Twenty one schools down, 19 to go. A look inside the USAT juggernaut to make tri a real NCAA sport—with all the scholarship opportunities and bookstore sweatshirts that come with it.
In just the past few months, seven universities have announced that they will add triathlon as a varsity sport. That’s a 50% increase, bringing the total number of programs from 14 to 21. The desire to make triathlon an NCAA sport has been a long-standing goal of several people at USA Triathlon, and now they’re being led by CEO Rocky Harris—who’s been on the frontlines of building what is, so far, the NCAA’s most successful triathlon program. We chatted with Harris about the rapid increase in momentum, and where NCAA falls into the bigger picture for USA Triathlon. Ready to cheer for your alma mater in the swim/bike/run? Here are seven key takeaways that will bring you up to speed on the collegiate movement.
It’s not just a vision anymore.
While it would be easy to credit Harris for the latest NCAA boom, he’s quick to point out that it’s been a long building process that has finally caught some self-sustaining momentum. Triathlon earned the emerging sport designation in 2014, and only a few schools were willing to be the early adopters. “There are schools that have a wait-and-see approach,” says Harris. “They want to see that it’s going to actually end up a full-fledged sport in the NCAA before they sign on with resources and time.”
The bureaucratic nature of academia plays a huge role as well. Even if key administrators at a school decide to move forward with a program, it can take years to see it to fruition. The combination of those processes finally being seen through, and the tangible successes of teams and events such as this year’s Women’s Collegiate National Championship in Tempe, Ariz., are making the potential more clear. “It’s not just an idea anymore,” says Harris. “The schools are finally seeing that this is happening and it is real.”
Triathlon is a unique sport for a university—and that’s an advantage and a challenge.
As the COO of Arizona State University’s Athletic Department, Harris zeroed in the benefits of having triathlon at a university. Nicole Welling, a university student at the time, brought the USAT grant opportunity to the attention of the athletic administration and they were quick to jump on it. In addition to the substantial funding available (USAT’s Women’s Triathlon Emerging Sport Grant
totals $2.6 million), it’s fairly easy to put together a quality team of 10 to 12 athletes. Harris points out that the biggest advantage to triathlon on a campus is that—for most schools—there is zero need to add facilities because their current setups include a pool and a track. Another huge—and unexpected—advantage has been the new donor pool that triathlon is revealing to universities. “The average household income for our members is over $140,000 per year,” Harris explains. “That’s a great donor group to tap into to help grow the sport. We got a six-figure gift a couple of months after announcing the sport at ASU. That donor had never given to ASU and was never planning to. Because we added a sport he loved, he gave us a large sum.”
With several funding opportunities and small up-front costs, it’s easy to wonder why it’s taken awhile to see growth at the NCAA level. That’s because the one major challenge is a tough one to overcome.
“The area where people have the hardest problem is that they’re not familiar with the sport,” Harris says. “Their focus is on the 20 or 30 existing programs, so to add something they’re completely unfamiliar with is a big challenge. The best thing you can do is find an advocate, like how I was at ASU. I am an age grouper who loves the sport and luckily the grant information crossed my desk.”
Arizona State is absolutely dominating, and that’s OK… for now.
ASU athletes finished one-two-three at last month’s national championship, and overall the program is head-and-shoulders above the others in terms of what a collegiate system can look like. Both Harris and ASU head coach Cliff English want more competition for the program, and think it will come with time. English has even gone as far to share everything from budgets to strategies with other potential NCAA programs.
“When there are 14 or 15 schools it’s really easy to dominate,” says Harris. “When there are 30 or 40 schools I think the dynamic is going to change.”
NCAA is one part of the bigger athlete development picture.
The NCAA story is exciting and is very easy to focus on, but it’s only one part of a bigger plan by USA Triathlon to improve the way elite triathletes are developed. Youth, junior, high school, and post-collegiate programs are still a huge part of the overall system. Even if triathlon at the NCAA level experiences success, there’s still a pretty solid chance of seeing female Olympians come out of other channels. USA Triathlon’s College Recruitment Program—which identifies athletes coming out of college with swimming and running chops as potential triathletes—has been paramount to the success of American women at the ITU level. That program is directly responsible for getting 2016 Olympic gold medalist Gwen Jorgensen into the sport, and it’s here to stay.
“It’s worked as well as any program in the history of triathlon for identifying and building elite talent,” Harris says. “The NCAA program complements it well, and we don’t think that program will ever go away.”
The U.S. men’s team needs to catch up.
Because of Title IX, it’s unlikely we’ll see triathlon as an NCAA sport for men in the near future. Combine that with the fact that the American men are woefully behind the women in success on the ITU circuit (there were six American women in the 2017 WTS top 30 rankings, and zero American men) and it’s hard to feel optimistic about USA’s chances for an Olympic medal on the men’s side. That’s where the recently announced Project Podium, a men’s elite development program to be based at ASU beginning in the fall of 2018, comes into play.
“When I was at ASU I started working on it with high performance general manager Andy Schmitz,” Harris explains. “There’s a gap for young men, especially for the four years that they leave the sport for college. They don’t usually come back and if they do, they’re not at the same level they were as juniors.”
“This is a program that I believe will work,” he continues. “It’s a program that we believe we can use to recruit the best talent in the country. We also have a great support system there with an athletic director and a president who believe in Olympic sport development and triathlon in particular. It’s going to allow us to offer men a collegiate experience in a high-performance environment without using the excuse that there’s no program for it.”
The NCAA movement is USA Triathlon driven, but it will benefit other federations.
USA Triathlon is doing all of the legwork for triathlon at the NCAA level, but ultimately it will also serve as an opportunity for athletes from other countries to attend school and train as student-athletes. The first and second place finishers from the women’s collegiate national championship were from Canada (Hannah Henry) and Germany (Charlotte Ahrens), respectively.
“I think it’s good for the sport overall,” Harris says. “It shows you the need for NCAA in triathlon. Over time, the best Americans are going to be collegiate triathletes instead of swimmers or runners, or just leave the sport.”
The system is in place, so now it’s time to open the pipeline.
With solid plans for developing top talent being implemented all the way from youth to NCAA and beyond, Harris says now the focus is on broadening the potential and exposing more youngsters to the sport of triathlon.
“One thing that I want to do now that we have the infrastructure in place is to make triathlon really cool and relevant among the younger demographic,” explains Harris. “We’re going to use a lot of digital media; we’re going to try to reposition our brand. That way we can build a broad base of people who are excited about the sport. That gives us a wider net to cast and to be able to find the talent.”