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NCAA Triathlon Prepares for a Very Different Fall Season

As women's collegiate triathlon continues to progress toward full-fledged NCAA status, it faces what will be a very unique fall sports season.

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Traditionally, later summer is an exciting time for college students across the country—they get to head back to campus to see friends, participate in sports, and return to studying and striving toward career goals.

This year, however, much is up in the air with regards to how to safely invite students back to campus, and it’s an equally tough question as to how fall sports can occur in a controlled environment. Triathlon at the collegiate level has not been spared the logistical gymnastics needed to prepare for the fall 2020 race season, but varsity triathlon programs are optimistic and ready to meet the challenge.

Already, the NCAA has altered national championship qualifying standards for certain institutions to promote less domestic travel for teams.

“Division II has already lowered the number of races needed from four to three,” said Tim Yount, chief sport development officer at USA Triathlon. “This means that institutions can stay close to home for one race, attend one regional qualifier, and then go to nationals.”

Along with changing the competition completion requirements, USA Triathlon is looking to implement several safety measures for varsity draft-legal races, such as having athletes stand in a checkerboard pattern for the swim start instead of shoulder-to-shoulder.

“Virtual athlete briefings, coach pickups of race packets, having a virtual ‘social’ pre-race are all things we’re considering,” said Yount. “How do you structure a swim start? We are also working to stipulate new rules for drafting zones. There will be a lot more communication and education with the athletes and coaches in defining what ‘safety’ in a race means this fall.”

Sonni Dyer, head triathlon coach at Queens College in Charlotte, North Carolina, has led the Queens women’s tri team to four consecutive Division II National Champion titles. Even with decades of coaching under his belt, Dyer admits that the whole of 2020 has shaped training and racing in a way he’s never seen before.

“We were doing the elite development race down in Clermont during the week [in March] that things began to heat up—it was put on everyone’s radar that a lot of things would be changing,” said Dyer. “Once we returned from spring break, we learned that campus was shutting down and everyone would be going home to complete the semester virtually.”

With the entire Queens College team quarantined in their respective homes, each member was given the option to reach out to coach Dyer for an individualized training plan to accommodate their access to pools, bikes, and other equipment.

“We still had a semester to finish,” said Dyer. “For student-athletes, that comes first, even above and beyond their training.”

Now, with the 2020 spring semester long finished, Dyer is looking ahead to students’ return to campus in August—including two of his triathletes who suffered from COVID-19 early in the summer (both young women are fine and back to training). Queens, like many schools, adjusted its academic calendar to limit the amount of mass exodus and return to campus after school breaks. The student body at Queens will return to campus one week earlier than usual, work through Labor Day, then return home to finish the semester virtually the weekend prior to Thanksgiving.

With so many precautions in place all over the country this fall, there’s no doubt that training will look different, too. University of San Francisco triathlon head coach Gina Kehr knows it will take tremendous strength and teamwork to make the second half of 2020 a success for her athletes.

“I have seven freshmen coming in,” said Kehr. “The number one thing I’m working with right now is trying to keep emotions in check and help my athletes through the ups and downs.”

The University of San Francisco (USF) has systems in place for a hybrid semester, allowing student-athletes to take part in regular team workouts while attending both in-person and online classes.

“We’re all taking a step back and being grateful that we’re going to be on the race course in 2020,” said Kehr. “At what level and how, that’s still unknown. I’ve told my team—we’ll still be training, we’ll still be ready, but let’s just be grateful for the opportunity [to train and race].”

Kehr is currently working closely with USF officials to find the safest way to get her team to two NCAA races in Wisconsin and Missouri.

Even with all the hurdles collegiate triathlon is facing, USA Triathlon’s quest to get to 40 schools with a varsity tri program is still making progress. Wingate University in Wingate, North Carolina, is still committed to fielding its first team in fall 2021.

“We’re always thinking about what new programs we can offer athletically and academically,” said Wingate Athletics Director Steve Poston. “We looked at a few options–field hockey, women’s wrestling, and triathlon.”

After considering all facets of swim, bike, run and the benefits it could bring to Wingate—like top-notch student-athletes and the ability to recruit from a wide variety of sports—it was a no-brainer for Poston to sign on to establishing a women’s varsity tri team.

Because Wingate is not fielding its first team until next year, they currently plan to hire a coach this fall and spend the next 12 months recruiting. COVID-19 hasn’t slowed their plans to be on start lines in 2021.

The University of Denver announced on July 1 it will be fielding a Division I women’s triathlon team beginning in fall 2020—a tighter deadline than Wingate’s. It will be the 37th school in the nation to offer varsity triathlon.

“The process of applying for the USAT grant was started months ago, before we ever knew of the pandemic,” said University of Denver head triathlon coach Barbara Perkins. “Adding another sport at University of Denver increases the opportunity for more women. The University of Denver decided to seize the opportunity to field a team when it was presented and make it happen.”

Perkins is working quickly to get a team ready to toe the line at NCAA triathlon competitions this fall and is confident she can build a national champion-caliber team.

“The University of Denver is the perfect place to start a triathlon program; triathletes will have the advantage of training at altitude and training year-round at some of the best facilities in the world,” said Perkins. “It will be very rewarding to lead a new generation of athletes through the sport and develop their skills and enhance their mindsets in a way that will give them endless opportunities.”

The University of Denver plans on returning to in-person instruction and athletics, but is being flexible with its approach in these dynamic times.

With so much unknown for NCAA triathlon at this time, coach Kehr from USF offered up this piece of advice: “How can you deal with this situation in a way that’s 1% better than everyone else? If you can answer that question each day, you’re doing a pretty good job.”

Without a doubt, varsity women’s tri teams across the nation will be training hard and ready to tackle the next collegiate start line, whenever that is.