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NCAA Triathlon: What It All Means

  • By Aaron Hersh
  • Published Jan 21, 2014
  • Updated Mar 13, 2014 at 9:11 PM UTC
Erika Erickson will look to move up the podium this year. Photo: Jason Wise

Women’s triathlon became an NCAA sport when it was voted in as an “emerging sport” by the NCAA Legislative Council last week in San Diego, the birthplace of the sport. All divisions (I, II and III) decided to sanction triathlon for the fall of 2014 to promote women’s collegiate athletics.

Four-time U.S. Olympian Hunter Kemper knows what this can mean for young people with high aspirations in the sport. “There are a lot of girls waking up today with new dreams that they never thought possible,” he says. Kemper was a national triathlon champion as a junior and raced collegiate track and cross country for Wake Forest University in part because the level of competition in college club triathlon wasn’t high enough to help him progress to his ultimate goal. And tuition support wasn’t an option. “Some girls we know who are young teenagers now have that opportunity,” he says.

Inclusion in the NCAA has the potential to be the most powerful change for the sport since being added as an Olympic event for the 2000 Games, but the sport still has one more hurdle to clear before reaching full-fledged NCAA status. So far, two of the three steps have been completed.

Earning a place

While excitement surrounding this news has spread quickly through the triathlon community, the sport is still in a state of flux. Women’s triathlon is only temporarily part of the NCAA. Forty schools at the DI and DII levels, and 28 DIII schools must field NCAA women’s triathlon teams for the sport to secure permanent status and hold an NCAA national championship. If that doesn’t happen within 10 years, triathlon will be dropped from the NCAA (unless it “shows steady progress toward that goal”).

Reaching these milestones is the third and final step; earning approval from the NCAA’s Council for Women’s Athletics (CWA) was the start of the process. Brad Hecker, director of women’s basketball operations for the ACC conference, and former USAT national events director Jeff Dyrek started working on the proposal to include women’s triathlon in the NCAA four years ago. In order to be considered by the NCAA Legislative Council, they first sought the endorsement of the CWA. Ten schools at a minimum must provide a letter saying they “sponsor or intend to sponsor [triathlon] as an emerging sport,” as per the NCAA guidelines, to pitch the CWA. Triathlon submitted 12 such letters. (The signing schools are Stanford University, University of Arizona, U.S. Air Force Academy, University of Denver, Drake University, Monmouth College, University of North Carolina-Asheville, University of Northern Iowa, Adams State University, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, University of Maine-Farmington and Marymount University.) Hecker and Dyrek, along with 2013 USAT collegiate national champion Michelle Mehnert and USAT Southeast Regional athlete development coordinator Kathleen Johnston presented the case for women’s triathlon to the CWA.

Along with those 12 letters, the group’s proposal argued the practical viability of women’s triathlon and, specifically, that it meets nine criteria required of emerging sports:

Requirement 1: There must be 20 or more varsity teams and/or competitive club teams that currently exist on college campuses in that sport. Eighty-five women’s club teams competed in the 2013 USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championship last April.

Requirement 2: Other data exists that demonstrates support for the sport. USAT sanctioned 4,019 races in 2012, and U.S. Sport Goods Manufacturers Association states that an estimated 1,992,000 individuals participated in at least one triathlon in 2011.

Requirement 3: High-school sport sponsorship. USA Triathlon supports Youth Elite (middle school-aged racers) and Junior (high school ages) competition.

Requirement 4: Non-scholastic competitive programs. Myriad races and local club teams across the country are available for adults.

Requirement 5: Association and organization support. USA Triathlon provides much of the logistical support needed for the sport to thrive, such as race insurance, race director education, coaching education and Olympic development.

Requirement 6: U.S. Olympic Committee support. Triathlon has been an Olympic sport since 2000, and the U.S. has fielded a complete team for every Olympic triathlon.

Requirement 7: Conference interest in sports sponsorship. This item wasn’t addressed in detail in the emerging sport proposal.

Requirement 8: Coaches Association support. Through 30-plus years as a professional sport and four Olympic cycles, triathlon has developed an accomplished roster of knowledgeable coaches and USAT coaching curriculum used to certify professional triathlon coaches.

Requirement 9: Professional sports support. From Olympic distance to Ironman, triathlon supports many professional athletes who live on their earnings from the sport.

