ASU's triathlon team, the five-time defending triathlon national champions, want to make it six titles this year. Recruiting an athlete like Naomi Ruff, who won the USA Triathlon Youth and Junior Championships in 2021, was a great way to set the team up for success.
Ruff grew up in Illinois, about 45 minutes away from Chicago. Ruff began her triathlete career with swimming at 8 years old at a club swim team in Chicago. By the time Ruff graduated from South Elgin High School, she had run cross country and swam for the Strikers. Without knowing it, Ruff had begun her triathlon development.
Competing in triathlons was never on Ruff's radar until she met her now-teammate Camille Buchanan. Buchanan, a sophomore, also grew up in Illinois and went to Bartlett High School, which happened to be the rival high school with South Elgin. Buchanan had easily won her freshman year cross country meet for the freshman and sophomore divisions.
The next year, Buchanan said, she expected to win — until Ruff arrived.
"All of us were wondering who is this girl that came out of nowhere," she said. "We went up and talked to Ruff after the race, and she told us she was a swimmer who was just trying running. My teammates and I were shocked, and I told her to check out our local triathlon team that was only 20 minutes away."
As teammates, the bond Ruff and Buchanan share has blossomed into a friendship. The two clicked right away, hanging out before and after races.
Ruff's first triathlon in the summer of 2019 was a USA Triathlon Youth Super Sprint triathlon, consisting of biking, swimming and running. Ruff, having never competed in a triathlon, was pleasantly surprised.
"I didn't really know what to expect," Ruff said. "I just went to have fun, and I ended up loving it. I finished ninth, and after competing, I knew I was going to stick with the sport. I also had a great support system that was waiting for me at the end, which added to the runner's high and adrenaline of finishing my first triathlon."
After her first triathlon, Ruff has thrived in the sport. In March 2022, she competed in the Americas Triathlon Junior North Americas Championship Sarasota-Bradenton in the junior women's division and finished second.
"It was really cool to see all the training and hard work I put in for years into this sport finally pay off," Ruff said. "Being able to do all of this with my team made it that much more special and inspiring. On the second day, I competed in a mixed team relay, and we were able to win that as well."
Not only was winning this an excellent experience for Ruff, but it would also end up setting her up for the future.
"Before 2021, Naomi was not super high on our radar," said triathlon assistant coach Nicole Welling. "We had talked on the phone a few times, but the first time I talked with Naomi in person was after she won nationals."
Ruff didn't start the race in first place, Welling said, so she asked her what went through her head during it. "I remember her answer being very analytical but also in control, which can be hard to find in athletes that can really focus on the moment and figure out how to succeed as Naomi can," she said. "It struck me as really impressive the way her mind tends to think about races."
The most recent triathlon Ruff competed in took place this summer. She was invited to join the USA racing training trip that consisted of three races in Austria, Germany and Canada. This was the first time that Ruff had ever been outside the U.S.
"It was a cool experience to try a bunch of new foods and be able to do it with my team," Ruff said. "The long travel day was difficult on top of getting back into recovery and nutrition to be prepared for the race. Being able to train in these countries was amazing because they had cool bike paths and the views were beautiful."
Her favorite race of the three was in Düsseldorf, Germany. Not only was this her best race, but the scenery while racing was picture perfect, she said.
"The race went well. I finished fourth," Ruff said. "On the bike course, there was a huge bridge that we got to go over and at the end make a 180. The whole town came out to watch, which made it that much more special."
Not only did Ruff's success as an athlete draw the attention of the ASU triathlon coaching staff, but her personality was also precisely what they were looking for.
"When we talked to her on the phone and Zoom during the recruiting process, Naomi seemed super nice, very friendly, had good goals, and was focused," Welling said. "It was cool to see Naomi win her Junior Nationals right before showing up to ASU because she struck us as somebody who has a long way to go in terms of improvement but is very talented."
Now Ruff is in Tempe and taking on the challenge of her freshman year.
"I'm looking forward to developing as a person and triathlete," Ruff said. "I also can't wait to watch my teammates develop and learn from everybody."
Her first race as a Sun Devil will be on Saturday, Sept. 24, in Longmont, Colorado.
Edited by Kathryn Field, Walker Smith, Wyatt Myskow and Greta Forslund.