In April of 2015, the NCAA announced 10 universities would be the first to receive multi-year grants to start a women’s triathlon program.
The USA Triathlon grants were designed to help universities fund the emerging sport of triathlon while creating more opportunities for female athletes at the collegiate level.
In November of 2017, Arizona State’s women’s triathlon team won their second consecutive national championship, finishing in the top three individual spots to complete a clean sweep of the competition.
Freshman Hannah Henry was the top-finisher, followed by sophomore Charlotte Ahrens and freshman Kyla Roy. Just two years into the program’s existence, the Sun Devils had already solidified themselves as the juggernaut of one of the fastest-growing collegiate sports.
“People are chasing (us) and that’s good,” said ASU’s triathlon coach Cliff English. “It’s fun knowing people are gunning for you.”
Usually, coaches at the NCAA level will do almost anything to get the upper hand on opponents, but English is different. Although his ultimate goal is to continue to win championships, English acknowledges that his program is an unique position to help grow the sport he’s been involved with all his life.
“We’re early in, so I’m really happy for (competition),” English said. “I know that’d be different in other sports, football is very cut-throat in that regards, but for now we’re in the driver’s seat and seeing other teams get strong is important.”
Arizona State will host its second-consecutive Women’s Collegiate Triathlon National Championship this year at Tempe Town Lake. English said at last year’s national championship event, he took schools interested in adding triathlon on a tour of ASU’s facilities and answered any questions they had about the sport and his program’s success. He also said four of the six prospective schools added the sport a week later.
ASU’s immediate success set the blueprint for other programs to follow. USA Triathlon CEO Rocky Harris, formerly the Chief Operating Officer of Sun Devil Athletics, was integral in bringing triathlon to ASU but said he’s been extremely impressed with what the program has done since his departure from the university.
“ASU has definitely set the marker and everyone knows they’re really at the top. There’s no question about that,” Harris said. “They set the tone and the standard for other NCAA programs to follow.”
To be a fully recognized NCAA championship level sport there needs to be 40 participating schools. Harris said there are 25 right now — 12 added in the last nine months — and predicts the number will get to 40 in the next two years.
Harris also emphasized how important getting to 40 schools is for the sport in the United States. He believes with the emergence of interest in collegiate triathlon, young Olympic hopefuls in the United States won’t have to travel as much outside the country and will have a competitive structure in place to train for their Olympic dream.
“Collegiate athletics (are) the pipeline to Olympic sport in America,” Harris said. “And we’re uniquely positioned as a country because no other country has the infrastructure we have in collegiate athletics.”
As the first Power Five conference school to adopt triathlon, ASU’s goal is to be at the forefront of Olympic talent development as well. And English is confident they will be the ones to do it.
“You feel like there’s more to be done,” English said. “We might not have an Olympian in this cycle but it’s a mission of mine to produce Olympians out of this program.”
Elite-level recruits are aware of English’s passion and ASU’s dominance in the sport, making English’s recruiting life a whole lot easier. Roy, entering her sophomore season at ASU, said the Sun Devil program provided her with an amazing opportunity to further her education while still training to achieve her athletic dream.
“I believe ASU has had so much success already because of the amazing coaches as well as each and every person on the team giving their all at every practice,” Roy wrote in an email. “Being surrounded by such a great atmosphere and team is a big part of training well for me.”
But English’s attitude is never complacent. He truly believes that women’s triathlon at the collegiate level will continue to grow and ASU will be leading the charge. Although, he admits that his open-door policy with other programs in the sport may slowly close as the competition heats up.
“I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve,” English said half-jokingly. “Every coach has their tactics.”
Story by MAX KELLEY, Cronkite News