Why Collegiate Triathlon Should Not Be NCAA

I think this was from Collegiate Nationals in Reno, where we stayed at a casino hotel and the swim got cancelled and I got altitude sick. Why would you want to change that??
I think this was from Collegiate Nationals in Reno, where we stayed at a casino hotel and the swim got cancelled and I got altitude sick. Why would you want to change that??

There’s a proposal currently being considered to make collegiate triathlon an NCAA sport. Sorta. The actual proposal is to make just women’s triathlon an official “emerging sport” sanctioned under the NCAA – presumably because there’s no way in hell colleges can take on another men’s sport when across the country they’re cutting men’s cross-country, gymnastics, and volleyball in order to make quotas.

Since collegiate nationals happened a few weeks ago there’s been a lot of talk about this proposal because the assumption is it’ll be great for the sport — bring in money, support, athletes, attention. But, the more I think about it the more I’m not sure getting triathlon sanctioned by NCAA is the way to solve any of it’s problems. And, it could easily create a few new ones.

There won’t be an influx of money into NCAA triathlon

One of the main presumptions is that sanctioning triathlon will make it more accessible because schools will fully fund the program, thus allowing more would-be triathletes to afford it. The problem of financial accessibility is a very real one and the hurdle of buying a bike, equipment, race entries, and race travel can be overwhelming for college students, especially those who may come from low-income backgrounds and are working multiple jobs just to pay for college.

But, here’s the thing.

Schools could fund club triathlon programs now. Some do, to a degree, just like they fund other club activities and sports. Oregon’s club cycling team was notoriously well-funded by the school, with support vans and the like. Most schools don’t do this because they don’t have the money or because they choose to spend it elsewhere. They won’t suddenly get the money simply because it’s an NCAA sport.

I suppose the underlying argument is that the schools already have the money, but because spending it on a club sport doesn’t meet certain requirements, making it an NCAA sport will force the funds. Maybe. But, certainly not for the men’s club teams that will remain unsanctioned, not for the schools who opt not to sanction their triathlon teams (and if the proposal gets approved, they’ll have ten years to get 40 schools to sanction teams in order to create an official NCAA national championship), and not for the athletes who won’t meet the new requirements and goals of the newly-sanctioned NCAA program — which will be a LOT of athletes.

There’s also an argument out there that the schools sanctioning the teams will be able to make money by putting on triathlon races. Again, maybe. There’s certainly a demand for triathlon races. But, being a race director is a whole other thing from being an athletic director for a school. And, putting on races takes time and effort, which costs money. Most new races aren’t profitable for years and plenty of them never make money before they disappear.

At Cal, we certainly had a problem figuring out how to pay for everything on the triathlon team. To that end, we received some money from the school based on our club participation level and got lots of bulk discounts and did fundraising and worked with local sponsors who wanted to contribute to a local team. We also did put on a race, which was a lot of work and which made a small amount of money only because we all volunteered our time.

From the best I can tell, most of these things would no longer be possible on a grassroots level for an NCAA sport. Sponsors (and bulk buying and fundraisers, I suppose) are tightly regulated by NCAA. And, maybe I’m wrong about this, but it seems to me that the men’s club teams will no longer have the support of having a women’s side — they’ll have less money from the school, fewer bulk discounts and group fundraisers, and less overall support, sponsors will be less inclined to support just a men’s side. On the whole, it appears to me, the men’s club will have less financial resources than they did before. And, the women’s side might possibly have more, but only certain athletes and only within certain parameters.

The new NCAA resources will hurt triathlon diversity, not help it

The second assumption seems to be that these new resources will go to the underrepresented in the sport and encourage mass participation, because the NCAA is just so well-known for encouraging diversity?

But, if there do end up being scholarships and funding and resources, would schools spend that money on new students who have never tried triathlon? Would they reach out into communities and areas who have not had a chance to be introduced to this sport? No, they would give the funding to students who are already talented and successful, because that’s lower risk. And, how do you get talented and successful at triathlon by age 18? You have the resources and funding to do so from a younger age.

It seems to me like this isn’t an outreach effort as much as it simply passes the buck back up down the road. By the time NCAA athletes get to college, they have years of experience. NCAA is not set up to teach newbies or introduce people to a sport. NCAA isn’t designed to be inclusive or diverse. That’s not a criticism, really, it’s just a fact. It’s a large organization with lots and lots and lots of money, which naturally then wants the best athletes for that money.

