Only five years into her tri career, Audrey Ernst has worked her way from tri newbie to USA Triathlon’s high school national champion.

Only five years into her tri career, Audrey Ernst has worked her way from tri newbie to USA Triathlon’s high school national champion.

This fall, 17-year-old Audrey Ernst will be starting her senior year at St. Charles North High School in a suburb of Chicago. She’ll be walking the halls with a distinction not many teenagers carry: national champion.

In April, Ernst took the victory at the second-ever USA Triathlon High School National Championships, which took place in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Ernst earned the win by exiting the 750-
meter swim in a chase pack, pulling away from the group on the 20.25K bike with the fastest bike split of the day and then maintaining her gap on the 5K run to the finish, with almost a 1-minute gap over the runner-up.

“I’m thrilled that everything came together for me that day,” she says. “It helps inspire me to continue to work hard in the sport.”

Five years ago, though, she wouldn’t have seen herself as such a well-rounded triathlete, let alone a strong cyclist. She races on both the cross-country and track teams for her high school, and she came into the sport seeing herself as a runner. “I kind of relied on running to carry me through the events,” she says. In her first-ever triathlon, a neighborhood kids’ race when she was 12, she jumped in because she was curious and open to a new adventure. She ended up winning it. “I was head over heels in love with the sport of triathlon from that race forward,” she says. “I was curious and excited to challenge myself.”

She joined USA Triathlon’s youth elite program, essentially a pipeline into the ITU racing format, followed by junior elite at age 16 for draft-legal races. “As I continued with triathlon into juniors, learning to swim and bike competitively has been the focus of my training,” she says. “With each [leg], I have good days and off days. It’s fun and interesting because each race, venue, weather and swim, bike and run course are completely different, and the combination of each variety will determine which discipline I do better.”

Ernst appreciates that USA Triathlon has made growing youth participation such a priority in recent years, partly through the creation of the national high school series. “It gives teenage athletes an opportunity to branch out from their individual sports,” she says. “Most importantly, it’s an invitation to the wonderful world of triathlon that will introduce kids like me to an exciting, adventurous, awe-inspiring, competitive, ageless, NCAA, Olympic sport [on which] they can set their dreams and goals.”

This fall, USA Triathlon is expanding its high school program by adding 15 high school state championships to the calendar leading up to the national championship. Ultimately, the goal is to have a high school state championship in every state. USA Triathlon also offers high school program grants to help schools build multisport programs. “It’s an incredible experience to have a sport like this at the high school level,” Ernst says. And the competition is “steadfast,” she says. “There are many great athletes competing, so sometimes you just never know who’s going to get the win that day.”

Ernst’s favorite things about triathlon are the “variety and the grit of the sport,” she says, and she’s learned to balance her academics with her training. “I’ve heard people say the busier they are, the more they accomplish,” she says. “It’s probably because you have to schedule your time to make it all work. … I love triathlon, so it’s fun and rewarding for me to make time to do what I enjoy.” Because she already has year-round running workouts scheduled between cross-country (fall) and track (spring) seasons, she works hard to add in swim and bike workouts.

Next year, she plans to study nursing in college, with hopes of becoming a nurse anesthetist one day. In addition, “I would love to compete in triathlon in college,” she says. “My goals are to continue competing in triathlon for as long and as far as it will take me.”