High School Triathlon: A Thriving Community, a Bright Future

By Allie Burdick | March 26, 2019, 6:25 p.m. (ET)


The North Georgia Regional High School Team placed second in the overall club standings at the 2018 USA Triathlon High School National Championships.

Can you imagine a future where having a high school triathlon team would be as common as a basketball or baseball team?

With help from USA Triathlon and its thriving community of athletes and coaches, that future is not far away — and for some, it’s happening now.

Fifteen-year-old Kai Desjardins, a high school triathlete in Temecula, California, has been a triathlete ever since his IRONMAN-racing uncle inspired him at the age of 8. Since then Desjardins has competed in over 60 triathlons, attended the High School National Championships three times and placed in the top 10 twice. He is slated to graduate next spring, one full year ahead of schedule. Because of the impact triathlon has had on his life, Desjardins is trying to pay it forward. 

 
       Kai Desjardins and his family at the USA Triathlon Youth & Junior
       National Championships.

“I sent a document I created called 'Building A High School Tri Club Community' in Riverside County to 40 high schools in December. I was only able to get one started [at my school], but I learned a lot.”

On the front lines of the high school triathlon movement are coaches like Lisa Marshall, who leads the North Georgia Regional High School Team and the Multisport Explosion youth development team in Alpharetta, Georgia. Marshall started Multisport Explosion in 2011 with just a dozen athletes and now averages more than 100. In the past eight years, she has seen a lot of changes. 

“When we started the team, it was predominately male, and over the last three years we have seen a huge growth in females joining the team.” 

Marshall credits this interest in part to USA Triathlon and the push to build varsity women’s triathlon programs at colleges and universities across the country. Triathlon is an NCAA Emerging Sport for Women, and USA Triathlon is in the process of recruiting 40 schools to adopt the sport at the varsity level to achieve full NCAA Championship Sport status.

“I believe some of our new female athletes have joined with an interest in competing at the NCAA level,” Marshall said. “USA Triathlon has done a good job of growing this opportunity for young women, and hopefully it will be successful and will then become an NCAA sport for men.”

In 2016, USA Triathlon introduced the High School Triathlon Program, meant to expand opportunities in the sport for young athletes and grow triathlon clubs at the high school level. Today’s youth have the advantage of recognizing triathlon as a competitive and sustainable sport for high school athletes. In fact, Desjardins said triathletes are seen as “gods” at his school since they compete in three sports at once.

Triathlon is certainly outgrowing its status as the fringe sport it was when many adults got their start in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. With the sport now being broadcast on national networks like NBC and Universal Sports, there is a real opportunity for the growth that coaches like Marshall have predicted for years. 

The growth of the sport at the high school level is undeniable, but so are the challenges. There’s a reason why the 40 documents sent by Desjardins were met with lots of interest but little resources. 
“It’s difficult to get people to take the first steps,” Desjardins said of his recruitment plan.

Marshall is all too familiar with these obstacles, most of which involve sharing space and athletes. There is a “severe lack of pool space and indoor gym space” as well as a lack of “sharing athletes” when the triathlon season overlaps with swimming, track and cross-country commitments, she says. 

Despite these challenges, coach Marshall sees an advantage to the multisport lifestyle. “We have seen a huge retention on our team, with athletes coming to us young and staying until they graduate high school.” 

Six of Marshall’s athletes were invited to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for a Junior Elite Training Camp this summer. Meanwhile, many of her 2018 graduating seniors are joining their collegiate club teams at Clemson University, Auburn University and University of Georgia. 

Marshall is thrilled with her students having opportunities to continue their sport after graduation, but she knows there is far greater value that comes from their high school triathlon experiences. 
“These athletes serve as mentors to share their knowledge and love of the sport with others,” she said. 

Desjardins spoke of the impact on his life as well, seven years of which he has been competing in triathlon. Naturally, he’s already looking into a future of coaching. 

“I would love to potentially work with USA Triathlon and try to work my way up the food chain as a coach,” he said. He has already completed the in-person portion of the USA Triathlon Level I coaching course, but cannot be certified until he turns 18. 

Desjardins added, “I’m just so happy when I’m racing. I can use it as a getaway from life or as a hobby, but to have it as my job would be so interesting because I’m so passionate.” 

For more information about USA Triathlon’s High School Program, and to learn about starting a high school club at your school, visit usatriathlon.org/hsprogram.

Allie Burdick is a freelance writer, competitor and twin mom. Her work has appeared in Runner’s World, Women’s Running and ESPNW. On her blog, vitatrain4life.com, she chronicles her successes and failures as a triathlete to motivate and inspire others.