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Remembering Ian Pettitt: Tribute to a British triathlon trailblazer

Pioneer, trailblazer, inspiration, legend. We pay our respects to Ian Pettitt, one of the architects of triathlon in Great Britain, who passed away on Monday

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On Monday 3 June 2024, triathlon lost a true pioneer in the formation and development of the sport in the UK, with the death of Ian Pettitt.

The Club President of Deal Tri, at the age of 68, Ian’s passing followed a major heart attack at the end of May.

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Lasting Legacy

If you are relatively new to the sport, then Ian’s name may not be an immediately familiar one. However, the sheer volume of comments and memories shared on Facebook and elsewhere by those of us who have been in and around the sport in the UK through the late 80’s until the present day, tell you just how much Ian contributed, to so many, in so many different areas of the sport.

Pioneer, trailblazer, inspiration, legend and more are just a few of the references that have been expressed with genuine warmth and loss, by so many.

Initially inspired by an early TV programme about the Nice International Triathlon, Ian went from forming a group of like-minded individuals within his local running club, to go on to be the first ever employee of the British Triathlon Association (BTA), as it was known at the time.

From the infamous broom cupboard ‘office’ in Dover in 1990, he set in place many of the structures that still exist to this day. Athlete, event organiser, administrator, instructor, coach and Team Manager are just a small sample of the foundations that he put in place. His work in creating the age-group team structure for Great Britain was immense, setting the template that continues to see British athletes racing in such volumes, globally.

Indeed, so extensive have been Ian’s impacts on the sport in the UK, that I wanted to get an insight from someone that knew him so well, and has been a part of that journey for many years. For that, I called Paul Groves, another name that many may be familiar with, through his many years in triathlon as a technical official, event commentator, Team Manager and media officer at ETU/Europe Triathlon.

As friends, work colleagues, club mates and much more, they have shared many times together through our fantastic sport. I couldn’t think of anyone else better placed to pay respect to the legacy of, and provide insight to the life, of Ian Pettitt.

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Mr. Organiser

“Ian was one of the guys who just organised things. He would organise his work as a teacher, he organised the kids – and managed to find a way of combining it all with his training when needed. When he was organising himself to run a marathon, he built that in to the teaching he did, taking the kids on cross country runs and runs around Deal. Couldn’t be done nowadays… but some of them really enjoyed it, and some went on to become runners themselves.

“He got into triathlon by seeing the Nice Triathlon on Eurosport. Being inspired by that and being a member of Deal Striders as it was in those days, he formed a group within them that liked wearing lycra and that could swim, bike and run. Ian always was a tremendous beast in the water… in all the years I swam with him, I only ever beat him twice; I could never get anywhere near him!

“So Ian got into triathlon, and that was where our paths crossed. I joined the triathlon team within Deal Striders, found that swimming was quite easy, and so naturally Ian and I spent more time together. I got involved with Deal Tri, becoming the Chairman, and that was when the idea of having a bash at swimming the Channel started.

“Lots and lots of long swims were put in – again, Ian organised it all – and he organised both of our Channel swims.

Ian Pettitt and Paul Groves - Deal Tri Channel swim
Ian Pettitt (far right) and Paul Groves (back row, fourth from left)

“It was also Ian who decided that we would have a go at this London to Paris idea. So that was Ian’s organisation, along with Deal Tri, Cycle Force Durham and East Grinstead. Cycle Force completed it and there’s a Guinness World Record certificate somewhere in a shop in Durham – that was all Ian’s work.

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The right man, at the right time

If you are starting from scratch, history has shown that Ian Pettitt was a wise appointment when he started as the BTA’s first employee back in 1990.

“Ian organised everything with triathlon. Had he not been there at the right time, triathlon simply wouldn’t have come to England when it did, or in the way that it did. He was running everything from a shoebox, a very tiny office at Dover Leisure Centre. It was an amateur sport, and Ian ran everything on a shoestring.

“The way that the age-groupers went to the World Championships, that was all Ian. It was him driving it.

He created the foundation that now sees thousands of British age-groupers travelling around the world, taking triathlon to other countries and feeding that back into their own clubs. The format of age-group racing in Britain is envied around the world, because of Ian.

“Ian got to travel the world as an age-group Team Manager, but it wasn’t a holiday – I know, because I was his Assistant Manager on a number of occasions. It was bloody hard work, but, it meant that for everybody who went on that trip, they had the support of Ian and alongside myself with my languages, Ian took masseurs, mechanics and he made sure that for many of the age-groups, some of whom were terrified, they could have a great race.”

