Since forming its first team in the fall of 2016, the Arizona State University women’s triathlon team has never lost the national championship title. There was even a year, in 2018, when they took the top five spots in the individual race.
Now, with the race returning from the Women’s Collegiate National Triathlon Championships to the Tempe campus on Nov. 12 and the field growing with more NCAA Division I schools adding women’s teams, we caught up with Coach Cliff English to talk about what it’s like to be the five-time National Champions (there was no race in 2020) and how ASU looks forward to the increased competition.
English was hired in October 2015 — he got the call from school officials while coaching his professional athletes in Kona — and he set about building a new varsity team from scratch, until to buy helmets and set up a cabanon on the pool deck. When he was hired, ASU was the ninth school to sign with a varsity women’s triathlon team and the first major DI school. Now there are 40 schools and more big DI programs joining, like Texas Christian University, University of San Francisco, and University of Arizona just down the street. Queens University, a six-time national champion at the DII level, has progressed to compete at the DI this season.
“I like to think that we kind of helped pave the way,” he said, fielding questions from other coaches all the way to hosting the championship race on campus as a way to promote and develop the sport.
Why did he want to switch to college coaching?
It was a chance to get back to working with young athletes and helping them grow as people. Also, growing up in Canada, the prospect of women’s triathlon becoming the next official sport of the NCAA was something entirely new. “We’ve never had an NCAA at this level, it was an opportunity we never had,” he said.
Of course, running a large DI program isn’t just coaching. There’s more fundraising and administration work than he could have imagined, but even that has its perks. This fundraiser, for example, helped fund a group of girls to travel to Ecuador and compete in a Triathlon World Continental Cup.
“[Taking the job] was the best decision I’ve ever made in my coaching career,” said English.
The majority of NCAA athletes — in all sports, not just triathlon — will not pursue professional sports. They will get a good education, learn life lessons, and then use those skills in their careers. This is also true even on the winning ASU team. But some of the girls who go through the program will also try to get into professional triathlon and hope to represent their country, and he also wants to “give them that opportunity.”
Although official NCAA status for women’s triathlon has yet to be approved and voted on, ASU’s women’s varsity triathlon team has been treated as a full-fledged NCAA sport on campus since its inception – meaning that they get everything other sports get and have to comply with all NCAA rules. This represents 6.5 English scholarships to be divided between the team, access to a sports coach and facilities such as the swimming pool where Michael Phelps trained for the last Olympics.
The team currently trains 14 to 15 hours a week, he said, with a day off or optional. They swim every morning Monday through Friday, have three outings with a coach each week, two runs with a coach (with a track session), two weight training sessions, and additional team talks and skills work. During the season, the emphasis is on quality and not on volume, but in the spring they will work more on a traditional basis and on certain skills.
What does the ASU team look like this year? There are four sophomores and four freshmen, and two of the 13 team members will graduate at the end of this semester. There is a student from Mexico, one from Canada and three other international teammates. It’s a young team, says English, and a team that hadn’t even fully returned to campus until this year. Some of the athletes were recruited without ever surrendering.
Heidi Jurankova, a freshman at ASU, begins her college career after arriving from the Czech Republic, where she raced in the elite women’s peloton of the European Triathlon Cups. Naomi Ruff chose Tempe after winning the U.S. Junior National title. They join a team full of junior titles and world triathlon experience. In fact, said English, there were only a handful of varsity athletes testing the waters at Continental Cups, but now there are 25-30 girls racing on the off-season international circuit.
With more schools and more athletes entering the mix, the days of ASU sweeping the entire podium are over. Almost all DI teams now have budgets and training schedules to compete with the Sun Devils, and races are now divided by division. In fact, last year the DI championship title went to Kira Gupta-Baltazar of the University of San Francisco – but ASU still won the tag team title. “Our depth saved us,” said English.
This rivalry will still be there two weeks from now. And they’ll be joined in the DI field by the University of Denver and Queens University – the #1 ranked team in the DI field (ASU is ranked #2) – who they’re excited to go up against. head-to-head for the first time this season.
“I think it’s really cool,” he said, to see the sport grow and develop. “It really is an amazing feeling to build something.” It’s even better to build something that could win its six titles in November.