Why Collegiate Triathlon Is Awesome

The USC tri team at nationals two years ago. (Triathlete Magazine)
The USC tri team at nationals two years ago. (Triathlete Magazine)

I’ve written before about why I don’t think triathlon should become NCAA, and I’m going to go ahead and double-down on that argument—although I will admit some of the issues and questions are being addressed (but not all). But, what I want to talk about today is why collegiate triathlon is sort of awesome. Unfortunately, part of what makes it awesome, I think, will be killed with systemic corporatization. So, get in while you can.

This weekend, I’m heading down to San Diego with the USC Tri Kids (aka The Kids) to do the UCSD race. I signed up for $50 and I signed up only because The Kids told me to. For the collegiate triathlete, there is no season outside the collegiate season, there is nothing else to worry about, there is no larger annoying triathlete community obsessing about Kona. Collegiate triathlon exists in a vacuum, in many ways. And, that vacuum is still relatively untouched by the things that eventually touch all sports.

This is why collegiate triathlon is awesome.

People talk a lot about how collegiate triathlon is The Future. These athletes are so fast and they must be developed. We will never win Olympic medals unless we start shepherding our 18-year-olds into the Olympic development funnel.

The thing is, though, yeah, some of the collegiate triathletes are fast, but plenty of them aren’t. Some of them will become Olympians, but lots of them won’t. And, that’s fine. Hell, it’s better than fine. Last year, I was sitting in the shade on the boat ramp at Wildflower while the collegiate wave went off, because I started almost two hours after them (ugh), and I listened to the announcer rave about how these racers were The Future. The college race was the highlight of the day. Yet, despite having a cold and coughing up green stuff and starting so much later in the heat and behind every. single. old. man., I went faster across that course than all the collegiate women except one (who was faster than me by less than a minute). This isn’t a humblebrag. There were another four or five age group girls who were faster than me that day. The point I’m making is that yeah, some of the collegiate triathletes are crazy fast, some of them will be once they learn how to swim or ride a bike or sleep, but creating a breeding ground for greatness isn’t actually what collegiate triathlon is about. Not really.

(Now, I’ve totally jinxed it and I’m going to lose to lots and lots of collegiate women this weekend. But, in my defense, the fast ones are largely out here on the West Coast. Largely. So, when I lose it’ll be because they’re good and not because I suck, or something.)

But, what makes collegiate triathlon awesome is that not one of those kids at Wildflower gave a shit about the fact that everyone in the 25-29 age group had beaten them. They did not care. I don’t think they even knew. They only cared about the other collegiate racers.They were racing in a vacuum. It was a vacuum of tunnel vision and trying your hardest and the joy of racing.

That’s why collegiate triathlon is awesome. Because you can pay your $25, show up and know you’re going to have some good hard racing, and maybe you’ll win a water bottle, maybe you won’t. Maybe there’ll be future Olympians at your little race around campus, because some of these kids are fast, and maybe there won’t be. It’s awesome, because it doesn’t seem to care about the most expensive gear, or qualifying for bigger races, or cultivating sponsors with your Twitter account. Hell, they don’t even seem to worry much about any of the classic triathlete things: gadgets and training zones and what some study of five people said might give you a tiny advantage if you sit in a sauna after your workouts. Sometimes, this drives me nuts, because The Kids can make a one-hour ride last three hours, and training zones have a purpose. But, that’s what triathlon was like before we all became triathletes.

It turns out the UCSD race is actually part of a big weekend-long Tri-palooza thing, and Julie Moss was there for the draft-legal race today (because, you know, we’ve got to funnel all these kids into draft-legal racing or we’ll never win medals!). And, Meb is part of some big awards dinner tonight. And, that’s cool. It really is very cool. But, part of me keeps thinking I’m not ready yet for real triathlon again.

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