CU graduate student Michelle Mehnert celebrates after winning the women’s Olympic-distance national title. Mehnert will speak Monday at a meeting of
CU graduate student Michelle Mehnert celebrates after winning the women's Olympic-distance national title. Mehnert will speak Monday at a meeting of NCAA and triathlon officials, who are discussing women's triathlon becoming an NCAA emerging sport. Courtesy photo ( Picasa )
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USA Triathlon FAQ about NCAA initiative: bit.ly/We1JTR

O fficials from the NCAA, USA Triathlon and triathlon coaches and advocates will meet today in Indianapolis to discuss the possibility of women's triathlon becoming an NCAA emerging sport.

Currently, both men's and women's triathlon teams are offered at the club sport level.

NCAA documents show that officials on the NCAA Committee on Women's Athletics are considering the sport. The NCAA established the emerging sports category in 1994 to provide additional athletic opportunities for female student-athletes.

They're favoring an Olympic or draft-legal race, which allows drafting during the bike portion of the swim, bike, run event.

University of Colorado-Boulder triathlete and 2013 USA Triathlon Olympic-distance national champion Michelle Mehnert has been asked to attend today's meeting, she said, to describe her experience from an athlete's point of view.

Prior to grad school at Colorado, Mehnert attended the University of Illinois, where she swam on the university's varsity team. While competing in NCAA swimming, Mehnert was also a member of the Illini club triathlon team. Because she's experience being on the Illinois and Colorado club triathlon teams as well as the Illinois varsity swim team, officials are interested in her unique perspective.


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"They wanted someone who had been through both the club system and had some NCAA experience and the collegiate recruitment program," Mehnert said. "I've been on both sides."

 

The committee needs 10 letters of support to move forward with legislation on adopting women's triathlon. Schools who have sent letters are Adams State University, U.S. Air Force Academy, University of Arizona, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, Monmouth University, Marymount University and Stanford University, according to USA Triathlon officials. Drake University, University of Denver and University of North Carolina Asheville have also reportedly submitted letters.

Marymount University in Arlington, Va., will add men's and women's triathlon as varsity programs for the 2013-2014 school year, even though the sports don't count toward NCAA sport-sponsorship minimums.

Mehnert said she's heard varying opinions about how to develop competitive triathletes in the United States. The U.S. has just one Olympic medal, a bronze won by Susan Williams in 2004. That needs to change, many elite athletes say, and making women's triathlon an NCAA sport is one way to develop young athletes into top talent.

"There's been a long history of being trained as a single-sport athlete and then going into triathlon when you get older," Mehnert said.

On the other hand, Mehnert said, some kids in their teens are competing in Ironman triathlons and over-training, which can lead to injuries and burnout. The systems in place now aren't winning the U.S. any more Olympic medals, Mehnert said, so something needs to change.

"The NCAA and bringing that credibility and the emphasis on student-athlete with student first -- it's a good stepping stone," she said.

CU senior and triathlon team president Tess Amer said she's conflicted about only women being recognized as an emerging sport. Men and women on the current club team practice and race together, she said, and is worried about that camaraderie and equality being lost until the NCAA also recognized men's triathlon.

"In any kind of triathlon environment I've ever been in, it's always been men and women," she said. "But I think it's great it's getting enough attention to be looked at by the NCAA.."

The Colorado club team has won 14 national titles, and already attracts top talent without scholarships, making CU a good candidate as a varsity sport.

Earlier this year, CU officials discussed adding sand volleyball as a varsity sport to remain competitive with other Pac-12 teams. But CU added women's lacrosse for the 2013-2014 season, so it's unlikely the university athletic department will add another sport in the near future. Colorado athletic director Mike Bohn has said that CU won't "add sports just to add sports."

If other schools add varsity programs in the future, CU senior and club triathlete Caryn Maconi said she is worried that the "legacy" her team built would go away. Top triathletes often attend CU to race for the club team, which has built itself an international reputation, she said.

"It would just be kind of depressing," she said. "We wouldn't get to race the really competitive teams because they'd be Division 1 and people wouldn't come anymore (to be on) the CU team."

The proposal to the NCAA lays out the details for what a varsity triathlon program would look like. A team would include five to seven novice, non-drafting athletes and five varsity, draft-legal athletes.

The proposal advocates starting with 3.5 scholarships, which would grow to seven to 10 scholarships in the future. The season would run from September to November, and could include open-water swim races, pool swim races and a team relay event.

--Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.