TEMPE – The Arizona State triathlon team is no stranger to challenges.
He first had to build his program from scratch. Then his four-year streak as national champion was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. An entire season of competition was canceled, while some of the team’s international athletes found themselves stranded in Arizona for the summer because travel was not an option.
Almost two years without collegiate competition was just another challenge for the team.
They didn’t just meet him. They dominated it. The ASU triathlon team swept the podium at the Pleasant Prairie Qualifier in Wisconsin over Labor Day weekend, their first collegiate race since 2019. Then they placed first in time by team at the 2021 Dual in the Desert NCAA Challenge that the Sun Devils hosted in Tempe on Saturday, beating San Francisco and South Dakota.
During their hiatus from competition, the athletes focused on mental health training in addition to their typical physical training, which includes approximately 20 hours per week of weightlifting, swimming, biking and running.
Every two to three weeks, Coach Cliff English recruited guest speakers to facilitate an open discussion with the team and coaching staff. Topics for these meetings included performance under pressure, how to deal with student athlete status, and the difference between a challenge and a crisis.
“When you train there is so much more than this physical component,” English said. “That’s what’s going on in your head. This is what your opponents do to you, and then you prepare yourself to be mentally resilient and strong, to be able to resist whatever is happening.
To complement the group discussions, English incorporates one-on-one meetings with each of its athletes to set goals and give them a “toolbox” to draw from during races where “15 to 20 components” could go wrong, a he declared.
“If you’re a very talented athlete and when you play it goes well, it’s actually pretty easy,” English said. “I think it’s when things aren’t going well, when you’re pushed into a corner, when you have to fight to get out of it.” That’s what I love about this sport.
The Englishman led the ASU triathlon to the NCAA National Championship in his first four years of competition. An ASU athlete has held the first and second places on the podium for the past four years.
Before taking the reins of ASU coaches, English led the athletes to all the major Games (Olympic, Commonwealth and Pan American).
“I have had several world champions that I have coached over the past 20 to 25 years,” English said. “And that’s what it takes, you have to have this ability to problem solve and adapt.”
ASU athletes took the canceled 2020 season as time to reflect on why they chose to go through an hour of 750-meter swimming, a 20-mile legal bike, and a 5-mile run year after year.
“I think having the time to sit down and understand why you love triathlon and why you do it was really important,” said Kyla Roy, a graduate student. “I think we realized we were running because we liked it so that’s what kept us going. It was a good thing just for the future of the sport.
Roy placed second in the Pleasant Prairie qualifier. She placed first at the 2019 National Championship and third at the 2017 National Championship.
Standing at the start line with over 50 other competitors, sophomore Amber Schlebusch embarked on her first collegiate competition.
“I was racing more for the team than for myself, which I’m not used to,” said Schlebusch.
Schlebusch grew up in South Africa, competing in triathlons individually alongside young boys, never as a team.
“There is something about a team that is really heartwarming,” said Schlebusch. “You know all of these girls and you know you’ve trained with them. They are going through the same pain that you are going to go through. You go through it all together.
In Pleasant Prairie qualifying, Schlebusch placed fifth, which she was not sorry about, but not too happy about either, she said.
Although ASU swept the podium in its most recent competition, the goal of every athlete is not to rank in every race. English sets realistic individual goals for each of their athletes prior to competition and measures performance against those goals.
“Seeing this last race, not everyone’s race went well,” said English. “But each of them handled it and took care of what needed to be done. And honestly, I’m so proud of it. Not everyone is going to win, but everyone can control their run and get the most out of their run and run the way they want.
Following the Sun Devils’ success in their first two events, they are set to host the National Championship for the fifth consecutive year on November 13.
“We are on the right track and excited to continue for the national championships,” said Roy.