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Triathlon poised to be the next emerging sport for women

By Gary Brown

Ask fitness buffs what’s on their bucket lists and many will say they’d like to participate in a triathlon at least once in their lifetime. Well, if the strokes, spokes and strides keep trending forward, chances are a lot more women will get to check that one off their lists by the time they get out of college.

Officials associated with the NCAA’s emerging-sports program think the swimming-cycling-running combo is the next big sport in the varsity queue. The NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics already has six of the 10 letters of support necessary to begin testing the waters on whether NCAA members would adopt legislation establishing triathlon as an emerging sport.

As for what a collegiate triathlon would look like, it probably wouldn’t mirror the public sector brand or the “Ironman” races. Because of the team aspect that the collegiate proponents are after, they’re favoring an Olympic-style format that allows “draft-style” racing in the bike portion, rather than the customary “every-woman-for-herself” approach. 

The six letter-writers are Adams State, Air Force, Arizona, Colorado-Colorado Springs, Marymount (Virginia) and Monmouth. Navy also has indicated an intent to sign on, which would leave just three others necessary by the next deadline of June 1, 2013.

People involved with triathlon think once the sport hits that emerging start-gate, it will be but a sprint to the 40 sponsoring schools necessary to reach the NCAA championship-status finish line.

“The collegiate scene is definitely open to triathlon,” said Navy coach Billy Edwards. “The participation level is high already, and the sport is growing overall. If it were to become an NCAA championship sport, it would encourage schools to commit more resources to those participation opportunities. That’s what we want.”

More than 160 club programs dot the collegiate landscape already, from Miami to Seattle and Southern California to Maine. Recent research from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association showed an estimated 2.3 million individuals completed a triathlon in 2010, a 55 percent growth from 2009. Additionally, membership in USA Triathlon, the sport’s national governing body, approached 150,000 in 2011 after hovering between 15,000 and 21,000 from 1993 to 2000.

While the demographics range from youths to seniors, perhaps the age group most under-served is the college population. USAT demographics illustrate the demand for triathlon at the youth level (under 16), which represents more than one-fourth of the organization’s annual membership. But the college-age group takes a dip to about 3 percent before membership climbs again to above 20 percent for those 30 and older. Many people think making triathlon a varsity sport would fill the college-age gap.

One of them is Marymount Athletics Director Debbie Warren, whose school will be among the first to dive in with its fledgling varsity squad in 2012-13. Warren, formerly a senior-level administrator at Alabama for 17 years, saw a good match with a Washington, D.C. community already nuts about triathlon. She approached the school’s brand-new president and urged adding men’s and women’s triathlon as varsity sports. He balked at first, noting that triathlon couldn’t count toward NCAA sport-sponsorship minimums until it was an emerging sport.

“I said, ‘Not yet, so let’s be on the cutting edge,’ ” Warren said, reasoning that Marymount could use triathlon as an enrollment lure.

“USA Triathlon has an interest in training the next generation for the Olympics. The NCAA has an interest in student-athlete well-being and education. This sport is a perfect blend. A triathlete is focused, organized, goal-oriented and dedicated. All of those things help you be a really good student. What college wouldn’t want that?”

— Marymount Athletics Director Debbie Warren

“Triathlon fits with the whole image of college and a healthy mind/body balanced lifestyle,” she said. “Even if you don’t continue to do all three disciplines for a lifetime, odds are you’ll do at least one. And when we’re talking about preparing people for life, I can’t think of a better example than triathlon to exemplify that philosophy.”

Her argument was convincing. Marymount received 56 applications for the head coaching job. Zane Castro, who has more than 15 years of triathlon coaching experience and holds both a Level I and Level II USA Triathlon coaching certification, was Marymount’s choice.

Castro sees triathlon as a natural for NCAA members. “When I interviewed, I realized that Debbie Warren believed that, too – that college programs could provide another developmental opportunity,” Castro said.

Now Castro will be among the first coaches to assemble a varsity schedule. He thinks there’s an attractive future with potential regional meets, especially since USA Triathlon’s regional breakdown resembles the NCAA regional map.

“I came into this with the hope of being a contributor to the long-term development of the process,” Castro said. “We’re relying on collegiate systems anyway to build the national program, so why wouldn’t we do it on an intercollegiate basis?”

Taking the format for a spin

The collegiate model experienced a test run last spring when more than a dozen NCAA schools competed in the Collegiate Club Triathlon at Lake Lure, N.C. It was an event designed to show colleges and universities how attractive triathlon could be as a varsity sport.

Brad Hecker, the director of women’s basketball at the Atlantic Coast Conference who also has a passion for getting triathlon off the ground (and water), helped organize the race at Lake Lure. He said facilities and costs are probably the two biggest perceived barriers for potential collegiate sponsors.