The proposal presented to the CWA demonstrated that a robust foundation capable of supporting collegiate competition already exists. Another item in the presentation that isn’t listed in the selection criteria is financial viability. Instead of starting every race from scratch, existing events can simply add an NCAA wave to offer a venue for collegiate teams to compete. Furthermore, the presentation notes that schools can host participatory events open to the general public to raise money for the program. “Organizing events for the general public can create attractive fundraising opportunities for donors who participate in, or simply enjoy, the sport,” reads Hecker’s proposal. The potential to raise some of the money required to sponsor a team could incentivize cash-strapped athletic departments to adopt triathlon as a way to meet gender equity laws without huge expense.

The proposal successfully passed. Marilyn Moniz-Kaho’ohanohano, then CWA chair, gave the sport a full endorsement for all three divisions, writing in the document presented to the NCAA Legislative Council, “The association-wide CWA respectfully requests that the NCAA membership vote in favor of this proposal. … A vote in favor creates the possibility of new participation opportunities for women and time to see if the sport can grow to championship-level sponsorship.” Passing the NCAA Legislative Council was the second step. With support of the CWA (now headed by Karen Morrison), women’s triathlon won over the vast majority of voters at last week’s convention, passing at all three divisions with more than 90 percent of the vote.

Race and team structure

Draft-legal races will make up the backbone of NCAA women’s triathlon, although non-drafting competition will also be sponsored in an effort to introduce less experienced athletes to the sport. The USAT proposal suggests three different race types, all shorter than the Olympic distance: First is an open-water race with the following distances: 600–1,000-meter swim; 20–30K bike; 4–6K run. Small invitational pool-swim races with the same event distances as the open-water races between two or three teams is the second format. A team relay event with 2–16 four-person teams is the final proposed format. In this style, every member of a relay team would complete a 300-meter swim, 10K bike and 2K run. The NCAA championship, should the sport make it that far, would mimic the open-water swim race. USAT proposed five-person teams for drafting events and between five and seven athletes per team for a non-drafting race.

Scoring would work like a cross-country meet. First place is given one point, second scores two and so on. The scores of the top three finishers from each team are summed and the lowest score wins. The fourth and fifth members of each team would not count to their team’s point total, but if they place higher than an opponent’s scoring athlete, their place in the final results would add to the opponent’s total.

The anticipated team size is 12–15 women. The current draft of the NCAA rules governing the sport state that a team would have to compete in four to six races in a season, which would stretch from Sept. 1 into November.

Instead of standardizing equipment for teams, the USAT proposal suggests a $500-$1,000 bike equipment stipend to help fund the gear needed to compete.

Implications for the sport

NCAA.org defines an emerging sport as “a sport recognized by the NCAA that is intended to provide additional athletics opportunities to female student-athletes. Institutions are allowed to use emerging sports to help meet the NCAA minimum sports-sponsorship requirements and also to meet the NCAA’s minimum financial aid awards.”

Four current NCAA women’s sports originated from this 20-year-old program: rowing, ice hockey, water polo and bowling. Five others—archery, badminton, squash, synchronized swimming and team handball—were all nominated as an emerging sport, the position women’s triathlon currently occupies, before failing to earn permanent status. They have been dropped from NCAA competition. Sand volleyball, equestrian and rugby are the three current emerging sports. Volleyball is on course for certification while rugby is floundering (just five sponsor schools in 2012), and equestrian has stagnated with a few more than 20 programs across the country.

NCAA inclusion comes with the notable caveat that only women are invited. Title IX is a 1972 law stating that no person can be “excluded from participation” or “denied benefits” based on gender by any education program or activity that receives federal money. Applied to the NCAA, the law mandates that athletic scholarships and other benefits must be equivalent for males and females. Football teams consume a large fraction of the total for males, so schools must balance those benefits through other sports. As a result, many schools offer sports programs exclusively for women. Adding men’s triathlon was never on the table during this proposal process.

Triathlon is currently a popular collegiate club sport (not financially support by schools) for both genders, and NCAA acceptance is going to bifurcate some of these close-knit groups and introduce new and unforeseen consequences in the early years of the sport.

