Dedicated athletes, more funding growing women's college triathlon

Camaraderie was high at the 2014 Women's Collegiate Triathon National Championship, and the group figures to get bigger going forward. Mark E. Lepow/USA Triathlon

In last year's inaugural Women's Collegiate Triathlon National Championship, UCLA's Kelly Kosmo won by almost a minute. After coming in sixth in the swim, she made up ground on the bike and run and broke the tape with a big smile and her arms raised in victory.

Once she moved to the lead pack on the bike leg, she knew she had a chance.

"It ended up being a great race," she recalls. It also was an historic one.

Twenty-one athletes from schools across the nation competed in the first collegiate national triathlon championship held exclusively for women. The event came nearly 11 months after the NCAA designated triathlon as the next Emerging Sport for Women, putting it on a track toward possible official-sport status.

Kosmo, a 22-year-old senior from Santa Barbara, California, says she'll remember the event not only for her championship, but for being part of something bigger than herself. It was a sisterhood of triathletes competing not just for themselves and their schools, but for the sport, each eager to see triathlon eventually become a full-fledged NCAA championship sport.

"We took a photo prior to the race of all the women who were competing, and everyone was arm-in-arm," she recalls. "Even though we were all about to compete against one another, it was definitely a very positive and united environment."

Now, with the second national championship this Saturday in Clermont, Florida, women's college triathlon is showing some serious growth. This year's start list is 75, more than three times the 2014 field. Athletes will come from big schools (California, Colorado, Texas A&M, Stanford), little schools (Touro College, Daemen College, Black Hills State University) and high schools (invited based on their performances in USA Triathlon junior elite races).

And, while most schools still field club teams, five now have varsity programs: Black Hills State of South Dakota, Daemen College of New York, Marymount University of Virginia, Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina, and the University of West Alabama.

More are on the way. Arizona State will become the first school among Division I power conferences to add a program. The Sun Devils are scheduled to begin competing in 2017-18 under Cliff English, former coach of USA Triathlon's Elite National Team.

To Kosmo -- who plans to continue competing after she graduates in December -- the chance to participate in the first two collegiate women's championships is something to savor, especially as the sport grows into something much, much larger than it is now. Soon it may offer scholarships, NCAA championships and have thousands of athletes at schools across all NCAA divisions.

There will be no way, then, to take a pre-race photo and include all the competitors.

"It's definitely an honor to be a part of something that I see becoming great in the future," she says. "It will be a cool thing to look back on and know that I played a role in helping it to come to fruition."

It's an evolution

On Saturday, coach Sonni Dyer of Queens University will be eager to see five of his athletes compete over the sprint-distance national-championship course (750-meter swim, 20K bike, 5K run).

This is the first year Queens has fielded a varsity team after hiring Dyer last year to build it. He'll get a chance to see how they fare against athletes from long-established clubs at big schools.

His group may be the youngest of any school. He has one sophomore transfer, one freshman and three high school signees who qualified, including Jocelyn Bonney of Long Beach, California, who was second this year in the International Triathlon Union Sprint World Championships in her 16-19 age group.

But Dyer is excited to see the next step in the evolution of a sport he's long been a part of. He's a former pro triathlete and longtime coach who was a region athlete development coordinator for USA Triathlon.

"Ten years ago, to think that this would be possible in the collegiate ranks, that would have been laughable," he says. "But to see how it's grown and to see us as a country put together this pipeline that goes from youth elite to junior elite to national, to now continue on with that developmental process through collegiate and on to the U-23 and then the Olympic ranks. We're filling a big hole that allows us to keep athletes in the pipeline."

The overall growth of triathlon, he says, makes establishing it as an NCAA sport a must. He points to the numbers from 2005, when he recalls seeing about 100 kids at a junior national championship. This year he says the number was about 1,000 for the youth and junior national championships. Triathlon is the fastest-growing Olympic sport in the U.S.

It's that growth in youth participation that will fill the rosters of women's college teams over the next decade. In turn, says Dyer, having college programs will give graduating high school athletes -- particularly those who swim or run (or do both) -- an avenue to success.

"Jocelyn (Bonney) is a classic example," he says. "A good high school swimmer, a good high school runner, but a great collegiate triathlete. And Jessica Tomasek, our top freshman this year, same thing. A good swimmer, a good runner, but a really good triathlete."

The idea behind the NCAA's Emerging Sport for Women process is to provide more opportunities for female athletes in college. If the sport can show steady progress over 10 years -- for instance, with 40 Division I schools establishing varsity programs -- it can become an official championship sport. Beach volleyball was the last designated emerging sport to achieve that status, following hockey, water polo, rowing and bowling.

USA Triathlon has helped the process along by providing 10 schools (including Queens) with funds from its Emerging Sports Grant.

Even before triathlon was tagged as an emerging sport, it had a broad base in college, with nearly 200 schools with club triathlon teams. They've been able to compete in USA Triathlon's collegiate national club championships (for both men and women's teams) since 1992. That event has featured Olympic-distance races without draft-legal cycling (though a draft-legal sprint race was added in 2013).

Now the Women's Collegiate Triathlon National Championship, a sprint-distance, draft-legal race that will be held Saturday morning inside Lake Louisa State Park, is the forerunner to what could eventually be an NCAA championship event.

Dyer laughs when he talks about being a part of the evolution of the sport in college, calling it, "kind of like the wild, wild west ... in terms of where it's at as an emerging sport." It is athletes from all divisions, clubs, varsity teams and high schools competing against one another.

"Being a part of it, and to have a say-so in the policy changes and have a say-so in how this thing emerges and how it grows is extremely exciting for me," he says.

Plus there's the evolution of the team concept.

"Up until now triathlons have been primarily an individual sport," he says. "Now you start putting athletes on the same collegiate team and now tactics and strategy and things like that are going to be playing a role in the race as well. I think that's one of the exciting things to watch."

One more opportunity

UCLA doesn't have a varsity triathlon program, but it does have an established triathlon club and, Kosmo -- who will try to defend her title Saturday -- is grateful.

She'd been a swimmer and cross country runner in high school and wanted to continue competing and being part of a team as a freshman at UCLA. She'd heard good things from friends about triathlon, so she joined the club.

The astrophysics major says triathlon injected a large dose of happiness into her life, and she's glad that women who follow her into the sport at the collegiate level will have better opportunities.

"Right now at the club level, it's great," she says. "I've enjoyed it. It's a great deal to have a club sport. But if it were recognized as an NCAA sport, I think there would be a lot more people who would be able to get help and funding, get scholarships. It becomes an expensive sport and it's difficult as a college athlete to support yourself if you need to buy a bike and a wetsuit and pay for all the races you enter."

Kosmo will be one of the 75 women crashing into the water Saturday morning, and the only one with a chance to win back-to-back titles. That would be a nice end to her college career. Since winning last year, she competed through illness and believes she's added an extra layer of toughness to her game. She believes she will do well, but isn't making predictions.

"I'm definitely confident in my ability to do the best I can," she says. "Whether or not that's better than other people, I don't know. ... All I can do is give my best."