Women’s Triathlon is an NCAA Emerging Sport — So, Now What?

This weekend, 80 women will compete in Clermont, Florida in the women’s collegiate national championships. The race can not yet be called the NCAA championships, not until (and if) women’s triathlon officially becomes an NCAA championship sport. Nor is this race the same as the USAT collegiate club national championships—which in the spring will crown a separate women and men’s winner in both a draft-legal and non-drafting event.

Yet, most of the women at the Clermont race this weekend, which includes a handful of high school students, currently compete on club teams. Many will race in that spring collegiate club championship as well. Most are at schools that do not have varsity triathlon teams and that have no current plans to create NCAA teams. For example, the defending champion, Kelly Kosmo, from UCLA, also won the draft-legal race at the collegiate club championships this past spring. Yet, UCLA, while having a very competitive women’s club team, told me that they do not have plans to field an NCAA team.

Confused yet?

“It’s an interesting transition period,” said Jess Luscinski, USA Triathlon’s NCAA coordinator.

After the NCAA approved women’s triathlon as an emerging sport in 2014, most people applauded the move and then stopped thinking about it. But things are far from clear or settled yet.

Women’s triathlon now has until 2024 for 40 schools to commit to creating varsity teams. Currently, there are five—though given some announcements that have been made and more that are in the works, Luscinski said she expects there to be anywhere from five to 12 more schools with programs in 2016.

In case you were wondering, those five schools so far are Marymount, Queens University of Charlotte, University of West Alabama, Daemen College, and Black Hills State. (And, yes, there is an argument to be made that small, not well-known, private schools have the most to gain and the least to lose from adding a new sport that will attract attention, students, and press.) Last month, Arizona State University became the first DI program to announce plans for a NCAA team to come. It currently has a club team, but the athletes on those two programs will, most likely, not overlap. For example, one girl on ASU’s club team, who was a part of the NCAA proposal effort, will not be able to compete on the NCAA team because of eligibility age restrictions.

Cliff English has been hired as ASU’s head coach, and starts officially in January. According to English, who is right now recruiting and building out the program, ASU will have a team by the fall 2016 season. According to Luscinski, ASU will not have an official varsity team until the 2017 season. You can see how confusion persists.

Once there are 40 women’s varsity triathlon teams, then various NCAA committees will do a complete and thorough review of the sport, the schools, the programs, and the races. The board will then vote and, if approved, women’s triathlon will then become an official NCAA championship sport.

At that point, it would start to look very much like every other NCAA sport—with all the good and bad that comes with that.

“My biggest fear is that it’s going to be really restrictive,” said Collin Chartier, a junior on the Marymount men’s triathlon team. NCAA, he said, has very strict guidelines about travel and training hours, which he worries would change the nature of their team.

NCAA triathlon, to be sure, would be an entirely different beast than the current collegiate triathlon scene. And that may be fine. In the same way that there are college club soccer teams, which are recreational and exist entirely separately from NCAA soccer, so too would NCAA triathlon teams be entirely different entities from the existing club teams.

The existing collegiate club structure is partially what attracted NCAA to triathlon, though, and it is highlighted in the official proposal. There are hundreds of schools with club teams and over 1,200 athletes competed at last year’s national collegiate club championships. Over the last few years, that race has become increasingly competitive, and college triathlon has become a breeding ground to introduce people to the sport and to offer college students an opportunity to become triathletes.

But despite talk of NCAA triathlon growing out of this club scene, this is a misunderstanding. The reality is that any future NCAA triathletes and teams will almost exclusively come from elite high school and junior programs.

If women’s triathlon becomes an NCAA championship sport, then it will not be a place for casual athletes to find triathlon in college, but rather a grooming ground for elite junior triathletes to continue competing.

“Right now, our top triathletes are becoming swimmers or runners in college,” said Luscinski. Because right now, that’s where the scholarships are.

Kyleigh Spearing is a senior at St. Ignatius College Prep outside Chicago. She’s been in the USAT junior elite pipeline for six years, competing with a high-performance youth team. She qualified for her elite triathlon license last year and placed 11th at the 2015 ITU Junior World Championships.

Instead of triathlon, though, she just committed to run at Cornell University. Partially, she said, this was because of the academics. But it’s also partially because if you’re that good, then you want to compete at a DI varsity level, which doesn’t really exist yet.

Fast forward a few years from now and this could be a whole different story,” she said. “The sport is exploding and I expect it will explode in time at the NCAA level. I was a bit early for that.”

