The New Face of Triathlon Wears a Watermelon Speedo
Justin Lippert is eye-catching but also one of the best in the game. And he’s making this solo pursuit into a team sport.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s making triathlon more than about solo times.
In 2016, Justin Lippert bought a bike off Craigslist and competed in his first triathlon. Three years later, he’s won five national championships, mostly wearing nothing but a smile and a pink watermelon Speedo.
On the surface, he’s a bit of a caricature: half-naked, tan, muscled with a handlebar mustache and backward trucker hat. His voracious joy is palpable via social media posts peppered with bro-isms like “stoked,” “yeet,” “gnarly” and “hype.” He radiates equal parts silly, giddy and cocky.
“I’m just doing me, what I think is fun, cool, whatever I’m doing and people love it,” Lippert muses. “It’s wild.”
Don’t let the supreme chill fool you. The 24-year-old has won in every distance he’s competed in (sprint, olympic, half Ironman and Ironman). He earned his pro card several times over, yet continues to barrage the amateur circuit — known as Age Groupers — because he wants to be ready to excel when he meets the pros (called Elites). Lippert seemingly came from nowhere when he swept the 2018 Age Group National Championships one summer weekend in Cleveland, Ohio, becoming the first to ever win both the sprint and olympic distance races. Lippert’s in-your-face joy and excitement, coupled with his outfit, ruffled some feathers in the buttoned-up triathlon community.
They’ll have to get used to him. On Oct. 12, he races the Ironman World Championship, the mecca triathlon on the infamous Kona, Hawaii course. He qualified for the race on his first try, in his first-ever attempt at the full Ironman distance. Competing against the world’s best across 140.6 miles, Lippert plans to win the amateur division.
Yet it’s not all about his own personal glory. What’s significant about Lippert is how he encourages team play in an individual sport.
Justin’s approach reminds us that we all benefit by making this a shared experience.
Sarah True, two-time triathlon Olympian
He’s always been that way. Born in Middletown, New Jersey, he was a high school All-American in cross-country, then walked on to Clemson University’s team. He later followed some former teammates to a new sport, triathlon, adding cycling and swimming to his running prowess.
One of his teammates, Jack Felix, had gone pro in triathlon and recruited Lippert to join him on a grad school scholarship for the tri team at Queens University of Charlotte. Ahead of the school year, Lippert spent the summer in Massachusetts to train with Nor’easter Elite (now JP Elite), and receive actual triathlon coaching for the first time. Lippert was happily back in the warm embrace of a team.
With the excited support of his comrades in arms, he developed a reputation for goofy haircuts and jokey race reports. The group chronicled their antics on an Instagram account: @dudes_of_noreaster. His double triumph in Cleveland made Lippert decide that he’s “gotta keep going, gotta take this a bit more seriously and see what we can do.”
So he founded Full Send Triathlon. “Justin created a common team that everyone’s representing and suddenly the race isn’t just about yourself, it’s also about the team,” Felix says. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s a high-performance team, but it’s about having friendships and common goals.”
The idea of teams is not completely foreign to the sport. On the pro level, there are training groups, but they are more like athletes focused on their individual performances under one coach. Lippert’s approach requires a mental shift, moving a solo-oriented sport into something more dynamic by training together and encouraging each other — a trailblazing move, in Felix’s eyes.
As for the name, “full send” is a mantra Lippert repeats to himself on the course, pushing his body to the absolute max. “It’s a little different than the triathlon mindset of: ‘I’m gonna stick to my paces; I’m gonna do what I’m capable of,’” Lippert says. Full send, instead, means “I don’t care what I’m capable of. That’s what I need to do to win, so I’m gonna do it for as long as I can.”
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#FullSend has become a rallying cry for his supporters. Will Gates was so inspired by Lippert’s attitude that one day, out of the blue, he messaged Lippert on Instagram and offered to send him the $23 he had in his Venmo account. “I said if it makes you feel good, sure?” Lippert recalls. Lippert posted a screenshot of the donation to his Instagram story, and more rolled in, adding up to about $1,500. For his part, Gates, an excited Age Grouper, says he wanted to support a talented young athlete whose social media presence allows viewers to “feel like they’re with him the entire way in his journey.” Lippert, a part-time substitute math teacher who also works for a buddy’s rent-a-fence company on the side, can use the spare cash. As he would say, there ain’t much bread in amateur tris.
Ahead of the Ironman, Lippert joined another team on Hawaii’s Big Island: Zwift Academy. Two-time Olympian Sarah True, one of the mentors at Zwift Academy, says Lippert has tremendous potential for a pro career, but his value to the sport lies beyond the racecourse. “Triathlon sometimes has a reputation for being too serious and too individual,” True says. “Justin’s approach reminds us that we all benefit by making this a shared experience.”
That levity comes out with Lippert’s Speedo-themed quipping about how “skin is the most aero,” or shotgunning a beer after winning one of his national championships.
But even with his résumé and a mentor like True, don’t expect to see Lippert at the Olympics. He is an outstanding runner, but lags on the swimming side and doesn’t fare as well in cycling when riders are allowed to draft, as is the case in the Olympics. At the same time, Caryn Maconi, communications manager for USA Triathlon, notes that Lippert’s “big personality” and “prominent voice on social media” help him challenge the status quo and get people talking about the sport.
For now, it’s full send at Kona, which Lippert dubs his last hurrah as an amateur. He’ll go pro next year.