At a school of more than 45,000 students, the niche sport of triathlon definitely takes a backseat to the Big 10 athletics Michigan State University is most well known for. Like many college triathlon programs, the Spartans are a self-organized, self-coached and self-funded team. Despite that, and training through temperamental Michigan winters, the 40-something members of the MSU Tri Club managed to place fourth overall at last year’s USAT Collegiate Nationals.
On Saturday the Spartans head to Tuscaloosa, Ala., anticipating another great result.
“We’re all really excited to race because it’s been so long,” says President Zach Church. By “long,” he means most team members haven’t raced since last October or November. With the addition of a mixed relay this year—and the fact that they can drive to the event—the team will be taking 25 members, including 10 scoring men, 7 scoring women with the rest in the open or relay division.
Around campus, “I’m not even sure that many people even know we exist,” Church says. “They’re not very familiar with the sport. When you say ‘triathlon,’ most people think of Ironman.” (Sound familiar?) In addition to training and being full-time students, many of the team members have jobs. Two students are also training while finishing medical school.
The team holds six workouts per week with designated “directors.” Because of weather, they do most of their bike and brick workouts inside the MSU Army ROTC building, a donated multi-use space. “There are usually a lot of things going on at the same time,” Church says. “The band is in there, color guard is in there, ROTC is in there, intramural soccer—it gets a little crazy.” Thankfully March was unseasonably warm to sneak in a few outdoor bike rides, but generally they’ll stay on their trainers and just seek out well-lit plowed paths for run workouts.
Anyone is welcome to join the university-recognized club, and members range from high school runners and swimmers to complete athletic newbies. Their only funding from the school includes four hours of pool time per week. Outside of their $100 yearly dues, the club hosts an indoor triathlon, outdoor triathlon and a 5K to raise money to get to Nationals.
They wouldn’t be college kids without some college traditions, including the “Viking Feast” and the tri formal, an event where members dress up for a nice dinner. The Viking Feast involves eating 144 scrambled eggs, bacon and bread straight off a table as a group. Church admits, “There’s no real reason—we just do it sometime in the fall when we have a lot of new members. We’ll usually do it on a Saturday and then go watch a football game.” On Fat Tuesday, they hold the “Packzi 200”: Eat a packzi (Polish donut filled with jam or cream), swim 100 yards, eat a packzi, swim 100 yards. Church is the proud 2012 champion.
Team members tend to hang out with other triathletes, spending most of their social time at the “tri house,” home to multiple teammates. For spring break, 16 members headed down to Florida for a weeklong training camp. And unlike their bigger sport brethren, they’re friendly with neighboring schools’ teams, including Central Michigan University, University of Michigan, Purdue University and Ohio State, some of their competitors this weekend.