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Cancellation to Motivation: Triathlon Thriving through Adversity

Mar 8, 2021

Cliff English Nominated for College Coach of the Year | Triathlon Recognized as Scholar All-American Team | Gal Rubanenko's Unique Path to Sun Devil Triathlon | Coach English Signs a Loaded 2021 Class | Triathlon Partners with United Way to Give Back to the Community

For a program like ASU's, which holds the kind of stature and reputation that's widely felt across the country, winning is customary. National championships appear to be the norm. But, for the last calendar year, so many of the talks inside the program have been centered around losing.

How to lose. What to do in the event of loss. How to rebound from it. It isn't often this kind of discourse is had at ASU, given the program has rattled off four consecutive national championships since it was granted a program in 2015.

But this is necessary in 2021.

The Sun Devils lost their season last spring, when it was cancelled in March because of concerns surrounding the emerging pandemic. Its fall championship season was scrapped months later, too.

Rather than dwell on the shutdown, which would eventually stretch into a 12-month pause without competition, Head Coach Cliff English chose to tap into it. This was, finally, extended time to sharpen the strengths and tweak the flaws of his student-athletes.

With the Sun Devils set to resume competition on March 13 in Sarasota, Fla., English reflected on the work he and his staff have done this past year to revamp their program.

Except it wasn't a group that was in need of a makeover. Hardly that. This was a program that spent the down time of the last year learning how to lose, how to trust, and how to inch closer to another national championship.

"I almost feel the team is in a better place than they've ever been and that's not even coming out of the nice highs from a victory," said English, who boasts a terrific coaching career that spans three-plus decades. "It's actually from looking inward and getting to know each other better, understand each other better, getting to know their coaches better, since we've had a little more time now."

"We're constantly talking about things, telling stories, finding different ways to teach them and relay our knowledge."

English is not a man made for a 12-month shutdown. It isn't in his nature to drop everything then and there. There's always work to be done, always something in need of a good fine tuning. His second-year assistant coach, Nicole Welling, is wired similarly.

When the two were told last March their competitions would be cancelled for the foreseeable future, they immediately began charting all the work that could be done in the meantime. It became a laundry-list of things to do, and soon after, the down time morphed into a "coach's dream."

"You never have this time," English said. "You always have a competition scheduled. You're always on that treadmill. But, it was like, 'Oh, we can actually develop them now'."

"We definitely saw it as a really good opportunity to work on stuff that we might not have otherwise worked on," Welling added.

It was a time to get nit-picky with their athletes' games. Some girls had additional time to work on the bike, others focused on time-trial racing.

"It was stuff we really just, in any other circumstance, we would've worked on these things, but in a much smaller, quicker way," Welling said. "We really got to dive into a lot of the details and stuff. It was a really unique situation. Most athletes never have something like this in your career."

Aside from the physical training they logged, English and Welling sought to put more of an emphasis on the team culture. And, much to their delight, their athletes quickly bought in.

There was more time for team meetings, some with just each other and others with guest speakers and current professional racers, who shared knowledge and insight on how to navigate a triathlon career post-college.

They also became heavily involved in talks with potential recruits, meeting with them via Zoom and teaching them about the Sun Devil Way -- highlighting the athletic facilities, the team camaraderie, the importance of the work they do in the classroom.

This increased focus on program-wide chemistry began showing up at training, too. English noted this is a bit of a rarity, given the sport is often individualistic and rarely played in a team-setting like it is in college.

"I think we're really seeing with this team that they're really happy with their teammates' successes, as well," English said. "It helps push them to places they might not have thought they could get to if they didn't have that support from their teammates pushing them and encouraging them."

These are what English refers to as the "immeasurables," the goods that don't show up on paper, but are the fabric of championship-caliber programs.

The Sun Devils are hungry again. Hungry for competition, sure, but also to resume the chance to repeat as national champions.

It took loss -- and learning how to cope with that -- to get to this juncture.

"You can't ask for more when your top athletes feel this way about the team and want to preserve that and continue to get better and stronger," English said. "It's a really good place. I think we're going to see a lot of amazing performances. 

"Knock on wood, but we can't wait to get to the fall and show the work we've done."