Falcons and Buccaneers Prove the Growth of Women’s Collegiate Triathlon

By Dustin Renwick | Oct. 30, 2017, 4:44 p.m. (ET)

women's collegiate triathlon

More than 80 competitors will adjust their goggles and swim caps at the starting line in Tempe, Arizona, for the 2017 Women’s Collegiate Triathlon National Championship. That record number of female triathletes demonstrates the growth of the designated emerging sport. If 40 colleges and universities officially field varsity teams by 2024, the NCAA will add women’s triathlon to the list of more familiar opportunities such as volleyball, softball and track and field.

“Every new school you add, you build more momentum,” says Caryn Maconi, USA Triathlon Communications Manager. “We’re seeing that definitely as we close out the year with several schools in the pipeline to start competing in 2018.”

That springboard will follow this year’s collegiate national race, which arrives 45 years after the passage of Title IX legislation. The law required American educational institutions to provide equal access to activities for male and female students. School sports in particular have shown visible effects of this parity, but sports also create the conduit to leadership positions after graduation.

For instance, EY and espnW surveyed women business executives around the world and found that 94 percent had played sports, with more than half competing in college. That 2015 report featured a triathlete on the cover.

“Triathlon provides the experience of NCAA athletics for a lot of these women when it might not be possible in single sports,” Maconi says. “They have these multiple talents and can be high-level triathletes.”

Expanding athletic opportunities for young women will help improve statistics that currently illustrate how much work remains. The number of Fortune 500 companies with female CEOs hit a record in 2017 — a meager 6.4 percent.

However, the female leaders of tomorrow are swimming, biking and running today in places such as Johnson City, Tennessee, and Mequon, Wisconsin.

Janine Pleasant, head triathlon coach at East Tennessee State University, first encountered the sport when she cross-trained for some of her marathon workouts. A friend asked her to also register for a triathlon.

“By the time I got to the run, I was completely and thoroughly addicted,” she says. “I completed marathon training, but I knew my future was not distance running.”

When ETSU decided to host a football program again, the move coincided with the opportunity to add women’s triathlon. That success brought its own challenges. The Central Regional Qualifier happens near Labor Day, so coaches have about two weeks to prepare from the day students step on campus to the day of a season-altering race.

“There’s not a lot of time for the typical periodization, where you have a building period to a taper and the recovery and base,” Pleasant says. “We’re just not able to do it in the championship season.”

That means Pleasant recruits self-motivated women.

“I’m looking for athletes who want it as much or more than I do, and I have to help you back down rather than push you to work harder.”

The Buccaneers finished second at the national championship race last year among schools with triathlon as a varsity sport. That would come as news to some of the coaches Morgan James dealt with at her California high school.

“I started out with track,” she says. “I loved running. My coach was very against me going to other practices. Swim team. Cycling teams. At one point, he told me that he didn’t believe triathlon was a sport, and he wouldn’t allow me compete in track.”

So, she switched to swim. Yet that didn’t settle the matter. She says administrators wouldn’t let her fully participate in the school’s dinner for student-athletes who signed on to college rosters.         

“They said I was a track and field athlete, not a triathlete. I had to give a little speech: I’m going to this school for triathlon.”      

Although James is a freshman, she occupies a leadership role on the team by way of extensive multisport experience. She joined her triathlete parents at races starting at age 6. She’s aiming for a top-10 finish at nationals after some struggles at regionals.           

“My rubber band snapped before I got onto my bike. My shoes fell off. Eventually my chain fell off. I could’ve definitely placed better at that race.”           

Those problems loom and multiply because the bike portion wields outsized importance in draft-legal competitions.          

“It can ruin or make your race,” James says.          

Results from official women’s collegiate races include handfuls of DNFs. Most often that indicates athletes who were lapped by the leaders on the bike portion. Officials pull those competitors, like Mary Karsten, off the course. She didn’t run at the Central Regional Qualifier.           

“You always go into a competition wanting to finish strong,” says the senior at Concordia University Wisconsin. “With the nature of that rule, that can be tough to overcome. You can be eliminated when you’re 20 minutes into the race.”           

Karsten represents the opposite end of the spectrum compared to James. The Wisconsin native stayed in state for school and finished her first triathlon last year as a direct result of the emerging sport opportunity. Karsten, a soccer player with a running background, saw a flyer on campus.           

“I had a meeting with the coach, and the next thing I knew, I was getting emails for workouts. I just got swept into it. It’s really cool to be part of something brand new, in its early stages with the NCAA, and all the energy with it.”           

Most coaches rely on their seniors to guide athletic teams, but those dynamics change when a new varsity sport appears. Karsten is preparing to graduate, yet her history with the program amounts to only two years, the same as the sophomores.           

“It does bring that added challenge to set the tone and be someone who contributes positively to the team. Being such a small core group of athletes, it really is important for us all to be on board, be focused on what we’re trying to accomplish.”           

For Falcons coach Ryan Schmeling, that meant using the two months between the early regional race and the upcoming national championship to build the girls’ base fitness and hone transitions, “that free time you can make up pretty easily,” he says.          

“You take 20 seconds longer in transition, you’re looking at a fair amount of distance you’re already behind once you get on the bike.”           

Draft-legal cycling emphasizes collective efforts on the looped bike courses, but for the newcomer Karsten, the sport’s balanced responsibilities make the events meaningful.           

“The collegiate program is a team sport, but it’s still an individual effort. You get to reap for yourself — PRs — but you’re there celebrating your team. You’ve been on the road, in the pool, on the bike with them all these weeks, but it comes down to what you deliver.”

Learn about triathlon as an NCAA Emerging Sport for Women at usatriathlon.org/ncaa, and follow live event coverage here.