Triathlete on a mission to bring sport to Tunisia

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Karim Mabrouk, a Tunisian native now living in Naugatuck, will attempt to qualify for the Kona Ironman this weekend in New York City. –RA ARCHIVE

NAUGATUCK — Karim Mabrouk came to America in 2005 to chase a dream. The 25-year-old native of Tunisia pursued an education, first at Iona College and now as a graduate student at the University of Connecticut. He studies international relations and French studies, and hopes to become a foreign service officer in the State Department.

Mabrouk’s dream has also changed over seven years. The U.S. citizen — his mother is Boston-born — now living in Naugatuck has piled on another task to his to-do list: He hopes to introduce the sport of triathlon into the Tunisian national consciousness.

Those who have attended a Pat Griskus triathlon, may have seen Mabrouk. He competes in a uniform with the red and white colors of his homeland, with the words “Tunisian Pride” spelled out across his chest.

That is what Mabrouk will wear Saturday when he competes in the first Aquadraat Sports Ironman U.S. Championship in metropolitan New York and New Jersey. Event organizers say nearly 3,000 athletes from 46 states and 41 countries will compete in the grueling event, which features a 2.4-mile swim in the Hudson River, a 112-mile bike ride on the Palisades Parkway, and a 26.2-mile run beginning in Fort Lee, N.J., and ending in Manhattan’s Riverside Park.

Nightmarish New York traffic can only get worse Saturday when they shut down portions of the Palisades Parkway and George Washington Bridge to accommodate the bike and run segments of the race.

It is a large stage, which suits Mabrouk’s goals. His research indicates he is the first Tunisian to ever compete in an ironman, and he even believes he is the only triathlete from his country, ever. That is what he hopes to change.

It was fate, and romance, that introduced Mabrouk to the sport. While at Iona, Mabrouk met and wooed former Naugatuck High swimmer Kristin Heller. Mabrouk, who swam and played rugby and water polo in Tunisia, spent the summer of 2008 with the Heller family. Hang around the Hellers long enough, and an introduction to triathlon and challenge to compete will be made. Mom, Sandra, is a triathlon coach, and brothers Trevor and Brendan and Kristin are all triathletes, too.

“I was told I had to do this Griskus thing,” is how Mabrouk recalled it. “I had never heard of a triathlon before.”

Karim agreed to compete as a way to impress his future father-in-law, Dave Heller, an open water swimmer, an avid sportsman and one of the tireless volunteers who make the Griskus triathlon series work every summer.

“I figured, they like this, and I want them to be proud of me,” Karim added.

In his haste on that first race day in 2008, Mabrouk competed in the bike portion with a bungee cord wrapped up in his bike spokes. His race was a disaster. He finished 129th in the short sprint distance, in more than 80 minutes.

Mabrouk lost all interest in impressing the Hellers because his competitive nature took over.

“I wasn’t happy with the result,” he said. “I knew I could have done better.”

Mabrouk entered a second triathlon later that year and won his age group. He did a third race, and his bike chain broke.

“I did three races, had two fails and one success,” said Mabrouk. “It was failure that pushed me.”

Mabrouk doesn’t fail often. He was the Tunisian high school 50-meter breaststroke champion. Currently, he coaches two swim teams, the University Aquatic Club, an age group team in Storrs, and UConn’s club team.

Mabrouk’s competitive cauldron has been on constant simmer for four years, leading to this moment: He competes in his first ironman race Saturday. He brings with him the goal of qualifying for Kona, which hosts the world ironman championships later this year in Hawaii. To do that, he must finish in the top six in his age group Saturday. For a first-time ironman, it is a lofty goal.

“I want to prove that it can be done,” Mabrouk said.

He will be happy to complete the race in 10 hours, 30 minutes. His goal is to break 10 hours. But what happens after the race is what consumes him.

“This sport does not exist in Tunisia,” he said. “They do not have a federation within the Ministry of Sports to regulate athletes so they can represent Tunisia in international competitions.”

It is Karim’s mission to change that, to establish a footing there for triathletes and one day see a Tunisian compete in the Olympic triathlon.

“I must have a good result,” he said. “I am not going just to participate. I want to make sure the people of Tunisia see this, and put us on the map in the triathlon and put the sport in front of the policy makers. I want to qualify for Kona, which is a race that has international media coverage. That would be the loudest message I can send. This is why I am doing this.”

Mabrouk will bring his triathlon passion back to Tunisia, but he understands that he needs a positive result to have that message heard.

“Tunisia is where the Arab Spring began,” Mabrouk said, referring to the uprising that started there in December 2010. “I want to back that message up even more, and there is no more peaceful way to send a political message than through sports. It brings people together.”

Saturday, Mabrouk will swim, bike and run for more than 140 miles because he is an athlete who now loves the ultimate competitive challenge of a triathlon. The biggest challenge of all, however, lies ahead as he tries to introduce a new sport to his beloved homeland.