***Correction: This story originally misstated the number of national championships the CU triathlon team has won.
Last week, the NCAA Division I Legislative Council approved triathlon as the next emerging sport for women. The decision will give triathletes at universities that add the event as varsity sport access to more resources, as well as create a new series of races.
The NCAA defines an emerging sport for women as “a sport recognized by the NCAA that is intended to provide additional athletics opportunities to female student-athletes.” Universities use emerging sports to help meet the NCAA minimum sports-sponsorship requirements and minimum financial rewards to meet Title IX requirements.
Though the news is exciting for some female triathletes at the University of Colorado, the decision doesn’t come with any changes — for now.
Triathlon is currently a club sport at CU. David Plati, CU sports information director, said the university currently has no plans to add triathlon as a Division I sport. According to Kris Schoech, a club sports director at CU, that decision is up to Athletic Director Rick George; George was not available for comment on Tuesday.
“Whether or not we have a varsity team, the club team will still exist,” Schoech said. “We would still have a very strong club team. A lot of great athletes come to CU … The triathlon team has won more national championships than any other team I’ve had,” said Schoech.
CU’s club team has won 14 national championships.
Financial support would be helpful to student triathletes, Schoech said. Right now, dues for CU’s triathlon team are $150 per student per year, he said, adding that club triathletes also generally spend about $900 out of their own pocket each year for travel expenses to competitions, and on their bikes.
“There would be scholarships to cover that in NCAA,” Schoech said. But right now, “they are only competing for the love of the sport. There’s no scholarships.”
Michelle Mehnert, a former CU triathlete and former varsity swimmer at University of Illinois, was asked to speak at a NCAA conference on the subject because of her experience in both varsity and club collegiate sports.
“Triathlon was something I would have loved to do at the collegiate level but it wasn’t available,” she said. “I had to choose between swimming, running and biking … A lot of great triathletes can’t excel in just one sport.”
Mehnert thinks it will benefit triathletes to receive the support that Division I athletes receive, like trainers, nutritionists, tutors, sports doctors, and the opportunity to register for classes early. In Division 1 sports, “the student-athlete is taken care of and things stay in balance,” she said. “I think sometimes the club athletes take it too far and become athlete-students.”
Kaye Sitterly, the CU triathlon club’s vice president, played ice hockey until college, despite wanting to participate in triathlon as a kid. Hockey provided opportunities like scholarships, she said.
“Personally for me if this was an option when I was younger, it would have totally changed the path I took,” Sitterly said.
Sitterly said she thinks more people will join the triathlon team if they have access to financial support for equipment. “One issue for people joining the team is that they don’t have bikes, and bikes are expensive,” she said.
The CU triathlon club president, Jesse Frank, said that he is not planning on making any changes to the way the club is run based on the decision. He thinks the change will have the biggest effect on the Olympic pipeline, he said. The increased opportunities will encourage athletes to stick with triathlon from high school through college, instead of participating in just one of the triathlon disciplines on a Division I team.
“I’m happy, it’s a big step for the sport,” Frank said.
Leigh Dodd, assistant coach for the CU triathlon team, echoed that sentiment.
“Americans have a few shining stars, but in general, we get our butts kicked,” Dodd said. There have been four Olympic triathlon competitions and only one American medal.
“It’s exciting, but it’s kind of scary,” Dodd said. “I really like the dynamic we have here as a club sport … We’re a big family, and I’d hate to lose that … But as an NCAA swimmer, I know the benefits and access that come with it.”
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