Why choose just one? Triathlon continues to gain foothold as NCAA emerging sport

Courtesy Sun Devils Athletics

Arizona State is one of two Division I schools to field a team in the NCAA emerging sport of triathlon.

Charlotte Ahrens takes great pride in the letters GER.

She spent the past year competing at the national level with the abbreviation printed across her triathlon suit, and she speaks highly of her experience racing as a triathlete for her home country of Germany. But when the opportunity to become part of another team arose, Ahrens knew it was the right time to make a move.

On Saturday, Ahrens will represent a new team, one that also is abbreviated by three letters: ASU.

The Arizona State freshman will join 74 other women from 23 schools at the women's collegiate triathlon national championships in New Orleans. It is the Sun Devils' first appearance at the championships.

Arizona State University is one of just two Division I triathlon teams (East Tennessee State University is the other), but coach Cliff English has worked hard to recruit high-level athletes from across the world to help build the program.

This is something that a lot of us over the years have been keeping our eye on. We have all these great junior athletes who go to college, and we lose them from our sport.
Arizona State coach Cliff English

Women's triathlon is not yet an NCAA "championship" varsity sport, but teams can field varsity programs -- and offer scholarships -- because the sport has gained "emerging sport" status. If 40 D-I schools support varsity teams by 2024, triathlon will advance to championship status and be officially recognized with NCAA events. Until that point, national championships cannot contain the brand of the NCAA in the name.

Along the same path Ahrens and Germany are taking, English said USA Triathlon has talked for decades about ways to develop future Olympians, and collegiate programs that offer triathlon could be the next step in the plan.

"We are really looking to build something pretty special here and, at one point, recruit athletes that are having the opportunity to train and get a great education," English said. "It's kind of fun to imagine the next cycle going into 2020, 2024 -- that there will be schools very similar to the swim programs that are turning out Olympians. I think that would be great."

One American athlete who is hoping to take advantage of the collegiate opportunity is Addison Smith, a sophomore at Baylor High School in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Smith, who won the 15-19 age division at triathlon's Sprint National Championships in August, competes on her high school cross country and swim teams and said she is hoping to pursue triathlon in college.

"I'm looking forward to training with other people my age and competing against people that are doing the same thing that I am," she said.

Some high-level multisport athletes, though, still choose to compete in a single sport in college.

Cornell freshman Taylor Knibb competes for the Big Red's cross country team, but she traveled to Cozumel, Mexico, this fall to race in the International Triathlon Union Junior Elite World Championships and came away with a victory. She also finished third in the Montreal Elite World Cup in early August, edging out some Olympians.

While her triathlon accomplishments stand out, Knibb said she is still figuring out her long-term multisport goals. She said she did not look at triathlon programs before choosing Cornell but instead picked the school for both the academic and athletic opportunities she would be afforded as a member of the cross country team.

"Going through the process, knowing that anything can happen over four years, I created a list of possible schools where I thought I'd be happy not even considering the athletics, and then worked my way from there," Knibb wrote in an email. "Although I wasn't sure if I wanted to swim or run, I knew that I wanted to just pursue one sport to help develop it to the best of my ability."

AP Photo/Gregory Bull

Gwen Jorgensen, who won the gold medal in triathlon at the Rio Olympics, was a swimmer and an All-American runner at Wisconsin.

Before 2014, when the NCAA made triathlon an emerging sport, Knibb's choice to focus on a single sport was the most common option for those looking to pursue any of the triathlon disciplines in college. Accordingly, USA Triathlon depended on a program called the college recruitment program as its pipeline. The program selects athletes who excelled in running or swimming in college and helps them train to become top-level triathletes after their graduation. Gwen Jorgensen, a former Wisconsin swimmer and cross country athlete who won gold in triathlon at the Rio Olympics, is one of the success stories. (Jorgensen, by the way, will be making her marathon debut this weekend in New York.)

The United States ended the 2016 triathlon season with six women in the top 20 world rankings, and five of the six athletes participated in the college recruitment program, according to a USA Triathlon spokesperson. While the college recruitment program has proved to be successful, English said the NCAA triathlon teams could deepen the pool for future Olympians in the United States.

"This is something that a lot of us over the years have been keeping our eye on. We have all these great junior athletes who go to college, and we lose them from our sport," English said. "They will go and run and swim, and now to be able to actually go to school on a scholarship and actually be a varsity sport, I'm thrilled about it. I really think you have to have that vision that this is going to be a big thing. I feel like we are sort of on the wave of that."

The question remains whether the NCAA program can grow. In the short term, though, it will grant athletes, including Ahrens and her Sun Devils teammate Katie Gorczyca, the opportunity to compete against other elite athletes in college nationals this weekend.

"Already seeing how far we have come since the beginning of August, I can only imagine where we will be in five years," Gorczyca said. "Across the nation, I think more schools will adopt triathlon as a varsity sport."

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