PHOENIX – Arizona State’s No.1 ranked women’s triathlon team is eyeing a seventh straight national title when it competes in the Women’s Collegiate Triathlon National Championship Saturday.
The race features 30-plus teams from three divisions and includes a 750-meter swim in Tempe Town Lake, a multi-looped closed 20-kilometer bike course and a flat 5K two-loop run.
Defending its title will not be easy for ASU, coach Cliff English said, because the competition has grown “stronger and stronger” each season.
Many new teams, including TCU, have the depth and budget to give ASU a challenge, and some older teams, such as the University of San Francisco and Queens University of Charlotte, have improved over the years. Last year, ASU beat Queens University of Charlotte by just nine points.
The increased competition is a credit to the Sun Devils, who set the tone for other schools to build triathlon programs. For triathlon to move to championship sport status, 40 programs needed to sponsor it at the varsity level within a decade of triathlon earning emerging sport status, which it did in 2014.
“We are probably a year away from becoming a championship sport,” English said. “So moving from emerging sport’s status to championship, which I know is going to make (ASU athletic director) Ray Anderson and the school very happy as well because we will be able to add our Directors’ Cup points, which, if I am not mistaken, if we, knock on wood, keep winning, that’s 100 points, which I think would put us like a top 10 school in the country.
“I can’t wait to contribute. That’s a big goal of mine.”
Even with more teams and stiffer competition, ASU has managed to come back with a more dangerous group than seen in previous years.
Amber Schlebusch, last year’s champion, said that this ASU squad is “one of the strongest teams we have had.”
“It’s my senior year, so it would be pretty cool to do something special,” she said. Have a faster race than last year, but (unexpected) things happen on race day. You’ve got to adapt, and I am just looking forward to having fun with my team. It’s my last NCAA race, so I am hoping to go out with a bang and do something special for ASU.”
That something special includes winning the race and beating her personal best in the running section by 40 seconds. Schlebusch called the running portion her strongest event and swimming her weakest. English believes Schlebusch is one of a few athletes on the team that can make up lost time in the running competition.
For the team, English said strategy really doesn’t start until the team gets out of the water, calling the first of three events “all-out mayhem.”
English expects a strong performance by his swimmers in the first event. Getting numbers in the lead group early is important, he said, and anticipates three or four will be in that lead group entering the cycling portion of the race.
“There is an hour of racing and a lot of things can happen,” English said. “We try to train them to have an arsenal of tools and be able to make good decisions.”
As the race neared, Schlebusch reflected on self-imposed expectations.
“Nervous, very nervous,” she said. “There’s a lot of pressure and it’s not from the outside. It’s definitely the pressure you put on yourself as an athlete, to defend a title. I definitely feel nervous but I am also excited, and I think that’s honestly the emotion I felt last year, just extreme excitement.”