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Will Women’s Triathlon Become An NCAA Sport?

Earning the designation as an "NCAA Emerging Sport" is the next important step for triathlon.

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“It’s not just a fringe sport anymore,” Brad Hecker says passionately about his four-year quest to turn collegiate women’s triathlon into an NCAA accredited emerging sport. “It is a legitimate sport,” he says convincingly. Now, all he has to do is convince the Committee on Women’s Athletics (CWA) to give their recommendation to the NCAA this Monday, April 29 at the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, Ind.

Working full time as the Director of Women’s Basketball Relations for the Atlantic Coast Conference, Hecker started spending his free time working on the proposal after he saw the feasibility of women’s triathlon as an NCAA sport while completing his masters in Sports Management. “As an administrator, I would want this for my department.”

A coach’s son, Hecker describes himself as the traditional athlete growing up. After college he realized how difficult it could be to get a group of guys together for a pickup game while juggling jobs, marriage and life in general. “I began running 10Ks etc,” he says. A knee injury from overuse had him jumping on the bike after a friend suggested it for recovery. Once it healed, he found himself entering his first duathlon. A few years later, he was heavily involved with Bill Burke and the Dannon Duathlon Series. “My exposure through that series really drives my passion today. I grew such a great respect for the elite athletes and the time they put in to the sport.”

Hecker will be joined by USAT National Events Director Jeff Dyrek, Southeast Regional Athlete Development Coordinator and head coach for the Southeast Region Junior High Performance Team Kathleen Johnston and USAT Collegiate National Champion and student ambassador Michelle Mehnert to present the final package to the CWA committee.

“I expected that it wasn’t going to be an easy process,” Hecker says. “It adds a significant expense when schools don’t have to. You have to convince athletic administrators that that there are legitimate athletes out there and that the sport is a growing resource for community relations. This is another opportunity for schools to connect with donors and generate new resources in a unique way.”

With schools making budget cuts, especially to non-revenue sports, one of the hardships is convincing schools of the potential of the sport to bring in revenue over the costs of scholarships, coaches pay and other financial requirements. ”NCAA women’s triathlon has great potential for success,” says Mehnert, a CU Boulder grad student. “With a proposed race format of having a JV (or B team) race along with an age-group race in the morning with a draft-legal varsity race in the afternoon, the exposure to the public will generate even more interest. From an age-group perspective, there is no lack of interest to race. Participation is at incredible numbers, and this race format creates a built in way for a team to sustain itself.”

Putting on races for sustainability is something that many of the collegiate club teams in the U.S. are already having to do to be able to help fund their teams. Collegiate club teams are very separate from school athletic departments, Hecker mentions. “With the exception of the service academy schools, whose athletic departments run club athletics, the teams are independent and don’t communicate with the athletic departments,” says Hecker.

Collegiate endorsed club teams are still under the general rules of the school, they have no guidance on how to generate the much needed revenue to maintain a team. Athletes have to juggle team commitments like putting on races to training, competing and academics. “The team format is great for the camaraderie, but the expense and hardship are tough,” says Mehnert. “It really blurs the line between the student athlete and the athlete student.”

Without an NCAA program, USAT, in its current state, struggles to find complete athletes for their development program rather than just swimmers and runners that can be turned into triathletes. “Having triathlon as an NCAA emerging sport for women provides coaches with access to better athletes at an earlier age,” says Hecker. “You can cultivate athletes in mass instead of individually.”

Mehnert was a triathlete growing up and did her first race at the age of 12. Triathlon was put on hold as she went on to swim during her undergrad at the University of Illinois. But, Mehnert was one of the lucky ones showing huge potential in both running and swimming. Currently, if a triathlete is not running or swimming dominate, there is no potential for them to receive a scholarship or race beyond the club level in college. “This opportunity will provide an NCAA experience that otherwise many athletes will never have,” says Mehnert.

The sport at a collegiate level is really at its crossroads come Monday when the CWA decides if it will endorse triathlon as an emerging sport. One of the biggest barriers in getting this far in the multi-step process, created in 1994 to combat violations of Title XI, was collecting letters of support signed by the president and athletic director from 10 NCAA recognized schools. “Many qualitative conversations take place before a school hands over a letter,” notes Hecker.

A few shy of 10, Karen Morrison, NCAA Director of Inclusion, was able to step in recently and secure the final three letters needed to present to the CWA before a handful of the letters expire at the end of April. With the letters having a one-year shelf life and the CWA only meeting twice a year, Hecker and Dyrek were facing a worst-case scenario. “A huge thank you needs to go to Karen for her unbelievable support. Her leadership has been instrumental in the getting this far,” says Hecker.

With a recommendation from the CWA, the final part of the process comes next January when the NCAA will put the initiative out to vote at their annual meeting. Division I, II and III would all vote separately. “I am feeling really comfortable with the proposal,” notes Hecker. “We have been able to cross our T’s and dot our I’s and answer many of the questions the CWA has already presented to us, especially with triathlon being such a non-traditional sport.”

Hecker has faith that women’s collegiate triathlon can go the route of ice hockey, water polo and rowing—all sports that have found success as an emerging sport within the NCAA. “It begins with the women creating the structure and traditions,” he says. With 10 years to attract 40 institutions (the amount needed to hold a true NCAA Championship), programs have time to evolve. “In 10-15 years, I hope the NCAA can then bring in the men based on the success of the women’s program,” Hecker says.

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