Q+A with Fred Sommer, the ‘Godfather’ of Triathlons

Fred reflects on 35 years since bringing triathlons to Clermont, his recent USAT award + more

| By Michelle Craske |

In 1974, about 2,500 miles west in San Diego, a new sport was born.

And it would eventually turn Clermont and South Lake County into a worldwide sports destination.

The sport involved swimming, cycling and running. These were not triathletes. There was no such thing at the time. None were into cross-training, a term not yet coined. Most didn’t own racing bikes, and some were marginal swimmers at best. Yet they had an adventuresome spirit to come out after a hard day’s work to participate in a new athletic event.

Over the next several years, the sport began to flourish in Southern California, but it was in 1977 when a barroom debate in Hawaii created what would quickly become one of the toughest endurance races in the country, the Hawaii Ironman. Worldwide recognition of the sport of triathlon fueled the growth of triathlon across America and eventually sparked the interest of a local college guy, Fred Sommer.

Fred Sommer Head Shot

Thirty-five years ago, he found Sommer Sports, a multi-sport race management and timing company based in Clermont. The company produces around 20 events annually, ranging from 5K-runs to 140.6-mile triathlons, in the Lake County area. Fred remains the CEO and master mind visionary behind the scenes at every event.

Fred sat down with Clermont Magazine to explain how he got into the sport of triathlons and what led him to host his own right here in Clermont.

Q: What inspired you to host a triathlon in Clermont?

After completing my first triathlon in Orlando I was hooked, but there was a major problem: Only a few triathlons existed in Florida at that time. I was in love with a new sport, but the opportunities to race were few and far apart. As a lifelong resident of Clermont, I thought to myself, this would be an ideal location for a triathlon. We’re smack dab in the center of Florida, we have a beautiful lake and public beach for the swim, and there are miles upon miles of roads for the bike and run, with little or no traffic present. My friends thought I was crazy for undertaking such a task with no event organizing experience whatsoever.

Q: Wow! With little to no experience as a race director, how did your first event go?

On Oct. 4, 1984, the Great Clermont Triathlon was born, and 384 triathletes raced a triathlon in the sleepy community of Clermont for the first time. The race was a tremendous success and I immediately started making plans for next year’s race!

My beautiful picture
Fred at the award ceremony in 1984 for the first Clermont triathlon

Q: What was the most challenging part of putting on triathlons during the early years?

The early days of triathlon were like the wild wild west. The distances and formats were not standard, race staging equipment was still being developed and trialed, rules were just being created, and race scoring was primitive by today’s standards.

Q: Did you notice any changes in Clermont after you began hosting triathlons?

Absolutely. Once athletes came to the area, they fell in love with Clermont and an increasing number decided to make it their permanent home. It was a triathlete’s paradise, especially with the varying terrain and numerous roads available for cycling. This eventually led to the addition of new facilities in Clermont, such as a new hospital and the National Training Center. Clermont was truly the top triathlon destination in the world. Where else could you train, race triathlons of all distances, have your body and physical abilities tested be professionals, and seek the best medical treatment possible for sports injuries, all in a single location?! Clermont! Compile that legacy with Clermont’s natural beauty, the miles of existing trails, world class training facilities, its beautiful downtown waterfront, and Clermont now had a new identity, the “Choice of Champions!”

Q: You have been hosting triathlons for 35 years now in Clermont. What do you see in the future for the city?

The future is great for Clermont, and I’m super excited.  The historic downtown is being revitalized, with new shops and restaurants on the way, the Victory Point and Triathlon Beach project opens this summer and will bring events closer to downtown and enrich the athlete experience, the cross-Florida Trail will soon become a reality, and more hotel rooms and housing options are being planned that will help keep athletes in town longer, and entice them to stay forever.

Q: Your goals and dreams have had a major impact on the City of Clermont and the sport of triathlon. You were recently selected by the governing body USAT as the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. How does this feel knowing that you have helped shape the city and sport?

It feels good!

Without the vision to stage Clermont’s first triathlon nearly 35 years ago, Clermont would be a different community today. Because of one man’s dream, the future could never be brighter for Clermont than it is today.

Michelle Craske Head ShotMichelle Craske is the director of community relations for Sommer Sports Inc. The Clermont resident enjoys the outdoors with her family. Formerly, she served in the Army in Iraq and graduated from the University of Central Florida.

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