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College Triathletes Make the Best Out of Missing National Championships

Seniors share how they're coping with the cancellation of nationals and the sudden ending to their collegiate experiences.

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The University of Colorado-Boulder triathlon team had their bikes loaded and the cars packed to head to their conference championships when word came down from the university: no more domestic travel.

“We were three hours out from leaving,” said Ali Schwein, a fifth-year senior on the team.

Two days later, the school said no, the team wouldn’t be able to go to the national championships either, which were set for Arizona the first weekend of April. Of course, that ended up not mattering too much. The race should have been this past weekend; it got canceled. The students were sent home. The triathlon season abruptly ended.

Similar scenes played out for college triathletes around the country. “We got canceled in the middle of spring break,” said Tucker Cullen, who’s on the University of Virginia (UVA) triathlon team. “They said, ‘just don’t come back.'” Some of his gear simply got left behind at school.

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, public health officials are looking to limit the spread of the virus — encouraging people to stay at home and canceling large events, including nearly all races. For most athletes, the rash of race cancellations has been frustrating, but there’ll be another chance at that distance next year or the year after. For college athletes, though, especially seniors who were looking at their last collegiate races, there isn’t necessarily a next year.

After the students disbanded, Schwein went home to Michigan, where she’s trying to finish up her middle school student teaching remotely from her parents’ basement. She’s been applying for jobs, but it’s hard to know what will come of that right now. She’s also qualified multiple times to race as a pro triathlete, and had been hoping the national championships would give her a clear sense of where she was at and what she could do—and a launching pad into a pro career if that was the right direction for her. Now she’s not sure what to do.

Katie Patrick, president of the University of California-Berkeley triathlon team, had also been hoping to lead her team to another national title. She’s also graduating in May—virtually now—and trying to finish up classes remotely from her parents’ house back in South Dakota. The upside, she said, is she’s coming back for a one-year Masters in public health, so she doesn’t have to say goodbye to her team yet.

Both thought they had a shot at winning the individual titles this past weekend. Schwein was second in the draft-legal race last year; Patrick was seventh. They were each hoping their teams would come out on top again. (Both schools have won in the past and are perennial favorites.) Both had been relatively undefeated in their respective conferences.

“It felt like we had a good thing going,” said Patrick.

“We were feeling really good about it,” said Schwein.

Both have also simply moved on and adapted, knowing they’re not alone and other people have it worse. For the most part, after the season just sort of fizzled out, all the college teams are just trying to make the best of it.

“The team is really really resilient,” said Alex Bosch, the president of the University of Southern California team. His team meets for Zoom workouts now. So does the small UVA squad, creating their own goals. Patrick and Schwein are both still training too; their coaches are still sending out workouts to the team and challenges – virtual 5Ks and the like. They’re not sure what they’re training for, but then again no one is. USA Triathlon, which hosts the Collegiate Club and High School National Championships, has also launched a virtual contest for the student athletes (#CCNCfromhome).

USAT has said it plans to reschedule the event for later in the year and potentially allow graduated seniors to compete, but the details are still TBD — as are most of the students’ plans.

“Who knows what they’ll be doing [by then],” said Dean Harper, coach of the University of California-Berkeley tri team. Some might have jobs or have moved home. Some might be in a better position, having had a summer to train or recover from an injury. One athlete on the UVA team was happy to have nationals moved, because it’ll give him a chance to recover from a fractured tibia.

And they all know they’re not alone. Many NCAA athletes certainly had the same ending to their college careers after the NCAA suspended all practices and competitions. (Triathlon is working towards NCAA status as an emerging sport for women, but the NCAA draft-legal women’s season is in the fall.) And everyone’s making do, that’s what triathletes do, even if they worked so hard towards a race that didn’t happen.

“It was definitely painful to lose something you worked 340 days for,” said Schwein, but she got to have four other years, she said, and she got to be there when the team won titles. She was grateful for those years.

“Yes, Nationals is the goal and is a really big deal, but there are so many other reasons we train too,” said Patrick. Even after the event got canceled, “nobody regretted any miles we put in. That’s not why we train.”