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Already Saints, Now Pioneers
Marymount University launches the first varsity triathlon program in the U.S.
Marymount University's triathlon coach, M. Zane Castro, still remembers a time when he couldn't have imagined his current role.
Castro, a tennis player in high school, discovered triathlon while at Baylor University. As he sought his path in college, he knew two things.
"I didn't want to be a coach," he says. "I didn't want to be a minister."
With relatives in both professions, Castro instead chose to work in physical therapy and also spent time in a bike repair shop. He wasn't coaching, but he never wandered far from the sports scene.
A few buddies asked him for help, and he inadvertently started a career.
"What I didn’t realize then was that sport was a big part of how I was able to express myself and manage myself on different levels. I realized I was coaching, but because I had this idea I didn’t want to be a coach, I didn’t call it that. I couldn’t tame the coaching. I just became more and more hungry for it."
Now Castro will assemble the first varsity triathlon program for a college or university in the U.S.
The timing of the move coincides with growing interest in triathlon on campuses nationwide. Marymount University, a Catholic institution in Arlington, Va., announced its intent to create a varsity program in January 2012. Castro was hired in May last year on the merits of his varied skills.
In addition to the physical therapy training and the bike maintenance knowledge, Castro had coached all three triathlon disciplines separately. He’d helped establish Ecuador's national triathlon program. Then he found a mentor in Darren Smith, who coached 2012 Olympian silver medalist Lisa Norden, of Sweden, and the top U.S. athlete in that race, fourth-place finisher Sarah Groff.
Castro was coaching a small group in Texas when one of his triathletes, Canadian Tenille Hoogland, won the 2010 ITU Pan-American Cup in San Francisco.
"The wheels started to turn," Castro says. "I could teach what it took to win."
Marymount's position offered him a space to cultivate his passion for developing athletes.
But as in politics, a sports program needs strong endorsements and commanding vision to imagine future success. Debbie Warren filled both requirements as the first full-time athletic director at the school.
Triathletes at Marymount will use USA Triathlon's current regional system for college clubs, but other varsity sports compete in NCAA Division III.
The Saints never had a club team, but Warren spent 17 years at the University of Alabama, which hosted the USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championships in 2007, 2008, 2011 and 2012. Football might be the sport of choice in Tuscaloosa, but last year, nearly 1,300 triathletes raced and represented 122 schools in the Olympic-distance field.
"We're nestled in 22 acres of north Arlington, four miles from the nation's capital," Warren says. "You're going, 'I don't know if we can do football.' But we can do triathlon."
She introduced the idea of multisport when Marymount leaders indicated they wanted to increase the number of sports offered. With running and biking trails near campus and a school pool, Warren says it was a no-brainer.
Although Warren has never competed in a triathlon, she recognizes the sport provides focused, disciplined athletes who carry that mentality into the classroom. At the same time, triathlon allows an institution to fulfill the goal of educating the entire student, body and mind.
"If we are preparing people for life in broad perspective, not narrow channels, most people will run, bike or swim for their entire life."
That wide-angle view pertains to students and the program overall.
"I have great faith that athletics creates a great campus climate," Warren says. "The more I talk to people, I think this is the next collegiate sport in the U.S. The college age is the developmental missing link. I think this is an age group that needs to not give [triathlon] up for four years."
She's referencing the gap.
In Canada, Australia, and European countries, athletes transition smoothly from high school to a performance-based squad to professional coaching, says Andy Schmitz, High Performance General Manager for USA Triathlon.
"They can attract kids at a young age and be fully invested and fully committed to the sport of triathlon," he says. "So many of our athletes are pulled in different directions."
For a long time, U.S. developmental programs were stuck pulling on their proverbial socks in T1 while the rest of the world raced away.
Even now, most athletes in the U.S. must choose swimming or running in college. Joining a club triathlon team works, but Schmitz says most clubs focus on non-draft formats or recreation instead of draft-legal, Olympic-style races. Skipping college to train with a professional coach is another option, but that leaves behind students who want a university education.
USA Triathlon created its high performance program in 2008 to bridge the athletic development gap for 14- to 19-year-olds. Three years later, a USA Triathlon partnership with the University of Colorado Colorado Springs marked the start of the Elite Triathlon Academy, designed to balance higher education with high-level training.
Triathlon as a college varsity sport could be the next step toward a cohesive developmental pipeline. Marymount's program will help lead the way in the pursuit of securing NCAA emerging sport status for women's triathlon.
"From a critical mass standpoint," Schmitz says, "we need a few well-operating programs to deliver talent. We need programs out there doing this. Irrespective of eventual NCAA status, having a program like Marymount offering this is crucial."
The sport needs 10 letters of petition to prompt an NCAA vote. Marymount and six other schools have signed their support, with Navy and Stanford anticipated to join the group as numbers eight and nine.
An official NCAA blessing would publicly solidify a national commitment to bolster U.S. chances at future international success while simultaneously providing the platform for a talented generation of young triathletes not willing to compromise their education for their sport. Until then, the machinery for that development will continue.
Warren says Saints triathletes will have full university backing.
"If they qualify for a meet in Belgium,” she says, “we'll find a way to go.”
For more on the Marymount University Triathlon Program, visit marymount.edu.