“The team that trains together, wins together” is the adage the University of Colorado’s Triathlon Team followed to win its 13th national title.
It comes as no surprise that a team rooted in the country’s triathlon hub of Boulder, Colo., tends to race well. Proving that once again they’re the best collegiate triathlon team in the country, the CU Buffalos took home the overall title at Saturday’s USAT National Collegiate Championships for the 13th time. This is the third consecutive year that the team, led by USAT Level III coach Mike Ricci, has earned the honor.
Although the team boasts some high-level athletes (the top four CU men were all in the top 14 overall), it’s the impressive depth of talent that shows CU’s team of 100 is more than just a few ringers. The men’s team has consistently climbed the podium, again taking top honors on Saturday, and the women’s team, the strongest in years according to Ricci, edged out the competition to also earn the top spot. Scores are based on adding the top four athletes’ finishing places, which amounted to 100 points—the men with 25 points, the women with 75. Their total tally beat the second-place United States Naval Academy by 159 points.
At the start of every year, Ricci sits down with the majority of the athletes on the team to assess individual weaknesses and determine a plan to focus on those throughout the fall. He coaches 4–5 practices every week and also writes the team’s training plan in Training Peaks (A, B and C options depending on level). Because only 14 students typically compete at nationals, Ricci ensures that there’s a big focus on the regional competition in Lake Havasu, Ariz. in March. This year the team took 65 athletes, including some kids that went from barely swimming a lap to racing a mile in open water within six weeks.
One instrumental factor to the team’s success is Ricci’s emphasis on participation. In fact, when choosing which students will race nationals, it’s not just about the best race results; he also factors in attendance and team volunteering to fill the spots. “He wants to form a team, not just something where people come whenever they want,” says junior Chris Braden, who placed an impressive sixth overall on Saturday. “He always says ‘a team that trains together, wins together.’ I think that these expectations are the biggest thing he’s brought to the table.”
The approach seems to be working. Even on a Saturday with 40 mph gusting winds, a workout which might lead to low attendance, 50–60 kids will show up ready to ride. “College kids are indestructible,” Ricci says. “Their enthusiasm is incredible, motivation is great. There’s nothing they don’t think they can do.” When it’s too snowy to ride, the team might do a group snowshoe workout or go cross-country skiing.
The power of the team isn’t just beneficial to newer members or those desperately seeking speed—even top athletes like 2011 Collegiate Nationals winner Karl “Rudy” Kahsar use the team to their advantage. “I think in the past year, Rudy has realized how much the team can help him,” Ricci says. “During any given workout, there could be five guys faster than him in the pool or four guys faster on the run, so he’s learned to train with those who can push him. But he knows when to say enough is enough and back off. He’s really good about pacing himself and doesn’t push to his limit all the time—I think that’s a sign of maturity, that he’s not out there to show everyone he’s the fastest guy every day.”
One key figure who helps in pushing Kahsar is new team addition Drew Scott (six-time Ironman world champion Dave Scott’s son), who Ricci says has improved a lot since joining in September. “We know he’s got the long-distance genes, but he’s also great at short course because he’s got some speed,” Ricci says. As a longtime fan of Dave’s—Ricci says reading about him in a magazine at age 13 was what turned him into a triathlete—the coach often quotes him in practice. He says Drew takes it all in stride. “You think he might have some sort of ‘hey my dad’s Dave Scott,’ but there’s none of that,” Ricci says. “He has no ego, he’s just a wonderful kid to coach.”
Ricci and his athletes view the team as a family, which he believes gives CU an edge. “The common goal for us as a team is bigger than just racing for yourself, and I think that’s what sets our team apart,” he says. “On a daily basis I see how they care for each other, push each other, tease each other and so on. But when that gun goes off on race day, they have each other’s backs and want to give everything they have in support of their teammates.”
The camaraderie is what Ricci loves most about the college triathlon environment. He says that even the kids that don’t go to nationals help push the others in training, and they take pride in their teammates’ results. “Obviously, its always beneficial to train with people who are faster, but when those same people are your teammates and you are racing for a common goal, such as a team championship, you can dig a little deeper and push a little harder on race day. The CU triathlon family is a special group and I know how fortunate I am to coach them.”