There is right now an idea on the Cal triathlon team to make the team fully-inclusive and find a way to make it possible for more disabled athletes to participate. I don’t know how fleshed out that idea is or if it’ll be successful, but would it even be possible in NCAA sports? I’ve never seen a blind NCAA basketball player. I’ve seen plenty of blind triathletes competing.

The NCAA proposal on the table is to have a Varsity draft-legal team (in addition to some kind of JV team?), because that cuts down on bike costs for the school and allows them to create smaller courses for races, but also because it helps prepare people for the draft-legal Olympics. I think this is unfortunate, though I understand why they’re doing it. Focusing that early on draft-legal triathlon can and probably will discourage a certain segment of people. It would have stopped me. And, making collegiate triathlon an NCAA sport with limited spots on the team will cut out a lot of people who do collegiate triathlon now.

Right now, anyone can do collegiate triathlon. Some of those people won’t go on to win anything, but they may love the sport or they’ll be triathletes for life or they’ll work in the field. And, having that wide a range of abilities and interests and talents on the team is part of what makes collegiate triathlon an important and valuable experience — and what makes it fun.

Right now, collegiate triathlon is fun

Why do people like collegiate triathlon? Because it’s fun.

That’s what people say again and again and what you see in all the pictures coming out of collegiate nationals. That’s what you hear about. When people talk about Cal Tri, yes they talk about winning nationals (and coming second all those years), but they also talk about Tri Prom and Beer Mile and the Christmas Party and trying to slide down the Chancellor’s lawn in the rain using plastic garbage bags and that time you streaked through the library only to learn the hard way that when you run up spiral stairs everyone can watch you going around and around and around. No, that didn’t happen to me.

This guy from Cal Poly was really into triathlon.
This guy from Cal Poly was really into triathlon. From Triathlete
The closest to an appropriate picture I have from parties in college.
The closest to an appropriate picture I have from parties in college. Me and Justin doing our best WTF.

Yes, I know that NCAA sports still have fun to a degree. I went to some of their parties. And, yes, I know club sports have to follow the same school rules to a degree. But, there was a reason that the triathlon team became the refuge of people who had quit the NCAA water polo team or the NCAA cross-country team. Because, collegiate triathlon was more fun. It was more laid-back and welcoming.

I ended up on the triathlon team because it didn’t have cuts, because I didn’t have to convince anyone to give me a spot, because I wanted a serious sport but I wanted to do other things too. I talked to the cross-country/track coach, but I had mono and by the time I didn’t have mono I wasn’t interested in running so much every day that I’d end up hurt and spending another few hours each day listening to lectures about running. I wasn’t interested in everything that came with an NCAA sport. Triathlon was something different to try.

If it is truly an NCAA sport that will change. Maybe people want that to change. I could see why some administrators do. Maybe it has to change anyway, because it’s gotten too big. But, nowhere in the debate about making it NCAA sanctioned has anyone mentioned that the fundamental spirit and core of collegiate triathlon will be different if it’s an NCAA sport. It will be smaller and more systematic, less spontaneous and far-reaching. It will be less fun.

Do you think triathlon should become an NCAA sport?

20 thoughts on “Why Collegiate Triathlon Should Not Be NCAA

  1. One of the best blog posts I’ve read. I’m a masters triathlete and have wondered quite often “How do you people get into triathlon?”. You are right, having NCAA Varsity teams would limit participation of those who aren’t the awesome studs, but want to participate and hang out with like minded students. Like running, triathlon can continue as a lifetime sport. I am sure when my daughter leave HS this year shell never play another competitive volleyball game, nor my other daughter with Lacrosse. I’m glad you’ve found a great lifestyle sport at a young age. I regret I discovered it so late. Cheers.

  2. Interesting article; however, I do believe triathlon should be a NCAA sport. It is an Olympic sport and needs a pipeline for athletes to get there just like other sports. The great thing about triathlon is anyone can do it for a lifetime; whether it is a NCAA sport or not. College kids that choose not to participate in the official NCAA side can still participate in the sport. The current club model is not designed to truly promote collegiate athletics; honestly the work ethic of the club sport is no where near that of a collegiate athlete. Just look at the comments above and you can see there is a huge difference in being a NCAA athlete and a club athlete.

    Most triathlon clubs do have some talented athletes but the majority of them are not talented enough to compete. I believe club athletes want it both ways, they want to wear the college or university team style uniform but don’t want to do the dedicated work it takes to truly be a collegiate athlete. No academic requirements, no required practice times with penalties for not attending and no oversight into conduct and use of illegal substances. Most college clubs don’t truly represent there schools; they represent themselves under the false sense of being a collegiate athlete. With this there are some exceptions but in general there in no comparison between collegiate clubs and true collegiate athletes.

