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There have been two constants since the debut of NCAA women’s tri six years ago: Arizona State winning and Canadian athletes dominating the podium. Thanks to 19-year-old Kira Gupta-Baltazar and her University of San Francisco teammates, one of those things is changing.
Gupta-Baltazar won the overall title at last weekend’s NCAA Championships in Tempe, Arizona, marking the fourth year in a row a Canadian has won but the first time ever a non-ASU athlete has taken the title. She’s been competing in triathlon since she was just three years old—yes, you read that right—and made the switch from swimming to full-time triathlon only three years ago.
“She’s built in the mold of Sheila Taormina,” said her coach, Barrie Shepley. “She may be small, but she’s such a powerful and fearless swimmer. She comes out of the water 10-20 seconds up on the field and then either has to ride solo or wait for a chase pack. Canada needs a woman who can start the day with the incredible British and American swim-bikers. She has a long way to go, but I believe she can get there at the top level.”
As for now, Gupta-Baltazar is back on campus at USF, where she’s a sophomore pre-med major. And while she can’t help but dream of Paris 2024, the short-term focus for her and her USF teammates is squarely on becoming the first school other than ASU to win the D1 NCAA triathlon title.
We caught up with Gupta-Baltazar a few days after the biggest win of her very young career.
Triathlete: Was it overall title or bust for you coming into the race?
Gupta-Baltazar: I knew I had the capability to win, but I’d come off of a tough couple of weeks. [She competed on three consecutive weekends, including a trip to Portugal for the World Triathlon Junior Championship, where she finished 17th.]
Mentally I was drained, but that all kind of went away once I got on the start line. It’s something so familiar to me. My mind kind of switches off and I just focus on what’s ahead of me and what I can do for my team. It helps when swimming is your strong suit. I know I can get myself in a good position to compete.
Tactically, draft-legal races are always unique. Is your goal always to get away and stay away and how’d that play out last Saturday?
I had a small lead coming out of the water, but I really didn’t want to be working alone for the whole bike, so I soft-pedaled a bit and waited for the chasers to catch me. I was fortunate to have my teammate, Molly Elliot, with me. She’s a super strong cyclist and the whole pack worked really well together to get away.
My legs were pretty tired getting onto the run, but that’s what we’ve been training for the past four months as a team. I just focused on the finish line the entire time.
My strategy is usually to try to get away with a small group of girls. I was really happy that the pack worked really well together. We had Hannah Henry from ASU. She’s also Canadian and she’s a really strong rider.
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When you look at the women currently competing at the top of World Triathlon, who are the ones you look up or model your racing style after?
I definitely look up to Flora Duffy and Taylor Knibb. They’re both so dominant right now, especially in that swim-bike style of racing. They’re both obviously incredible runners, but I’m so impressed with the way they’re able to break away using pure power. It’s also really fun for me as an athlete with a certain body type, because they embody this figure of power and muscle, and it makes me believe that I can get there.
How’d you find your way to triathlon and NCAA tri?
I’ve been doing Barrie [Shepley’s] Kids of Steel races since I was about 3. It wasn’t something I trained for or anything, but I’d do it once a year. When I was 15 I really started focusing on tri. I was a pretty good swimmer, but I’m 5’2”, so it made it a little hard to reach my goal, which was the Olympics. I started training with Barrie and found out that training for three sports was a lot more interesting than the repetition of swimming laps. I picked up my passion for it pretty quickly.
I knew I wanted to come to the States for college because there were a lot more athletic opportunities. Originally I thought it’d be for swimming, but by grade 10 and 11, I started looking into schools that offered triathlon.
USF was a relatively new program. I visited with the coach, Gina Kehr—a former pro Ironman athlete—and we really clicked. I actually verbally committed on my recruiting trip, which I think is pretty rare.
ASU has been so dominant, but you guys actually took two of the three top spots this year. Is the goal to take down ASU in 2022?
Definitely. We’re a small team of nine women, but we’re all super passionate and I know we have the best culture in NCAA tri. All nine of us have one focus, and that’s winning the national title next year.
Outside of NCAA, what are your personal tri goals over the next few seasons?
Next year I’ll be transitioning to U-23 racing and the Olympic distance. My goal for next year is just to have a smooth transition and to remain injury-free. You see a lot of injuries when athletes go up in distance, so I just want to be smart about it. Then it’s just about picking up some Olympic points so that I can hopefully be on that team in Paris.
It’s rare—almost unheard of—to see a non-white athlete atop a major triathlon podium, and diversity is something triathlon has really struggled with. Do you see yourself as a role model who can help change that, or is it a bit too soon for that?
I think it’s important that younger girls and boys of color see that this is a sport for them as well. Hopefully in the years to come I can get to the point where I can be a role model for those girls and boys. I think I’m a bit young right now. I just want to get to a place where I can inspire people to do triathlon, because I think it’s a sport for everyone.