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Is Triathlon Ready For the NCAA?

Building a new NCAA sport isn’t easy—especially in the midst of COVID.

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If everything goes according to plan, USA Triathlon expects to have 40 universities signed on with varsity women’s triathlon programs by this fall. That’ll be over two years ahead of the deadline they needed to meet, and will put triathlon on track to be the newest NCAA championship sport.

Of course, nothing in the last year has gone according to plan.

At the University of San Francisco, the brand new Division I tri team had just come off their first season in the fall of 2019. “It was uncharted everything,” said coach Gina Kehr, of the amount of work it took just to get started and hit the requirements for school sports sponsorship. “Our team performed really well just for getting it off the ground.” And they were hoping to build to a fully fledged program for the 2020 season—when things suddenly shut down. Kehr went on a recruiting trip to Florida in spring 2020, came back, and “everything was done,” she said. Kids went home, school closed, done.

Since then, it’s been a year of navigating the lack of pools open in a city that was the first in the U.S. to lock down, the lack of group workouts, the lack of fundraising events, the lack of campus access for visitors. Kehr walked around the halls with her cell phone filming to give possible recruits a video “tour.” The fall 2020 season was canceled and moved to fall 2021. There were a couple of races this spring, and a handful of schools went to Florida to compete, but many couldn’t make it or couldn’t field full teams. Athletes reported that results got mixed up and finalized later.

But there is still hope that this could all be so much more.

It's hard to build an entire NCAA sport from scratch. It's hard to build even just one single Division 1 program from scratch.

A Championship Path

In 2014, USA Triathlon announced women’s triathlon was approved as the newest NCAA emerging sport for women. The emerging sport program is designed to provide opportunities to grow women’s sports, by creating an easier path to becoming a full-fledged NCAA championship sport. Under these criteria, triathlon must have 40 schools signed on with varsity teams by 2024. When that mark is hit, the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics will consider the sport’s growth and development, and make a recommendation on whether it should be adopted as a championship NCAA sport. In 2015, beach volleyball was the last sport approved. Triathlon could be next.

“I don’t see any reason why the committee would not approve it,” said Suzette McQueen, the chair of the Committee on Women’s Athletics. She noted the sport’s progress has been good, it does well on campuses, and the communication from USAT has kept the committee in the loop.

Currently, the NCAA counts 35 schools across all three divisions as having varsity triathlon teams. (The NCAA requires official sports sponsorship paperwork for a team to count.) USAT counts 36, because one school has been announced and hired a coach, but hasn’t finalized the paperwork yet. Tim Yount, USAT’s chief sport development officer, said there are also two more schools about to announce and another handful in the pipeline.

What counts and what doesn’t can get a little tricky, though, depending on when a school plans to field a team and where they are in the process.

Over the five years this has been in the works, there have been a few schools to drop out—only one during the pandemic—either shutting down their programs, having their budgets cut before they were able to make it official, or delaying hiring a coach. And some existing programs have struggled to field full teams—starting in the fall, a minimum of five athletes will be required for DI programs, and four athletes for DII and DIII.

Growing Pains

It’s hard to build an entire NCAA sport from scratch. It’s hard to build even just one single DI program from scratch.

Some coaches, especially at smaller schools, said they’ve struggled with recruiting—trying to dig up high school swimmer-runner gems. Some found their schools were surprised by the fact that the NCAA doesn’t cover travel expenses to the current USAT-sponsored championship race—since triathlon is not yet a championship NCAA sport. Some coaches simply came from a triathlon background, not a college-level coaching background, and aren’t prepared for the amount of paperwork, rules, and regulations.

“There’s no roadmap,” said Barbara Perkins, coach at the new University of Denver program, for how to build a program from nothing—which is part of the challenge and the adventure of launching a new sport. She calls up coach Allie Nicosia, at Eastern Tennessee State, or Kehr in San Francisco, who calls up Cliff English, at the Arizona State University program. They share tips and advice.

Recruiting is a challenge. NCAA running and swimming programs have databases of all the top prospects. That doesn’t quite exist yet for triathlon, though USAT has run workshops and recently signed a contract with a recruiting software system. But to be successful, you have to get scrappy. You can’t just look at the junior elite triathlon programs.

You also have to be scrappy in building up a program right now, while many of the rules and processes are still being developed.

In the start-up years, the championship race put on by USAT had to be filled with college club athletes and all the divisions were mixed together. There could be large discrepancies in abilities. But as the sport has grown, the divisions are now separated and another qualifier race will be added next year. That front pack of girls, which could sometimes seem full of only ASU athletes (the most dominant large DI school to date), now has other athletes mixed in.

Ultimately, once the NCAA takes over the rules will be set in stone—how many athletes count per team, how the scoring works, how many scholarships are required for each division. The divisions will all be separated, and club athletes won’t be in the mix. The big club collegiate programs will be completely removed from the NCAA programs. And male triathletes will continue to be club athletes; the process for men’s triathlon to become an NCAA championship sport is entirely different and more complicated.

“This is separate from any effort to start men’s sports,” said Amy Wilson, NCAA’s head of the office of inclusion.

Right now, though, the goal is just to get a few more big-name schools and build up a few more athletes on a few more teams to turn it from an up-and-coming sport to a championship one.

“When the next big school adds, it’s really going to change things,” Nicosia said. Texas Christian University was supposed to add a program last year, but delayed until 2022 with the pandemic. English has been talking with potential TCU coaches, offering advice. The more competition, the better, he said. “We do need more DI schools,” he said. “It’s kind of disappointing we haven’t gotten that yet.”

When ASU hired him and fully funded a tri team, it was meant to be a game-changer: a Pac-12 school with the money to go behind it.

But the other Pac-12 schools never followed. ASU won national title after national title. Only recently has there started to be more competition—though that got put on hold with COVID. Really, everyone agrees: The big Power 5, SEC, and Pac-12 schools are waiting now. They’re waiting to see if triathlon gets approved for NCAA championship status.

The Dream

USA Triathlon has put $3.5 million into backing this effort, through grants to schools to get up and running and through a program to help fund historically black colleges and universities’ (HCBUs) teams, launched with a $225,000 grant to Hampton University. (Only two HBCUs, though, have received money to date. Hampton was hit hard by the pandemic and wasn’t able to recruit; and the other HBCU, Delaware State, only just hired its coach.)

That level of support and organization from a national governing body has made a big difference, said the NCAA’s McQueen.

One of the challenges, though, is what happens after the money runs out. USAT gave grants in the first years to schools’ programs and required that the programs had long-term sustainable financial plans to keep going. But budgets and fundraising have been squeezed in the last year.

“It’s hard to say if it’s COVID or being a one-man-band,” said Kehr. Or if it’s just plain hard, no matter what.

If triathlon hits 40 schools, if the committee recommends that the NCAA takes over the championship event, if each division then approves and votes on it, then there could be an official NCAA championship by 2023 or 2024. By 2028, English said, it could grow not necessarily to the level of basketball or track or swimming, but maybe to the size and competitiveness of women’s water polo or men’s wrestling.

And then, if everything goes according to plan, if more big schools come on board at that point, if the kinks get smoothed out, it could grow from there. “It could be great,” Perkins said.