In a town bristling with Olympians, World Cup competitors, and champion runners and cyclists, singling out just six of Park City’s resident elite athletes is no easy task. We all know who they are: those seemingly machine-like specimens who pass us on the trail, on the road, or in the pool like we were standing still or treading water, uttering only a friendly “on your left” while looking like they’ve hardly broken a sweat. Here we profile a handful of exceptional local athletes, spanning almost five decades in age, all of whom embody the athletic spirit and competitive fire fueling our cozy mountain town.
Tanner Putt served notice to the world of professional road cycling in 2011 when, at age 20, he placed second in the USA Cycling Juniors Elite Road Race held in Augusta, Georgia.
The homegrown phenom has been riding and racing since age 10, when he saw his first bike race. “I fell in love with the sport, just being outside and competing,” he says.
Putt switched from mountain to road bikes as a teenager when the junior nationals race series came to Park City. “I thought it would be cool to race in that. I loved it, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” says the rising star.
After graduating from Park City High, Putt delayed college to focus on a possible road-racing career in the US and Europe. His first trip across the pond, at age 18, was a disaster for the fledgling racer. He confessed he was out of his league and had a miserable experience. “I thought to myself, ‘If I can get through this and still like racing, then I can do this the rest of my life,’” he says.
Last year Putt was recruited by the prestigious Bontrager Development Team (recently renamed the Bissell Development Team for its new sponsor), comanaged by veteran European racer Axel Merckx, son of five-time Tour de France winner Eddie Merckx. “Axel is a really nice guy and has so much experience,” Putt says. “He’s helped move us to a higher level.”
His career high came in August 2013 when he raced the Tour of Utah. The event, billed as America’s toughest stage race, ended in Park City after a tortuous final-stage climb. “It was a great week for me,” grins Putt, who was engulfed at the finish by a hometown crowd that included his proud parents, Patrick and Andrea Putt.
This year, Putt rode in a series of classic, early-spring races in Europe before returning to the US for the Tour of California in May. He hopes to be home again this August for the Tour of Utah. One thing is clear: anything is possible for this talented young racer.
It’s hard to imagine a 20-year-old with a life more exotic than Keegan Swenson’s. The Park City native is a professional mountain biker who spends his life training and racing around the world. His second year as a pro on the Cannondale Factory Racing team will take him to California, Czech Republic, New York, South Africa, Colorado, Germany, Brazil, Australia, and more racing on the Union Cycliste Internationale’s (UCI) Mountain Bike World Cup tour.
In 2012, just after graduating from Park City High School, Swenson won all three divisions at the USA Cycling Cross-Country Mountain Bike National Championships, cementing him as the top high school mountain biker in the US. It was no surprise that he was scooped up by Cannondale to begin his pro career in 2013.
Despite his growing worldliness, Swenson says Park City remains home. “I started racing on the Deer Valley trails when I was 12 or 13. Park City is where I learned to ride.” He continues, “I spend a lot of time away now, but it’s still my home.”
Park City is also home to Swenson’s coach, Tom Noaker. When Swenson started riding, he participated in the Young Riders, a program that introduces kids to mountain biking. Noaker once coached Young Riders and has remained Swenson’s coach ever since. “At this point, Tom knows what my body can and can’t do better than anyone else,” Swenson says.
Now Swenson is a little fish in a big, international pond of riders, finishing the 2013 season ranked number 258 out of 1,162 riders in UCI’s Mountain Bike Cross-Country category. Not too shabby for a then-19-year-old racing for the first time with the pro adult men. But Swenson maintains he has a long way to go to reach his goals, which he is guarded about describing. “Scoring as high as I can on the UCI World Cup circuit, learning how to race better, being more aggressive off the starting line—I have other big goals, too,” he says. “To get there, I’ll focus day by day.”
Last September at the Snowbasin XTERRA USA Championship, Emma Garrard came barreling down the green, snowless ski hill, crossing the finish line in fourth place. she grinned widely while high-fiving hands of anonymous fans. Among the crowd was her then nine-month-old baby boy, Torin, held by his father, Ian Hartley. As soon as she caught sight of her family, Garrard grabbed Torin and started sobbing. Her emotions took over not because of exhaustion or her impressive performance, but because the moment represented a journey taking 73 weeks to come full circle.
A year-and-a-half earlier Garrard, a professional triathlete, and boyfriend Hartley learned about their surprise pregnancy. Garrard naturally wondered how she would handle professional athletics and a baby. Turns out that Park City, where Garrard has lived since 2009, is a perfect venue for juggling a pro-athletic career and family. “The trails are right behind my house, the pool almost as close,” she says. “In the winter, Nordic skiing is my cross training.” Like many pro athletes, Garrard has other jobs, as well, working as a Nordic instructor, coaching kids in Nordic skiing, and leading indoor cycling classes. “Helping people define themselves in their sport is a passion,” she adds. “Being here allows me to do that.”
Her impressive showing at Snowbasin wasn’t the only highlight from her 2013 postpartum comeback season. In late October, the 33-year-old, who is sponsored by Specialized, Salomon, and Champion System, finished fifth at the XTERRA World Championship in Hawaii among a vastly more competitive field. “Life with Torin is somehow different, but the same,” says Garrard. “Triathlon is a sport that requires mastery of three different disciplines. Motherhood is a similar balancing act.”
