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New Triathletes Learn the Sport at NCAA Varsity Programs St. Thomas Aquinas and Davis & Elkins

By Stephen Meyers | Oct. 18, 2018, 1:30 p.m. (ET)

St. Thomas Aquinas College Women's Triathlon Team

Picture this: It's August and a group of college students are riding bikes around a cone course in the parking lot behind the athletic facilities on campus. 

It’s like these athletic women are young children again, re-learning to ride a bike — with a lot of falling over — only this time they're riding fancy road bikes with drop handlebars and clipless pedals.

“Clipping in, clipping out. Stopping on the bike. Falling over. It’s not a glamorous thing for a college program to be doing,” said Chris Hammer, Olympic paratriathlete and head coach of the women’s triathlon team at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia. “It’s sort of a baptism under fire. When you have five out of six athletes who have never done triathlon, that’s where you have to start.” 

Such is life for an NCAA varsity triathlon program in its first year with a roster mostly comprised of swimmers and track and field athletes participating in triathlon — and riding a road bike — for the first time.

Four hundred thirty miles to the east in Sparkill, New York, George Erazo — a former collegiate hurdler — is introducing his roster of newbie triathletes to brick workouts.

“Every day is a learning experience, both for the kids and for me,” said Erazo, head coach of the women’s triathlon team at St. Thomas Aquinas College, his alma mater.

Both nascent NCAA women’s triathlon programs compete in Saturday’s East Regional Qualifier in Huddleston, Virginia, hoping to punch a ticket to November's NCAA Women's Collegiate Triathlon National Championship in Tempe, Arizona.

“Qualifying for nationals in our first year would be really cool and that’s our biggest goal right now,” Erazo said. “But I would not at all be disappointed in these girls if we don’t make it. They’ve worked really hard and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of girls.”

Named an Emerging Sport for Women by the NCAA in 2014, triathlon has been added to more than 20 schools’ athletic programs across the country. The varsity season is composed of three regional qualifiers and the National Championship, and features sprint-distance races covering a 750-meter open water swim, draft-legal 20-kilometer bike, and 5-kilometer run. Saturday’s race features a field of 85 competitors from 16 NCAA varsity programs.

Davis & Elkins’ top athlete is Sophie Schoppl, a freshman from Austria who is the only member of the team with triathlon experience prior to college. In three races this season, she accumulated two wins and a second place. While she came to Davis & Elkins with a few triathlons under her belt, her skillset — strong in swimming — is the type of athlete Hammer recruited for his inaugural triathlon class.

“You can’t win the race in the swim, but you can lose the race in the swim. So I thought we can start there,” Hammer said. “I targeted strong swimmers and looked for people who wanted to help build a program and accept a new challenge.”

Erazo took a similar approach up at St. Thomas Aquinas, convincing strong swimmers in Rockland County, New York to give triathlon a try. He also benefited from St. Thomas Aquinas’ other athletic programs: four track and field athletes came to him wanting to join the program and one basketball player wanted to use the fall triathlon season as a way to get in shape for her main sport.

“It’s pretty awesome to see. You have these athletes, they don’t know anything about triathlon and they are determined to learn and stick it out and try the sport,” said Erazo, whose Spartans’ team is led by Stefania Georgiou, Kristie Hanlon and Sylvie Bischof.

Hammer, who is still competing in triathlon and has his eyes set on Tokyo 2020, said it’s an honor to coach the sport he loves. He has a message to high school athletes who want to play collegiate sports: give triathlon a try.

“One thing I tell people who want to excel at a high level in sports is that you’ll find a lot of the other sports are oversaturated with talent at the collegiate level. There’s still room to grow in the world of triathlon; there are more opportunities,” Hammer said. “So many people get into the sport later in life. What I would give to go back and start triathlon in high school or college. Triathlon is something you can enjoy for the rest of your life.” 

Davis & Elkins College Women's Triathlon Team