Ian Pettitt
Ian Pettitt on Team Manager duties (Photo Credit: Paul Groves)

A new career – but triathlon still central

“Then of course, big business took over, and the HQ moved to Ashby-de-la-Zouch. Ian carried on as the Liaison Officer, having left teaching by this time, but I remember speaking to him and it wasn’t quite the same as it was a business now.

“Around this time, I’d been using the opportunity to go abroad with Ian and getting leave from work, which because I was effectively representing Great Britain, I got special leave with pay. Anyway, I suggested to Ian that he joined the Immigration Service, which of course he did… at which point senior management shook their heads in disbelief, as they now had to deal with two people getting special leave with pay…”

A Technical Official for many decades now up to and including WTCS and major international championship level, it was Ian that Paul has to thank for setting him on that particular journey.

“It was Ian who got me into refereeing – he gave me a penalty in my first race! In those days, Ian used to deliver the training for referees too. I had a look at the rulebook, thought it was slightly wrong how I’d been penalised, and had a word with Ian. Anyway, he put me on the next course to be a referee and the rest is history for me. That’s going back to those roots again – Ian organised, organised, organised.”

As well as having a legendary sense of humour, Ian could also spot a business opportunity and use his skills there:

“Ian found that there was an opportunity, through the Council, to earn some money by knocking on doors and saying that this is a council property, we can put some insulation in your roof. He was being paid per house, and so being Ian, he sat down with a piece of paper and worked out the quickest way to do an entire estate on his bike – and that’s what he went and did.

He had a way of organising things that was just far superior to anyone that I’ve ever met.

Fun in France

“Ian joined Immigration and once again leapt into it, his organisational skills to the fore. He spent most of his time working in Coquelles on the French side, that’s the Channel Tunnel. It suited him, and also meant that he could run on the stopovers because we had a shift that would let you stay overnight.

“He enjoyed that because he could run up to the hills, and down to the coast. Soon he was taking other people out with him – partly so he had a running partner, but he was also explaining to them how they could improve their own running style.

“Again, a teacher all the way through everything he did.”

Recognition?

When I heard the news about Ian, one of the things I checked for some initial research to remind myself of Ian’s C.V. was the list of British Triathlon Gold Pin Award holders. While I couldn’t remember when awarded, I’d assumed that Ian Pettitt was part of that list. He isn’t, and Paul – and others online – have expressed similar thoughts, that recognition is perhaps long overdue.

“I don’t think Ian was ever recognised fully by British Triathlon. Where is his Gold Pin? That foundation that he created for triathlon – alongside Jasmine Flatters, when she came on board as Duathlon Team Manager – together the pair of them worked to create this phenomenal machine that is the age-group barmy army from Britain. It’s a shame that he never got that recognition from the Federation.

Ian Pettitt and Jasmine Flatters
Ian Pettitt with Jasmine Flatters

“He carried on in triathlon nevertheless, and was the driving force at Deal Tri. On Sunday, the White Cliffs Triathlon was held that he had recreated, on the same day that it was announced that there was no more brain function following his heart attack, which was very poignant.

“Ian leaves behind his wife, Paulina, who is not in the best of health, and the two boys, Thomas and Martin and their families.

“And he also leaves a bloody great hole in Deal. When I was out with Ian, people would still say, ‘Hello Sir, Hello Mr Pettitt’, because he’s taught so many people there. Only last week I was sitting at a table at a charity dinner, and someone said, ‘Ian Pettitt? He was my teacher!’

“Ian has left a legacy everywhere; pupils, colleagues at work, colleagues from teaching and of course that massive triathlon community, the old ones who remember him.”

Ian Pettitt
Photo Credit: Veronica Trew

Huge thanks to Paul for his memories and tribute. On behalf of the entire team here at TRI247, our sincere thoughts and condolences to Ian’s family and friends at this difficult time.

I’d also like to add personal thanks for the legacy that you have left Ian. Like many here in the UK, Ian was the upbeat, positive, helpful and encouraging Team Manager when I raced in age-group competition more than 15 years ago now, making that experience such a positive one.

John Levison
Written by
John Levison
TRI247's Chief Correspondent, John has been involved in triathlon for well over 30 years, 15 of those writing on these pages, whilst he can also be found commentating for events across the UK.
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