***Correction: The online version of this story originally identified Dave Sheanin incorrectly as the team’s new head coach. Sheanin, an assistant coach, has been serving as interim head coach.
In 2008, when Mike Ricci took over as head coach of the University of Colorado triathlon team, the Buffs had not won a national championship in five years.
“The first night I met the team, I stood before them and I said, ‘If you guys wanna be a fun team and you just wanna have fun then that’s cool,'” Ricci said. “‘If you wanna win, that’s cool, too. Whatever you guys want.’ And nobody really said anything. And this one little kid way in the back of the room said, ‘we wanna win the national championship.’ From there I set a plan to get to where we wanted to go as a team.”
The team went on to win four national championships under Ricci’s guidance. Though he stepped down from coaching the team in 2013 — a year in which the team won another championship — Ricci won his own award: USA Triathlon coach of the year.
Kathleen Johnston, a youth and juniors coach, was also honored as a coach of the year.
Ricci said that winning the award was a welcome surprise.
“When you coach at that level, you always wanna be the best of your peers, and when it happens, it’s like wow, it’s really great but at the same time you’re kind of surprised.”
“He’s well deserving of that award,” said Jesse Frank, current president of the CU triathlon team. “We as a team were happy to see him win it. Congrats to coach.”
Ricci said the key to the teams success was accountability, discipline and team spirit.
“There was a lot of talent on the team,” Ricci said. “I think they just needed some direction. And probably to do some things they didn’t wanna do. They just needed someone to tell them to do it.”
Former team president Corey Hazekamp joined the team just before Ricci took over and was there to witness the transformation.
“Mike came and instantly implemented more definite guidelines for everyone on the team,” Hazekamp said. “I think it was really the team-building Mike implemented. Before people would just go off and do their own workouts, or text their friends on the team and say, ‘let’s go for a ride.’ Mike really laid down the law and said, ‘no, you guys need to be working out together.’ You had faster kids working out with slower kids, which helped push everyone.”
Ricci asked everyone to go to at least four practices a week, which adds up to eight to 10 hours of training per week for most athletes. He also got the team training year round. “What I tried to get across to the team was, enjoy the process,” Ricci said.
That year, the team won nationals.
“I think it probably happened a year earlier than I thought it was gonna happen,” Ricci said. “I thought it would take a couple years to get there. But there was enough talent, and the kids were willing to work hard enough to make it happen. Once it happened, it was kinda like, wow, well what do we do know? It’s like you’ve arrived.
“And the next year we won again. And you know with that comes the pressure to win every year. In some ways, you wish you were still climbing that ladder.”
Ricci got into coaching in his 20s while working as a lifeguard. Someone asked him to take a class and start coaching swimming at the pool. “It was just really life changing in a lot of ways,” he said. “You get to help people. I taught people to swim who couldn’t swim.”
In 2001 Ricci quit his job to start his own coaching business, D3 multisport. He coaches athletes locally in Boulder, and remotely over the web.
Although he has come a long way from just coaching beginning swimmers, he still taught people the basics of swimming at CU. He remembers when Caryn Maconi showed up as a freshman and could barely swim the length of the pool at her first practice.
“I begged her to come back,” he said. “You don’t really know what you’ve got until you invest in people. Once you make that commitment to them, they say ‘wow, this person cares about me, I’m going to make sure I do my best for them,’ and that’s where you create that relationship.”
Maconi eventually placing 4th on the team at nationals.
Ricci recently stepped down as head coach to focus on raising his kids and running his business. He is running an Ironman training camp in Boulder this summer. He said he would consider coaching another triathlon team again “if the right opportunity came along, I’d have to seriously think about it.”
Ricci said that throughout his years of coaching, it’s the lifelong relationships that stand out the most.
“The wins and losses, great. But it’s really the relationship and seeing people achieve things they didn’t think were possible.”
Contact Jake Kincaid at email@example.com.