by Loreen Pindera
In Quebec, there are spring rituals: snow shovels get tucked away in the garage, maple syrup gets poured over everything and, on the first weekend of June, triathletes head to Joliette.
Ten years old this year, the Joliette Triathlon is the first qualifying race of the season for age-group athletes vying for the Coupe du Québec. This is no race for wimps. The Assomption River runs fast and cold at this time of year, just a few weeks after the ice breaks up. It’s a wetsuit swim, guaranteed.
The event is sponsored by Jet, one of Quebec’s oldest and most successful triathlon clubs. It was founded in 1991 by a phys ed teacher and triathlete named Alain Labarre.
“I had young athletes who were interested in triathlon, and for me, starting the club gave me people to train with,” says Labarre, with a smile. Coaching triathletes wasn’t like it is today, standing on the pool deck shouting out lap times and giving advice on stroke technique.
“I swam, and they swam with me. That’s how it was.”
The Jet Club, which started with just a half dozen young people, has grown to more than 85 athletes of all ages drawn from across the Lanaudière region northeast of Montreal.
Over the years, it’s included some amazing triathletes; Chuck Perreault, one of the club’s original members, went on to become Canadian junior champion and remains a contender at every level of the sport. Simon Malo, one of Labarre’s earliest club members, raced as a pro a decade ago, and after a few treks to Kona as an age-group qualifier, is now president of the Jet Club and in charge of development.
Pierre Heynemand Jr., another educator from Joliette, was one of the club’s earliest mentors. Heynemand Jr. still obliterates the field in long-distance triathlon races in Canada. Despite spending a week in hospital with a serious stomach bug at the start of the 2017 season, he raced Ironman five times last year and reached the podium in every one – that, plus seven standard and sprint races, three duathlons and
the ITU Canadian long-distance championship. In the 46th Ironman of his career, at Kona last October, Heynemand Jr. finished second in his 50–54 age group in a time of 9:34:29. He still trains with the group and is the club’s spinning coach.
Séverine Bouchez earned her triathlon stripes as a young age-grouper with the Jet Club, too, before going on to win the U-23 Canadian championship the last two years in a row.
Labarre is proud of his athletes, with a new crop on the horizon who are now students in a triathlon specialization program at Joliette’s Thérèse-Martin High School. Among them are Heynemand Jr.’s daughter, Laurianne, and Rémi Poirier, both heading to Richmond, Va., this month (May 6) to compete for the USA Triathlon Junior Elite Cup.
Friendly, good-humoured and humble, Labarre “has that ability to make people suffer without them even realizing it,” a Triathlon Quebec official remarked when Labarre was crowned coach of the year in Quebec in 2016.
But Labarre insists there’s nothing in the chilly water of the Assomption River that’s churning out such promising triathletes. In every corner of Quebec, he says, there are coaches and athletes who share a passion for the sport and a commitment to its development.
“That’s what has created such a competitive scene and such an interesting race circuit,” Labarre says. “When you have all these different places across Quebec where the fire is burning, that really gets something going.”
Labarre and I spoke curbside in Gatineau last summer, watching another Jet Club junior elite racer, Émie Houle, as she sped by on her bike on her way to a seventh-place finish in the Grand Prix event on Lac Lemay, a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill.
The Gatineau race, now in its 27th year, is also sponsored by a youth club: Club Espoir, open to triathletes aged seven to 17. It features, along with a try-a-tri distance, races tailored to every age group from U-7 and up, a Canadian Forces race, a corporate team event and another team event especially for teachers.
“It’s creating events like this that you create a kind of dynamism,” says Labarre.
He’s right. And with close to 50 triathlons on the Triathlon Quebec calendar, not counting winter races, there really is an event for everyone, from beginner to international-calibre athlete, in nearly every corner of the province with a decent paved road.
For someone like me looking for a new challenge close to home, perusing the race calendar this spring as I plan my season is like standing in a candy shop. Should I sign up for the combo sprint/standard two-day event on beautiful Lac Memphremagog in the Eastern Townships? Or should I go somewhere I’ve never been and do the Triathlon du Fjord in La Baie in the Saguenay, happening on the very same weekend?
It’s a nice dilemma to have.
Loreen Pindera is a producer with CBC Radio in Montreal.