Tri as They Might…Do Triathletes Need the NCAA?

By Kelly Dunleavy O'Mara

This weekend, the NCAA’s newest “Emerging Sport for Women,” varsity triathlon, will be holding the Women’s Collegiate National Championships in Tempe, Arizona. But the 75 women racing the sprint triathlon aren’t NCAA athletes. And triathlon isn’t an NCAA sport—at least not yet. UC Berkeley, which has one of the largest club triathlon teams in the country and is sending women to compete, currently has no plans to add a varsity team. In fact, some Cal triathletes want triathlon to stay a club sport, even while they train for Sunday’s Collegiate Nationals.

Got it? Confused yet?

Turns out, adding a whole new NCAA sport is no easy task. And given Cal’s ongoing financial woes and rigid Title IX requirements, it’s easy to see why they might pass on the opportunity. The last women’s sport to move from “emerging” to full-fledged was beach volleyball in 2014—the cost of which is still raising sand.

What does it take to make a new varsity sport anyway? And why do some athletes think the cons outweigh the pros?

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In 2014, when the NCAA voted to approve triathlon as an emerging sport for women, it put the sport on track to become the newest member of the NCAA. Excitement rippled throughout the triathlon community. “I think it would be phenomenal if it could happen,” said Cal Triathlon club coach Dean Harper.

Of the three emerging women’s sports (equestrian, rugby, and triathlon) attempting to achieve NCAA status, triathlon appears to be the closest. In fact, the triathlon community was so behind the effort that, in a unique move, USA Triathlon allocated $2.6 million in grant funding to support schools launching programs and hired a coordinator to lead the effort. Most other sports attempting to achieve NCAA status don’t have a national governing body leading and funding the effort; they typically rely on grassroots organizing. According to USA Triathlon’s communications manager Caryn Maconi, they funded the push because it aligned with their goals of creating opportunities for younger athletes and women.

To comply with Title IX requirements, Cal now needs to close a gap of 100-120 roster spots between the male and female athletes in the next three years.

In order for triathlon to achieve official NCAA status, 40 schools have to sign on with varsity squads by 2024. Currently, there are 26 schools with varsity teams, said Maconi, and the 40-school mark seems well within sight.

But because the NCAA effort is still in a transitional period and not yet overseen by the NCAA, there simply haven’t been enough schools with varsity teams to flesh out a championship race. So, USA Triathlon has been allowing club teams, like Berkeley’s, to send their best female athletes to the women’s collegiate events—though this may be the last year club athletes are permitted to compete. If so, that would be a disappointment for Cal who, under Coach Harper’s direction, has raced well against the better-funded varsity teams like ASU.

“The last two years, we were third there overall against ‘NCAA’ teams,” said Berkeley’s Coach Harper. If Cal signed on to the NCAA effort, he added, “I could get a team that good in two years.”

So far, only six Division I schools in the country have signed on to the NCAA effort. None of the universities with the biggest club teams or the longest history of triathlon—UC Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford, University of Colorado-Boulder—have NCAA varsity squads.

Which has raised questions from athletes about varsity triathlon’s legitimacy and competitiveness.

USA Triathlon’s Maconi acknowledges this is a common criticism as the NCAA effort gets off the ground. But, she said, the schools that have signed on have seen huge benefits. ASU, for example, hired a top-level elite coach to head the squad and recruited athletes from around the world who, when not competing collegiately, race on the international Olympic development circuit.

USA Triathlon says they will continue to put on club nationals, but the club athletes worry: Will they get as much attention and excitement?

However, DI programs like Cal’s face bigger hurdles in introducing a new sport. There tends to be a larger cost for them to field a team at parity with existing varsity sports, said Maconi—i.e. with the same opportunities, coaches, and facility access. Compared with lower divisions, the NCAA mandates a certain number of scholarships for DI sports, and a DI triathlon coach would likely bring in a larger salary. Plus, at a big school, adding a women’s sport has a relatively lower impact on meeting Title IX requirements—seven to twelve female athletes are proportionally fewer at a university like Cal.

Cal is no exception to these challenges and Athletics officials say they have no plans to add a varsity women’s triathlon squad. However, that could change. To comply with Title IX requirements, Cal now needs to close a gap of 100-120 roster spots between the male and female athletes in the next three years. The school’s new athletic director, Jim Knowlton, has said they will not be cutting men’s sports—a frequent concern over recent years—but could potentially add a women’s sport. He has not shared details, yet, on which sport that might be.

All of which puts the athletes on the Cal club triathlon team in a weird place—but they’re not necessarily complaining.

“The thing I love about the club program, that obviously can’t exist in the NCAA program, is how inclusive it is,” said current Cal Triathlon club president Sarah Rockwood.

“We have a team that’s completely open to join,” she said. The team has about 150 members, with around 50 training for national championships. “There’s no application, no tryout. Not a lot of things are like that at Cal.”

And for the serious athletes, the training and racing can be as intense and competitive as they want it to be.

“I want the NCAA movement to succeed,” said Coach Harper. “But the club program is so much more
inclusive.”

This past spring, Cal alum Hannah Koski won the club triathlon national championship race, besting 66 other women and finally edged out her season-long UCLA rival. The event drew nearly 1,300 athletes from 120 schools. Coach Harper said it just as big and exciting and competitive as any NCAA nationals. And Koski, who spent three years playing varsity soccer, said the club triathlon team offered a welcome contrast—though it wasn’t easier.

“It actually ended up being more of a time commitment for me than a DI sport,” she said, describing bike rides longer than the three-hour NCAA cap on practices and far more hours dedicated to learning how to ride in a group, which she had never done before. And every person at swim practice or on a bike ride is there of their own accord, she added, not just because their coach or scholarships require it.

It’s unclear what will happen to the club teams if NCAA triathlon becomes the main event. USA Triathlon says they will continue to put on club nationals, but the club athletes worry: Will they get as much attention and excitement? What if—instead of investing in the NCAA effort—USA Triathlon spent that money to support the athletes it already has? Some great triathletes have come out of the club teams. Ben Kanute, who was a 2016 Olympian, won club collegiate nationals in 2013.

Former Cal club president Varun Pemmaraju doesn’t feel like USA Triathlon is meeting its goal of creating an Olympic pipeline with the NCAA effort. Many of the best ASU athletes are international and often the club athletes outperform the varsity teams. “By all the metrics, it doesn’t seem like they’re succeeding,” he said.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to see it succeed. Most of the club athletes want their sport to get more attention, and they understand the upsides of NCAA affiliation. Which include making scholarships available for junior elite athletes interested in competing collegiately.

For his part, Coach Harper has been supportive of the NCAA effort, despite some uncertainty.

“I want the NCAA movement to succeed,” he said. “But the club program is so much more inclusive, and if USA Triathlon pumped half the money into the club effort nationwide we’d have 1,000 more athletes at club nationals.”

“I want what’s best for the development and growth of the sport,” he added. It’s just not clear to everyone what exactly that is.

Filed under: Cal Culture
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