Standing on the shores of Tempe Town Lake on a Tuesday at 6 a.m., one sound is conspicuously absent from the cacophony arising as students stir and get ready for class. That sound is the shouts, splashes and footfalls of the ASU triathlon team. Instead, the athletes work in small groups, training for specific disciplines and doing whatever possible to stay sharp.
The team, which has won the last four USA Triathlon Women’s Collegiate national titles, had their bid for a fifth derailed by the coronavirus pandemic. Faced with a tough decision, administrators felt canceling the season was the right call as health concerns rose.
“Of course we’re disappointed, but the positives are still good in the sense that we’re able to put in that work,” head coach Cliff English said.
Prior to announcing the cancellation of the season, coaches and administrators held deliberations. Coach English, a prominent voice in the discussion, made it clear that as the dominos started to fall across the country, it was only a matter of time until the decision had to be made.
“It was definitely the right thing to do. We probably would’ve preferred to wait until the NCAA and Pac-12 made that decision, but being a fall sport with our season starting up so quickly, we were already looking at getting our student-athletes in early so they can do their quarantine and get ready to train,” English said. “That vote came out, and the very next day we told the team.”
As for announcing the cancellation to the athletes, many of whom were hard at work preparing for upcoming events, the coaches opted for a straightforward approach.
“We told them (ourselves),” English said. “We did a team Zoom with the parents. We thought that was easiest.”
Team captain Rebecca Naughton, a senior studying mechanical engineering, was at home in Iowa with her family when she heard the news.
“I was a little disappointed, but with the state everything was in, I knew it was a good call,” Naughton said. “Obviously they made this decision to keep us safe and healthy, so it's hard to be mad or upset.”
That bittersweet reaction was echoed by the coaching staff as well.
Assistant coach Nicole Welling said, “There was some disappointment. I do think that there was some relief just considering the uncertainty of everything that’s going on with COVID being so different in different places.”
The initial part of the Zoom call was full of shock. As coaches explained the advantages of having a year off to train and focus on school, however, a different reality set in.
“They always impress. They’re just so mature and have a very good perspective on life and the world and what it all means,” English said. “We know it’s short term. This isn’t a death sentence or anything.”
Athletes now practice in pods. Each athlete is able to work on the aspect of Triathlon most suited to their needs. Whether it’s biking, running or swimming, the coaching staff is excited about potential growth due to the new format.
“We really fall into that category where having a year to do work is great,” English said.
The team has also been careful to follow guidelines set by the University to ensure a safe return to campus and competition.
“They have been going very well. Everyone adapted to the safety protocols quickly to make sure we are continuing to stay healthy as a team and look out for each other,” Naughton added.
Triathlon is unique among college athletics in that it isn’t governed by the NCAA. Instead, USA Triathlon holds a series of qualifiers and a national championship. The team is also free to compete in a variety of independent events.
Triathletes usually don’t hit their peak performance until a few years out of college. Most Olympians in the sport are in their late 20s. English believes this year could be a huge help for those trying to reach that level.
“A lot of them have aspirations for representing their countries at world championships or the Olympics,” English said. “We try to encompass all of that and look at building toward their future.”
The team has since returned to Tempe as part of ASU’s general reopening, and to the delight of all, practice has resumed.
“There were parents that had some questions,” English said. “Everyone was like, ‘(We) still want to come.’”
Hannah Henry, a senior studying business entrepreneurship, was living in Victoria, British Columbia, prior to the call to return. She was swimming with the Canadian national team and living in an area with zero COVID-19 cases, “but she still wanted to come,” English said.
For the past three years, the national championship took place in Tempe. Welling has led the charge on securing and producing the event, garnering rave reviews in the process. Now, with the cancellation of the event, she said she’s disappointed but not discouraged.
“We were all cylinders firing until the season got cancelled,” Welling said. “We’re hopeful and looking forward to hosting in 2021 if that becomes available.”
English added, “Nicole has been hugely instrumental with that race. It’s been really cool having it in our backyard these past three years. She’s gotten it to this place where we’ve seen it really grow.”
As a smaller sport, Triathlon relies on both the support of donors and the athletic department to fund equipment, facilities and scholarships. With the cancellation of football, many universities experienced difficulty sustaining sports which relied on that income.
In July, Stanford University announced they were cutting 11 non-revenue sports due to the financial impact of the pandemic. Despite uncertainty around the country, leadership is not worried about the future of the program.
“We have a lot of faith in them and they’ve expressed the same to us,” English said of ASU’s athletic department. “We’re all in it together and we’re all going to try to make this work and float and get through it. It’s not going to end us or define us. We’ll be stronger for it.”
The team has also spent years establishing a strong network of proponents around the Phoenix area.
“Our support base for triathlon is tremendous in the Phoenix area. We’re so lucky we have really supportive donors and a really supportive community around us,” Welling added.
Like most division one sports, triathlon is awarded scholarships. With the NCAA ruling that fall athletes will be able to maintain eligibility and be granted a scholarship waiver, Sun Devil Triathlon’s five seniors will be able to return next year. Program leadership, who had worked hard on recruiting starting last March, said the waiver came as a relief.
“That was the big one. We were anticipating five (athletes) graduating and obviously we were recruiting for five,” English said. “We’re gonna talk with all the girls and work it out. All of them could come back and it’s not going to count against us. We’re just going to go case-by-case with each of them and talk about their future and see what they want to do.”
The transition has added barriers for some freshmen this year as well. Coaches have been working to create a fun yet competitive atmosphere within the program in a safe manner. The team usually holds barbecues and other activities, but due to the pandemic, the team has had to get creative in their efforts to bond.
“If there is ever a chance to catch up with someone during a warmup or cooldown, I always take it,” Naughton said. “I think it's really important just to check in and see how their lives are going. Everyone has their own struggles right now and it's nice to know someone is willing to hear you out.”
The effects of the virus on the athletes’ personal lives extend back to May. The first two seniors, who had been with the program since its inception four years ago, graduated over Zoom.
“That was hard,” English said. “We didn’t have an in-person ceremony. It was basically like, ‘Thank you very much, we’re gonna miss you.’ It’s a very different thing.”
While the team waits on a decision from USA Triathlon and the University about when competition can safely resume, they’ve been resourceful as they work to stay sharp and get better outside of their altered practice sessions.
“Lately, I have been reflecting on past races and watching pro races online to learn,” Naughton said. “The coaches have also been challenging us with time trials in practice to help us keep the feeling of racing fresh.”
Welling made it clear that It’s that spirit of innovation and the drive to get better that keeps the team together in their pursuit of that elusive fifth consecutive title.
“We really do care,” English said. “I think the girls and the team understand that we’re making decisions for them with their future in mind, and their health in mind. I always feel as a coach that’s something you never compromise.”
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