When Justin Lorenz was just starting to run triathlons around age 7, he would pretend he was someone else.
"I'm Kevin, you're Ben," Justin, now 11, of West Dundee, recalls saying to his running buddy as they set off racing through the woods.
Justin LorenzAge : 11
Hometown : West Dundee
School : Elgin Academy
Who inspires you? U.S. Olympian triathlete Hunter Kemper. He's nice and he's humble.
What's on your iPod? I listen to music on an iPad. Right now, LMFAO, Coldplay, and Psy
What book are you reading? Nothing right now. My favorites are the "Eragon" book series and "The Hunger Games" trilogy
The three words that best describe you? Unique. Hardworking. Special.
Kevin is Kevin McDowell, a bronze medalist at the 2010 ITU Junior Triathlon World Championship, while Ben is Ben Kanute, a two-time USA Triathlon Junior Elite National Championship winner. Both were members of Justin's team, Geneva-based MMTT youth triathlon team, as was Lukas Verzbicas, who won the ITU Junior World Triathlon Championships last year.
Those great role models, coupled with favorable genes, raw talent and lots of cross-training, turned Justin into a nationally decorated triathlete. This year, Justin, a sixth-grader at Elgin Academy, beat the competition by 10 seconds to win the Iron Kids National Championship in Des Moines.
The Iron Kids series, which consists of a 150-meter swim, 4-mile bike ride, and 1-mile run, is one of two national triathlon championships for kids. USA Triathlon's races consist of a 200-meter swim, a 10K bike ride and a 2K run. Justin won that race in 2009 and 2011, and came in second in 2010 and this year.
Justin says he's best at running and credits his latest commanding win with achieving faster, smoother transitions.
"I don't go all out on the swim, because I still have two more disciplines to go. I go pretty fast but not all out. The bike is probably the hardest for me -- I go really hard on that -- and on the run I go all out to finish it," he said.
Not that it's all been easy.
"When I won the national championship at 10, I was actually crying when I got to the finish. I was pushing so hard that I was hurting so much, I was crying," he said. "It's not really stinging pain; it's just like that you want to be done with it. It's like a hurt that you're so tired that you just want to stop."
To ease the pain, Justin has learned to rely on music -- in his head.
"When I'm racing, half my mind is thinking of the race, the other half is thinking of good music to sing in my head," he said. "It takes my thoughts off how much I'm hurting."
Justin is active year-round in multiple sports. He trains with MMTT from March to September, and also swims with the Dundee Dolphins, runs with the Batavia Accelerators, plays soccer with Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Arsenal, plays basketball with the Jacobs High School feeder team, and bikes with the Verdigris-Village cyclocross team.
John Lorenz said he and his wife, Tracy, ensured Justin and his sister, Alexandra, a freshman at Jacobs, got involved in various sports to achieve different types of physical conditioning. Both parents are triathletes, and Alexandra is also a member of the MMTT team. Justin started running when he was about 5.
Doing multiple sports helps avoid injuries, John Lorenz said.
"I've been very careful about intensity, about him not doing one constant exercise with pounding, like running," he said. "When you do a lot of different sports, everything is very different in terms of the effects on the body."
MMTT youth coach Chris Palmquist said Justin is always focused, both during practice and races.
"He's got an unusually mature ability to focus. He's way beyond 11 in his years that way," Palmquist said. "He's got very specific goals in mind for the season, and he's patient -- if he has a practice where he doesn't feel very well, he doesn't let that bother him. He doesn't have big ups and downs emotionally."
There are more than 35,000 youth members of USA triathlon, so there's plenty of competition out there, Palmquist said. "When we go to national championships, there are usually 50 or 60 kids in his age group. He's been coming in first or second pretty consistently," she said, adding that if he continues at this rate, he's on track to reach the highest levels of international competition in triathlon.
The next few years in Justin's training will be crucial, said MMTT founder Keith Dickson of Aurora, also the team director for the Elite Triathlon Academy at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. "Anything under 12 is all about physiology. You can't start looking at athletes until they get out of the 17- to 18-year-old age group," he said.
Justin's biggest strength is that he's a born competitor, Dickson said. "Look in his eyes when he's getting ready to start a race," he said. "He gets on the start line and he's focused."
In order to continue developing into a top triathlete, Justin will have to focus on improving his swimming, and keep working hard and listening to his coaches, Dickson said. "It's all about getting their mind trained, getting them at practice, and getting them committed."
Justin's focus is evident in school, too, said Elgin Academy teacher Peggy Veltri.
"He's an excellent student," Veltri said. "He really knows how to have a good time with the other kids, but he's a really serious student, too. He often does really well. On the rare occasions when he doesn't, he's very interested in how he could do better and what he might have missed."
He's also mindful of preparing for when he must go out of town for races, she said.
"He tells me, 'What can I do ahead of time? What do I need to do when I'm gone?' There are some kids who say, 'Woohoo, I'm out of school,' but he's not like that," she sad.
Justin never has to be pushed to stay on top of academics, John Lorenz said. For example, Justin often does his homework, unprompted, during car rides on the way to practice, he added. "He's very diligent about managing his schedule, getting things done," he said.
Justin says he doesn't feel like his parents ever force him to do sports; in fact, they have been a great support system for him, he said.
"They push me through it, they helped me get ready for it, they pay for everything, they help me get through all the practices," he said. "Once in a while I'll want a break. I just want to hang out with my friends. But I don't really get (tired) of it, because I'm doing so much, I'm not doing one sport all the time. Also, I made a lot of friends in sports."
Training with teams really helps kids, John Lorenz said. "A lot of times you have parents that want to push them and make them do things by themselves, and they burn out. It's important to have that support."
Someday, Justin said, he'd love to go to the Olympics and inspire others just like Kanute, Verzbicas and McDowell inspired him.
"For a good role model, you have to be humble. You can't be a really bad student, you have to have good grades. You can't be cocky, and you have to help people out with stuff, and you can be an outstanding athlete and be really nice."
• Elena Ferrarin wrote today's column. She and Kimberly Pohl always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of a young person whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to email@example.com or call (847) 608-2733.