Cliff English has spent eight months building Arizona State University’s women’s triathlon team from the ground up.
That involved recruiting the eight student-athletes and also buying the carbon racing bicycles — and then setting up storage. It meant not only setting a training schedule but also going out to buy a refrigerator for team snacks. And with a group of young athletes who are new to Tempe, it means English, the head coach, got on a bike himself so they wouldn’t get lost during training rides.
On Monday, English will take the newest Sun Devils team to its first competition, in Naperville, Illinois, against eight other university varsity and club teams. The NCAA teams compete in a “sprint” triathlon — a 750-meter swim, a 20-kilometer bike ride and a 5-kilometer run, with top finishing times around 65 minutes.
“After being able to start from zero, you realize how much work there was, but I was so excited to work with this age group,” English said.
ASU added the sport in October 2015 thanks to donations and a $140,000 “Women's Triathlon Emerging Sport” grant from the USA Triathlon Foundation. ASU was one of 10 NCAA schools to receive the grant and is the first Pac-12 school to have women’s triathlon as a Division I NCAA sport.
Before becoming the head coach, English was coach of the U.S. national team and a personal coach of 26 triathletes, ranging in age from their early 20s to late 30s.
“When I was national team coach, we always saw this gap in these years,” English said. “We had great junior programs in place and saw the athletes coming up from youth to ages 16 or 17 and then they went to college and maybe they ran or maybe they swam, and lot of times, they didn’t come back to our sport.
“We always saw the NCAA as an opportunity to continue to develop the athletes.”
One of the new Sun DevilsThe other team members are Delaney Bucker, Amy Darlington, Kathryn Gorcyza, Sarah Quintero, Lillie Robinson, Emily Wagner and Kendal Williams. is Charlotte Ahrens, 19, a freshman from Nuremberg, Germany, who has been competing in triathlons since age 6.
“After school, I had to decide whether to go to university or do a sport because in Germany, you can’t combine them,” said Ahrens, who reached out to university programs in the U.S. and made her decision after Skyping with English. She also was happy to come to ASU because she could major in kinesiology — a course of study not available in Germany.
“I only looked at ASU on the internet because I had no time to come to here before the year started, but it looked so good,” said Ahrens, who is excited to be part of the inaugural team.
“For everyone it’s new, and it’s so good to build a team and to say which direction it’s going in,” Ahrens said.
Training is intense. The women swim five times a week, bike three or four times a week and run three or four times a week. They work out at the Mona Plummer Aquatic Center on campus but during competitions will swim in open water.
“The first few hundred yards of the swim are a lot of contact, and you have to calm yourself,” English said. “We try to simulate that in training.”
They also work on the swim-to-bike and bike-to-run transitions.
“Any kind of lollygagging and it can be the difference between a Top 5 and a Top 15 finish,” he said.
The team has had only two weeks of training before the first competition, and English missed a few days of that with a hectic trip to the Olympics.
“I had two days of coaching, Aug. 15 and 16, and I flew overnight on the 16th to RioLeonardo Chacon of Costa Rica came in 30th, and Ashleigh Gentle of Australia came in 26th., where my male athlete competed on Aug. 18, and my female athlete on Aug. 20th. And then I flew out on the 21st, arrived here on the 22nd, and I’ve been at it ever since.”
This week, English got some help when Erin Densham arrived to start her job as assistant coach. Densham, a native of Australia, earned a bronze medal in the women’s triathlon in the 2012 London Games and came in 12th last month in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
The sport’s popularity dates to the early 1980s, with the Hawaii Ironman TriathlonIronman-distance races include a 2.4-mile open-water swim, a 112-mile bike race and a full marathon of 26.2 miles., which was broadcast on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” English competed in his first triathlon in 1989.
“I’ve been in this sport a long time. You’re always looking for that right combination of people and environment where you can do something special. I had never felt that until I got to ASU.
“This is an opportunity that none of us had seen before — to go to college and get a great degree and do the sport you really love.”
Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now
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