    1. There are a lot of Olympic sports that aren’t NCAA. And there are some NCAA sports that aren’t Olympic. Certainly, our Olympic athlete development could be better across the board, but I don’t know that that necessarily or even best is going to come from the NCAA.

      It seems that if you believe that one of the great things about triathlon is that anyone can do it and that people do it for life, then that runs conversely to your point that it needs to upgrade to an NCAA sport in order to instill a real sense of dedication and hard work. If the goal is to be all-welcoming then NCAA doesn’t do that. If anything, many NCAA athletes become burned out and never participate in their sport again after college. If the goal is to create standards and make collegiate triathlon more of a ‘serious sport,’ then that will drive out a lot of people. And, I don’t know why we want to do that necessarily. I’d also take issue with the idea that somehow NCAA will make college athletes stop using ‘illegal substances’ and automatically bestow legitimacy on them. Clearly you never attended a swim team or football team party.

      NCAA designation could bring some good things to triathlon — though, evidently, just women’s triathlon — but it also brings with it plenty of the bad businessfication of sport that NCAA brings with it.

      1. I don’t believe my points run conversely to each other. Football is a NCAA sport, intramural flag football is not. College students can still participate in the sport even if they are not on the said NCAA team, there is nothing preventing them from competing in the sport. On the other hand what I have seen is college students wanting the best of both worlds; wearing a uniform representing the school with none of the responsibilities levied on the NCAA athlete.

        The University Recruitment Program has seen success in making the US more competitive in triathlon. This program recruits former NCAA runners and swimmers who have had some experience in the sport at a younger age and will not continue in the individual sport post college. Look at Gwen Jorgensen, Amanda Hahn, Erin Dolan and Tommy Zaferes to name a few. Some of these athletes would have chosen triathlon if they had the opportunity. This past year at junior triathlon nationals the top three men were also the top runners in the country and took running scholarships because of no triathlon, on the women’s side the top women is also a top runner in the country and the second place women is a top swimmer headed to school on a swimming scholarship. So I am not so sure your point about Olympians not coming from the NCAA. The Emerging sport program with the NCAA is only for women via Title IX; so easier to start with women; that being said it does not mean men won’t be included later. Most division I schools have policies in place that set the conditions for men and women sports to come in at the same time to maintain balance.

        A little background, I am a USAT Level II, USAC Level 2 and ITU Level II Competitive coach. Been involved in triathlon since 1989 and served as a Department Chair at the University of Texas at Austin. So I do know a little about the sport, college athletes and academia. I too attended college, was in a fraternity and participated in sports; so yes, I have been to many parties. In no way was I saying illegal substances would not be used but I can clearly say that there is no oversight with college clubs.

        Triathlon is an inclusive sport, just because it becomes a NCAA sport doesn’t excluded folks from participating. It just means it will happen at a different level. I coach kids from all backgrounds in the sport of triathlon to include a non-profit for at risk youth and under-served communities. I have put my time and money where my mouth is.

      2. Look, no one questioned your credentials or your resume. The main point simply was and still is: I was on a collegiate triathlon team — and not just because I couldn’t hack it at an NCAA sport — and it would have been a very different and NOT AUTOMATICALLY better experience if it had been NCAA. There are costs and downsides to going NCAA. Many of the people on the team who came from other NCAA sports chose club triathlon not because they didn’t have the talent or dedication or desire to work hard (many of them went on to be very, very good), but because being on an NCAA team came with costs: no classes after 2 p.m., hour long meetings to talk about practice each day, expectations about weight and weigh-ins, the standard that you would not study abroad and would do no other activities in a huge college with a lot of opportunities and activities. These are costs, plain and simple — one of which it seems to me is making it less open of a sport. I believe that those costs outweigh the benefits, particularly under the current plan/proposal. There could also be upsides, including financial backing, but I’m not sure that is the case under what was approved. I don’t know if you’re arguing the benefits outweigh the costs, because I don’t know if in the midst of all your mansplaining about how Title IX works you’re even acknowledging the relatively benign point that NCAA comes with its own set of problems. I, for one, certainly wouldn’t hold NCAA football (and club flag football) up as example of what I hope triathlon becomes…