She is precisely who the NCAA proposal is aimed at.

USAT says it is committed to continuing the club collegiate national championship race, whatever happens with the NCAA effort, and is quick to note that its remarks are not disparaging of club athletes. But it’s hard not to feel like the whole thing will become second-rate.

A caveat: I learned how to triathlon on the massive Cal club team. And I re-found my enjoyment of the sport with the USC team during a graduate program. I believe collegiate clubs can play an important role in creating life-long triathletes (and, generally, healthy adults). Yes, those clubs will most likely still exist even if women’s triathlon becomes NCAA. However, with less attention and funding, and with fewer of the national-caliber athletes, it will not be the same. Some of what will be different may be better, but some may be worse. I’m not the only one who thinks so.

“If, when, it becomes NCAA, it’s going to be very different,” said Chartier. Their coach wouldn’t be able to coach both the club men’s team and the women’s NCAA team. The athletes couldn’t race together. And, right now, he said, he enjoys the atmosphere of some very serious athletes and some more casual ones who just enjoy doing it for fun.

He, however, is in a unique position because Marymount has taken the step of creating both of men’s and women’s varsity teams. Right now, those athletes get to train together and, largely, race together. If the women’s team gets full NCAA championship status that won’t be the case anymore. That’s because right now women’s triathlon is in a sort of transition period before it becomes a full-fledged NCAA sport—which is partially what causes some of the confusion.

All NCAA women's races will be draft-legal. (Photo: Mark E. Lepow/USA Triathlon)

All NCAA women’s races will be draft-legal. (Photo: Mark E. Lepow/USA Triathlon)

If there are only five schools with varsity teams right now, then who do they race against? If there is no governing NCAA race calendar yet, then where do these athletes compete in the mean time?

“For this first two to three years, it let’s us transition,” said Luscinski. “It allows some flexibility.”

That flexibility is precisely why there is a lot of cross-over right now between club and varsity athletes—which will definitely not be possible once the sport becomes officially NCAA. (The other cross-over right now comes from the fact that USAT has been promoting draft-legal racing at the junior, youth, and college level. Many of the same athletes do both the collegiate draft-legal races and the USAT development ones.)

Ultimately, the NCAA proposal is for a season that runs from September to November. The women will compete in sprint draft-legal races, with a series culminating in a championship event—for which the Clermont race is supposed to serve as a kind of test. (There is an understanding that this year’s Clermont race will be far, far more competitive than last year’s inaugural event, which had just 20 finishers and an ad hoc feel to it.) Part of the NCAA proposal is for schools to bring in money by hosting their own races. While team budgets were at one point projected at around $400,000, Luscinski said that every school so far has been far lower than that. Existing facilities often mean that the true cost of a triathlon team can be as low as $50,000.

Teams were originally proposed to be in the range of 7 to 10 athletes, but part of the whole reason many schools want to add women’s triathlon is for the scholarship spots, needed under Title IX regulations. So, there’s a chance to possibly expand the team sizes, or make some changes to the proposal while it’s still just a proposal, said Luscinski, before it becomes an official championship sport. ASU, for example, will have 4.5 scholarships its first year, 5.5. the second, and 6.5 the third, said English.

“We only have one real shot to get this right,” said Luscinski.

But that one shot may not work out, even in the best case scenario. Other emerging sports, like women’s squash and archery, have failed to garner the 40 necessary schools and have simply disappeared from the NCAA’s agenda.

To combat that possibility, USAT has put itself in the unique position of throwing the full weight of the sport’s governing body behind the effort. There isn’t another sport where that has happened.

Besides hiring Luscinski shortly after the NCAA approval, USAT also committed $2.6 million in grants to schools to help them get their triathlon programs off the ground. Some of the 11 schools that won those grants, like Marymount and ASU, have already launched their programs or announced them, others are still to come.

USAT also hopes, eventually, at some point, to expand the NCAA effort to the men’s side of the sport—but that requires that the 40 schools kind of spontaneously sign on to support men’s varsity teams, without the backing of the emerging sport program.

If the effort succeeds and becomes part of a pipeline to keep talented juniors and youth in the sport, then it could help create the next Olympian. If it succeeds and impacts or plunders the club teams, then it’s hard to know if that Olympian won’t be created at the cost of some unknown number of non-drafting casual triathletes.

About the Author

Kelly O'Mara
Kelly is a reporter and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. She quit triathlon for a few years, because triathletes can be annoying, but now she's back into it and only hanging out with the non-annoying triathletes. She blogs about stuff at Sunny Running.