Chasing NCAA Status While on the Hunt for Title Five
Mackenzie Schweickart is an undergraduate student working for Sun Devil Athletics in the Public Relations Lab at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Originally from Rock City, Illinois, Schweickart moved to attend ASU and will graduate in the Spring of 2023.
Sun Devil Triathlon will host the 2021 National Championships in its own backyard as the sport gains more traction to become a fully sponsored NCAA sport.
While the 2020 season was canceled in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Arizona State University has hosted the USA Triathlon National Collegiate Championships in Tempe since 2017 and plans to do so this weekend. The race will begin at 3 p.m. on Saturday Nov. 13 at Tempe Town Lake North Park, and the Sun Devils hope to win their fifth-straight national title.
The National Championships feature triathletes from DI, DII, and DIII colleges competing in waves. With their fourth bid to host the National Championships, ASU also won the bid for 2022, and Tempe will once again be the course.
"With the city of Tempe being one of the epicenters for triathlon in the country, we thought it would be a really great fit with us as an institution leading the way for collegiate triathlon," said Bill Kennedy.
Kennedy is the associate athletic director for Administration for Sun Devil Athletics, and he currently works with student-athletes while also managing the Sun Devil Athletics Community Service program.
The city of Tempe and metro Phoenix area provide everything needed to host a successful championship event. Visiting triathlon teams and fans have easy access to an airport, transportation, hotels and restaurants conveniently nearby.
Since the inaugural 2016 season as an NCAA emerging sport, Sun Devil Triathlon has been excellent and is dominating every championship. Triathlon assistant coach Nicole Welling was the first person to pave the way for the sport at ASU.
"It was a pipe dream type of thing, and then I actually met Nicole in 2015, and she was the one that wrote the grant proposal," said head coach Cliff English. "Ray [Anderson] thought that was a great idea." USA Triathlon awarded Welling's proposal with a grant to fund the program.
English was hired by ASU in 2015 as the head coach for the emerging triathlon team. ASU was the ninth college at the time to add triathlon as a sport. In order to be put in front of an NCAA committee, an emerging sport must secure 40 teams. There are currently 37 colleges that have a triathlon team, and USA Triathlon will soon announce the 38th team.
Tim Yount is the chief sport development officer for USA Triathlon, and he works with coaches at ASU and other colleges across the country to help triathlon become an NCAA sponsored sport.
Before the pandemic, Yount and many at USA Triathlon and ASU believed that 40 teams would be reached before the beginning of 2021. However, there were a few instances where colleges were set to commit to the triathlon program before or during the pandemic, but they had to pull out at the last minute because of budget cuts or administrative changes.
"It's all about timing," said Yount. "We would've hit 40 about a year and a half ago, and sometimes there's just bad luck and timing."
Despite the loss of these other potential teams, USA Triathlon and ASU continuously work to educate administrators, parents, and students about what competing in a triathlon actually means. The first thing that comes to mind for most is an Ironman triathlon which is a 16-to-17- hour race that is a "bucket list" triathlon for most people.
College triathlons are only about an hour and 15-minute race that take place in the fall semester. Most student-athletes don't realize they are already participating in different portions of the race by running or swimming. By having experience competing in one of the three events, they have the opportunity to learn more about a three-in-one sport experience.
Coach English is openly communicating with other college coaches and administrators. Through "happy hour presentations," ASU and USA Triathlon teach compliance, rules, fundraising, and recruiting.
"We have a lot more openness," said English. "I'm sure at some point we're all going to get a lot more competitive, and we're not going to be sharing the tricks of the trade, but for now I kind of spill all the beans while still keeping a couple to myself."
Triathlon is gaining more attention and popularity with younger demographics. According to Yount, 8- and 9-year-olds want to be triathletes. They are training, joining club teams, and staying engaged with the sport.
"There are a lot of kids who have been waiting for an opportunity to do their sport," said English.
Using NCAA sports to reach the Olympic track is one of the most important reasons for triathlon to become an NCAA sponsored sport. In recent years, Gwen Jorgensen won gold in the 2016 Rio Olympics, and Katie Zaferes won bronze in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
As a legitimate NCAA sport, the organization will fund the championships and push the media to promote the sport in the same way other NCAA sports are promoted which will create more fans and more eyes on the emerging sport.
It becomes more attractive for triathletes who want to go to the Olympics rather than just compete for four years and then be done. It also opens the door to DII and DIII triathletes to make Olympic teams instead of just DI triathletes. It would be a cross division sport.
"We want them to know that if you want to create a livelihood for yourself beyond the NCAA, come through the NCAA program and continue to work with our top-level coaches and continue to get better as you learn more about the sport," said Yount.
Coach English doesn't want to just stop at triathlon becoming an NCAA sport; he wants to introduce the possibility of working with athletes who compete in paratriathlon events. English proposed the idea of collaborative camps at ASU where some of his triathletes could act as pilots or guides for visually impaired athletes, believing this could add another level of meaning to a beloved sport.
Since 37 colleges have added a triathlon team, a 38th is about to be announced. The coaches and administration at ASU have worked tirelessly with Yount and Sun Devil alum Rocky Harris, CEO of USA Triathlon, to recruit colleges, award grants, and provide free coaching education for programs that are interested in adding a triathlon team.
"Women's triathlon becoming a NCAA Championship sport is an important step in not only continuing to help triathlon grow in popularity and participation, but also in providing competitive opportunities for young women," said Harris. "Arizona State has been instrumental in our push to reach the 40-school threshold and we are thankful for their continued support across so many areas of our sport."