that he was the underdog among his teammates, and that drove him to train harder and race smarter,” says Gossow.
Every race day, the thoughtful soft-spoken Larkin puts on his game face. He admits to getting butterflies in the prerace buildup, but once it starts, he’s fine. At a race last year in Sarasota, Fla., where he finished third, others were trying to run past him as their coaches shouted instructions. “I just decided at that moment that they weren’t going to run by me,” he says.
If Larkin stays the course, not many will.