By Michael Hill
As the sun rose Sunday over this gaming mecca, the athletes lined the banks of the calm back bays of Atlantic City and then took a plunge — swimming 2.4 miles in the first leg of the inaugural Challenge Atlantic City Triathlon.
Lisa Schill was among them and then she dashed to the sidelines to cheer on other members of her Williamstown NJ Badgers Club.
When asked the last time she came to the area, Schill said, “It’s been a while.”
Schill is the target Atlantic City is aiming for — people who don’t come to AC for the casinos but who would come for other activities, like a triathlon.
“Yeah, it attracted me. I think it’s great. I left my kids at home this time but I brought my husband and we plan to spend the night here and just having some fun times in Atlantic City,” said Schill.
Laura Muzzatti of Hoboken made signs to encourage her friends biking on the “byways” through the blueberry capital of the world and a lane carved out on the Atlantic City Expressway in South Jersey.
“It’s wonderful. I think it brings a lot of tourism to the area. And it’s a great spot for having this,” Muzzatti said.
The challenge for Atlantic City is just like this triathlon — one of endurance. With casino revenues declining here the last several years, city leaders realize they must appeal to a broader demographic to increase tourism revenue.
“We’re bringing in a different demographic,” said Co-event Director Robert “Vigo” Vigorito. “People whose first and foremost lifestyle is health and fitness, exercise and whether they’re 20, the youngest in the race is 18 or the most senior 83 in this race. They espouse wellness.”
Vigorito says that’s what this four-day event embodies. He stood at the finish line and greeted the top woman in the race — cancer survivor turned pro athlete Laurel Wassner. The New Yorker swam, biked and ran nearly 141 miles in nine hours, 28 minutes and 20 seconds.
Organizers say this Ironman competition has attracted triathletes from 35 nations.
“Atlantic City is playing ball! They want to get things done and make a change and this is the perfect example,” said Co-director Steve Del Monte.
Runners criss-crossed the city right past signs of the multi-million dollar tourism campaign.
“People’s determination here in the triathlon matches the determination of Atlantic City to succeed in the future,” said Greg Guaracino of the Atlantic City Alliance.
Atlantic City is home to this challenge for the next four years.
It may take a while to compile the hard numbers of the impact of this one. For now, though, organizers say Atlantic City gambled on the challenge and by the looks of it, it’s winning.