  3. I think you bring up some very valid points. As a former collegiate swimmer whose team became club half way through my four years, I can certainly attest to the differences between NCAA Div 1 vs. Club work ethic and “fun” level. After swimming for 12 years competitively , I actually enjoyed the more relaxed attitude, and as I knew I couldn’t progress any further after college in my swimming career, I embraced the change. But triathlon is not swimming There is a valid professional circuit out there. Sure, its tough to make it as a professional triathlete, but its a lot harder to make it as a professional swimmer! My point is that the sport of triathlon is changing, and wether its a good thing or not, it is becoming more competitive, and more mainstream. Gone are the days when ex swimmers or runners just “fell into” the sport by accident. Ben Kanute’s victory at College nationals this year is a perfect example. He has been tearing up the youth tri circuit for years. In fact one trip to the USAT Youth National Championships will show you how much has changed even in the last few years. My son went to his first USAT nationals a few years back on a mountain bike we bought at toys-r-us the day before the race and placed 4th out of 17. Last year his division had 185 participants, and the vast majority were on full carbon bikes, with deep rim zipp race wheels, and they all have coaches and teams at age 10! The times continue to drop, and the quality of kids continues to rise. My point is that College Triathlon is becoming a legitimate sport, and if they want to keep the best athletes involved instead of losing them to the pros like Verzbicas and Scott, they need to make it an official NCAA sport. There can still be club teams on the side for those who don’t want it to be as competitive, and not every school has to field a varsity team, but for the ability of the sport to grow, I think this is a necessary step.

  4. it should be a NCAA sport because it tests your entire athletic ability from the most popular three sports you can do on your own. Triathlons are more blood sweat and tears than ANY other sport! You can’t leave it out from sports. THREE SPORTS IN ONE! What a workout! Why was it never in colleges in the first place!?

  5. There are a lot of things that I don’t agree with in this article. I believe that Triathlons should be NCAA recognized, especially for women. What you are hitting at is that it shouldn’t be NCAA recognized because there are people that only want to race for fun, but what about those that race for something more than fun? For some of us Triathlons is what we want our career to be centered around.

    1-That is where I find my first issue: Right now there are only 13 colleges in the US that are awarded scholarship money for women’s triathlons. There are so many colleges that have Triathlon clubs, but not teams. Now at the colleges that do have teams they also have a club, that does not focus hardcore on triathlons. They might train separately or together, but I think it should be recognized because there are serious triathletes out there, such as myself. Many who want to go farther and even take their sport to the Olympics. Giving scholarships can only be accomplished if it is NCAA recognized.
    2- The college itself is not paying for races, bikes, etc… If it is an NCAA sanctioned sport then NCAA would be paying for scholarships… If you do not have a scholarship and are on on of the TEAMS then you have to pay your own way…
    3- Men’s Triathlons continue to be unsanctioned because men already have to many scholarships awarded… There are no women’s football team awarding about 50+ scholarships to football players per college… There are to many scholarships being awarded to men period, NCAA is just trying to even it out, unless you want to get rid of football scholarships? That is the only way to make it fair.
    4- Yes, triathlon scholarships will be awarded to people that have had years of experience, not just because they have had the money to do so for years before, but because of their hard work and dedication to the sport itself. It is the same with any other sport. Take soccer for example: Club teams cost money… Most women who receive scholarships for soccer have played club in recent years, if you have ever played club soccer it is not cheap. NCAA triathlons are here for women who are serious about triathlons and want to go far in their sport.
    5- Triathlon’s wont be less fun just because it is an NCAA sanctioned sport… I do Triathlons at a national level and I have fun every time I race. I would not race if it wasn’t fun, just because I can now get a scholarship for it means that “It won’t be fun”? That honestly makes no sense. Making it NCAA doesn’t mean that it will limit the participation, it will bring participation up… there are clubs that are not serious, just as there are teams that award scholarships and are serious.
    6- Yes, there will be sacrifices that come along with triathlons. But what serious sport does not come with sacrifices? Honestly, if you are not sacrificing something for your sport then you are not serious about your sport.
    7- It is not the point of sustaining growth for triathlons… it is being sanctioned so that serious women triathletes have a way to get to the Olympics, National and Worlds.

    And LASTLY… you truly are just bitter…Just because now there will be actual competition at the level of triathlons that you are doing you decide deserving women should not get scholarships for doing what they love and are good at. The only reason you think it will “ruin the fun of triathlons” is because you don’t want to be shown up. You don’t want the competition, because if your not winning medals then “It’s not fun”.

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