But neither is that daunting, he said. Courses don’t have to include lakes or waterfront for the swimming portion. They’re nice, but pools will do. And as for the roads, Hecker said schools wouldn’t have to cordon off an entire town. Circuits around campus work just as well.

The Collegiate Format

For triathlon to be even more appealing at the collegiate level, advocates are proposing races that are shorter and faster than the so-called Ironman events. This also allows collegiate triathletes to train in conjunction with the time restraints they are faced with as student-athletes. Thus, varsity races would last between 60 and 90 minutes, depending on the distances used.

Proposed regular-season draft-legal races
Open-water swim format

  • Swim: 600 meters to 1K
  • Bike: 20K to 30K
  • Run: 4K to 6K

Pool swim format

  • Team invitational event (two to four teams):
  • Swim: 600 meters to1K
  • Bike: 20K to 30K
  • Run: 4K to 6K

Team Relay Event (two to 16 teams; each member of the relay team completes a full swim/bike/run):

  • Swim: 300 meters
  • Bike: 10K
  • Run: 2K

Proposed NCAA championship format
Open-water swim

  • Swim: 600 meters to 1K
  • Bike: 20K to 30K
  • Run: 4K to 6K

As for costs, the bikes likely are the perceived flat tires. Few schools would buy a fleet of bikes from which athletes would choose year to year. Most triathletes would have to buy their own. But in the style of racing that is being proposed for college-level triathlon (see accompanying story), the bikes are regular road types and not as customized or as aerodynamically tricked out as some elite-level models. That makes them safer to ride when in close proximity to other riders in a “pack” (hence draft-legal). They’re also less expensive because they are standardized, and they ensure that it’s the athlete generating the speed, not the aerodynamic advantage from the equipment.

Warren at Marymount said her school has budgeted to pay for everything but the bike, though she said an allowance could be allocated to help defer costs. “But uniforms, trips, entry fees – we’ll take care of all of that,” she said. “We’re treating triathlon like any other varsity sport we sponsor. Except for the bike, triathlon is not any more expensive for a school to sponsor than cross country or swimming.”

The ACC’s Hecker said a clever organizer can recoup costs, or even make money staging events. With a course and the logistics in place, organizers can conduct a public race in addition to the collegiate race. The registration fees ($75-$100 is typical) for the general public portion can more than pay for what it costs to conduct the whole event.

“It’s foreseeable to get 400-500 people to compete in the general public non-draft competition before the draft-legal varsity women’s collegiate race,” Hecker said. “And then once the general public race is finished – voila – you have a built-in spectator base for the collegiate race.”

Hecker said the talent pool for women is out there. Kids are getting into triathlon at early ages primarily because their parents are into the sport and it is a fun way to incorporate an inclusive active lifestyle for the family. However, as the young triathletes reach high school age and become more competitive, the mainstream competition opportunities for the sport become limited.

“The progressive structure within high schools and varsity athletics programs isn’t as developed with triathlon as it is for other sports,” Hecker said. “Therefore, athletes are gravitating to other sports that are more accessible, organized and supported through high school and college, even though triathlon may be their passion.”

USAT Annual Membership (as of Dec. 31, 2011)

  Total Total % Male Male % Female Female %
Under 16 38,979 26.58% 20,372 52.26% 18,607 47.74%
16-19 4,492 3.06% 2,817 62.71% 4,675 37.29%
20-29 13,768 9.39% 8,292 60.23% 5,476 39.77%
30-39 32,097 21.89% 20,029 62.40% 12,068 37.60%
40-49 36,802 25.09% 24,282 65.98% 12,520 34.02%
50-59 16,013 10.92% 10,907 68.11% 5,106 31.89%
60-69 3,826 2.61% 2,997 78.33% 829 21.67%
70-79 547 37.00% 466 85.19% 81 14.81%
80-89 45 3.00% 39 86.67% 6 13.33%
90-99 2 0.00% 2 100.00% - 0.00%
Unspecified 86 6.00% 50 58.14% 36 41.86%
Totals 146,657   90,253 61.54% 56,404 38.46%

Navy’s Edwards said many college-age triathletes would prefer the scholarship over the prize money they currently chase. “A college education is pretty doggone great – if you can get that paid for, that’s a big deal. And people want to be an NCAA champion and an NCAA All-American,” Edwards said.

That’s just three more letters of support to the NCAA from becoming a reality. From there, it’s “race on.”

“The chances of this sport succeeding at the college level are high,” Marymount coach Castro said.

His AD seconded that notion.

“USA Triathlon has an interest in training the next generation for the Olympics. The NCAA has an interest in student-athlete well-being and education,” said Warren. “This sport is a perfect blend. A triathlete is focused, organized, goal-oriented and dedicated. All of those things help you be a really good student. What college wouldn’t want that?”