“I think it’s going to have both positive and negative impacts,” says Jesse Frank, University of Colorado-Boulder triathlon club president. In addition to the tremendous benefit for the few athletes that earn scholarships as well as a boost to American elite development, existing club teams will be impacted. “People will come to the school for varsity and won’t make it or won’t have time and will drop to club, but I do think it can cause some tension between males and females, and between females in varsity versus the club,” Franks says. “One of the things we pride ourselves on at CU is that we’re a family. How is it going to impact things for the top four to seven women [on the club team]?” Regardless of any uncertainty associated with NCAA adoption, Frank is ecstatic at the news because of the opportunities it will open for future and present athletes as well as the sport as a whole.

Despite the massive success of its club team (14 national titles), CU Boulder isn’t one of the 12 signatories and may not have an NCAA women’s triathlon team this fall. Some of the fastest women on the team may pursue a scholarship at a school that does sponsor women’s triathlon. If a school like CU does eventually field a team, it will go against the all-inclusive nature of the club, but that doesn’t have to degrade the quality of the club experience.

“You want to get called up to the big leagues, so to speak, so maybe there is animosity [among some of the athletes], but that’s normal in everything,” former CU triathlon club coach Mike Ricci says. “That happens in the classroom as well. Everyone wants to get an ‘A.’” Like Frank, Ricci believes the move will be a great benefit to the sport.

If the goal of a soon-to-be-created NCAA women’s tri team is to help with Title IX compliance, pulling from existing club teams is an effective way to fill a roster, especially with just seven months between now and the start of the season. Grooming the next generation of Olympians requires a different approach. The creation of women’s NCAA triathlon will “complete the pipeline,” Kemper says, needed to mentor a talented young triathlete up to the highest level of the sport. “They can go from Junior ranks, and there is no longer going to be a gap.”

As a result of the current break in the pipeline, almost all American Olympic triathletes competed as NCAA swimmers or runners during their college years. Kemper viewed his time on the Wake Forest running teams as an opportunity to focus on a weakness and hit a level he otherwise wouldn’t have attained, but at a cost. “It worked out for me but delayed my progress, I could tell you that,” Kemper says. “When you’re in Australia or New Zealand, those guys are professionals right when they graduate from high school, and it’s tough to compete against those guys.”

Athletes reared exclusively as triathletes by and large dominate the Olympic style of triathlon racing. People such as Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee, Javier Gomez and Non Stanford trained as triathletes exclusively at a very young age, well before entering college. American Gwen Jorgensen is a notable exception to the trend. She was an NCAA swimmer and runner as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and transitioned to triathlon at the age of 22 through USAT’s talent development program operated by 2004 U.S. Olympian Barb Lindquist. She is proof that a true contender for Olympic gold can come to the sport late in life, but the large majority of ITU athletes at that level do not share her background. Simply dropping a talented 18-year-old into a collegiate program isn’t enough to ensure their potential is reached—collegiate coaching must be excellent to maximize this opportunity for the sport, not just the institutions.

Coaches at single-sport NCAA programs that churn out Olympic-level athletes are excellent and highly experienced. “Do we have the coaching to do this thing?” Ricci wonders. Are there enough qualified coaches that can squeeze every bit of performance from a program? USAT is taking the lead on coaching education, but there is no substitute for experience, and finding a slew of coaches with the chops will be a challenge—NCAA certification is no guarantee of Olympic success. Coaches that have demonstrated the ability such as Darren Smith or Siri Lindley are out there, but enticing them to coach an NCAA team won’t be easy.

Despite the obstacles to come, NCAA status will be a boon for the U.S. Olympic triathlon team in the future. While its impact might not show in 2016 or 2020, the appeal of  scholarships and other institutional benefits associated with NCAA athletics will help attract talented young endurance athletes and develop them into elite ITU racers. Expect the level of American female ITU triathletes to rise.

Reaching this point is a milestone achievement for the sport of triathlon, but it’s one of the first steps in leveraging the NCAA to increase awareness, participation and Olympic success of the sport, not the last.

Hersh was a member of the University of Colorado-Boulder collegiate triathlon club team from 2004-2007.

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Aaron Hersh

Aaron Hersh

Aaron Hersh is the Senior Tech Editor of Triathlete magazine. To submit a question, write Aaron at Ahersh@competitorgroup.com.

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