Garrard has high hopes that the 2014 season will look much like 2013. “I want to spend quality time with Ian and Torin, train, and focus on the XTERRA events.” She plans to compete again in the America Tour (XTERRA’s domestic off-road triathlon series) and return to the USA Championship at Snowbasin in September and the World Championship in Hawaii in October. “Racing is one of those few times in life where my job is to focus on just one thing,” Garrard says. “There’s a calm that sometimes happens within that focus. This makes me love racing as much as the rest of my life.”
Part of 15-year-old Haley Batten’s e-mail address sums up her persona pretty succinctly: “live life.” This Treasure Mountain Middle School honor student is certainly doing so, gaining international recognition for her mountain-biking skills while remaining steadfastly committed to her sport simply because “it brings me joy.”
Batten has won the Colorado and Utah State Championships as well as the 12-mile cross-country National Mountain Biking Championships in her age group for the past two years. Her strategy? “I used to sing songs in my head. Now I get focused and think, ‘What should I do to catch this person?’ Or, ‘How can I save my energy?’” she says. “But mainly I react to what happens in the race. All of a sudden someone’s right behind you, or you crash, or someone else crashes. You just have to adjust as you go.”
Batten is on her bike six days a week in the summer, trains and races with the Park City High School Mountain Bike Club in the fall, and skis with the Park City Nordic Club and works out on her trainer in the winter. “She’s a driven girl who has a positive mental outlook,” her parents say. “That attitude is everything with her training.”
Batten stays motivated, she says, because “I love the hard work. When you start riding a trail faster than you have before, you know you’re getting better.” She hopes to be a World Cup racer and to compete in the Olympics someday.
She competed in three races with USA Cycling’s Whole Athlete/Specialized team last summer in Europe, taking two seconds and a first place. Earlier this year, Batten traveled to Belgium, Austria, France, Germany, and Switzerland to compete in a junior race series. And she’ll travel across the US this summer to compete in the National Point Series races.
The night before a race, Batten pasta-loads, has her dad fine-tune her bike, and spends “chill” time hanging out with her friends, doing yoga, or watching her favorite show, Survivor. And lest you think this über athlete is above normal teen cravings, think again. “My two favorite things in the world,” she says, “are Nutella and brownies.”
Though Ed Knapp has been an athlete and a fierce competitor for almost all of his 62 years, he didn’t run his first marathon until he was over 40. “I read an article in the Park Record about the St. George Marathon, how beautiful the course was,” he recounts. “It was just three months away. I thought, ‘That sounds like a challenge,’ and started training.”
The unapologetic iconoclast challenged conventional wisdom on how to train for a marathon. “I ran back and forth to work, about three miles, to build speed. My longest run before the marathon was 16 miles,” he recalls. “At St. George, I lined up near the front of the pack and was told I didn’t belong there. I said, ‘We’ll see at the finish line.’ I crossed it at 3:28, pretty good for a beginner.” He was fast enough in his next race (3:07) to qualify for the Boston Marathon, which he’s since run seven times. (He missed the ill-fated 2013 race but proudly ran it again last April.)
Knapp is the only man to have completed all eight Park City Triple Trail Challenges, a three-event stage race over a five-week period. The grueling ordeal, first introduced in 2006, requires runners to complete the near-vertical Jupiter Peak Steeplechase, the Park City Full or Half Marathon, and the Mid Mountain Marathon. Knapp plans to run his ninth Triple Trail Challenge this summer.
Knapp is still competing, 68 marathons and counting, long after most runners have retired—despite a partial artificial knee installed in 2010. “My parents instilled in me a love of sports, and that fire has always burned deep,” he explains. “The marathon requires conquering inner fears, offers deep camaraderie, and demands singular responsibility. Besides,” he grins, “running makes me feel like I’m seven years old again.”
Earlier this year, at the 2014 Boston Marathon, Knapp ran for a different reason. “At the 2013 race, a 78-year-old guy named Bill Iffrig was just about to finish when he got blown over by the bomb blast,” he says. “He picked himself up and finished. I want to be that guy. I’ll probably never meet him, but he will be my inspiration for as long as I can run.”
It’s been said that 19-year-old Ben Saarel is among the best high school runners to come out of Utah, ever. It’s probably just as safe to say that the 2013 Park City High School graduate is just getting warmed up.
In his senior year alone, Saarel won state championship titles in cross country as well as both the 800 meters and 1,600 meters in track and field. A week after winning those titles, he won the Adidas Dream Mile in New York among the top US high school runners. And before that, Saarel won four state championship titles while a junior, along with setting a slew of other state and meet records.
Saarel just finished his freshman year at the University of Colorado–Boulder, making him a member of one of the most revered collegiate running programs in America, the CU Buffaloes. He wasn’t redshirted his freshman year, either, a practice in which freshman athletes are held from competing for a year to better prepare them for collegiate competition. In fact, Saarel led the team to a 2013 NCAA Division I Cross Country team championship, finishing eighth overall. Saarel earned All American honors for that performance, a virtually unheard-of award for a true (not previously redshirted) freshman.
To achieve what he has, Saarel runs between 80 and 100 miles each week, complemented by a strength training, stretching, and recovery regimen. “It works out to two or three hours of training per day,” explains Saarel. He credits his time at Park City High School with setting him up for future running success. “The coaches there are the ones who brought me this far. The team means a lot to me.
“My family taught me that if I’m going to do something, I should do it to the best of my ability,” says Saarel, who was inspired to take up running by his older sister, Emma, a recent graduate of and runner at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. “I figure, doing anything less than my best would be denying myself an opportunity to do something great.”