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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Triathlon And The Collegiate Experience

Swimmers do it. Runners do it. Basketball players do it, and many other Olympic athletes give it a college try too.

Coaches love it and it helps them win tournaments, meets and games.

Elite athletes from around the world understand the American collegiate system where college athletic and academic scholarships enable talented athletes to receive a free education at American universities while benefiting their athletic careers.

They benefit not only from quality coaching and consistent training in nice facilities, but are also able to participate in high-pressure competitions against world-class athletes.

Their reward: improved English skills, an understanding of American culture, an international personal network, (usually) improved athletic performances, and a grasp of different training methodologies.

And now potentially add one more sport to this mix: triathlon.

USA Triathlon is in the process of obtaining letters of commitment from NCAA institutions that would intend to support triathlon as a varsity sport. The letters can come from any NCAA division. Once ten letters are obtained USA Triathlon will make a presentation to the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics, who will in turn make a final review to consider its support for triathlon as a potential NCAA emerging sport for women to be sent to the NCAA Legislative Council for final approval. As an emerging sport for women, triathlon can provide additional participation opportunities for young women on college campuses.

Interest in collegiate triathlon is at an all-time high and the current collegiate club system is thriving. More than 1,500 athletes and over 120 clubs participated in the 2011 USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championship in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The event was televised by CBS Sports Network. Overall, USA Triathlon has more than 135 collegiate clubs in 10 conferences and more than 3,200 collegiate athletes, including more than 1,300 female athletes.

What are the implications for the sport of open water swimming?

Since the announcement by the International University Sports Federation (FISU) of its new 10K open water swimming event to its Summer Universiades (known at the World University Games) in 2010, it has been quite easy to imagine a collegiate open water swimming championship to be held sometime in the near future in America a la its triathlon cousins.

Thinking creatively, this is what we imagine for open water swimming in the American college ranks, although there are plenty of other ideas and proposals:

1. An annual championship that is held in conjunction either with the national collegiate triathlon championships or the traditional NCAA men's and women's swimming championships. This addition would be timely, especially if the men's and women's collegiate championships are combined as is currently been discussed.

2. A 3K or 5K distance in a compact course so the competitors can be seen throughout the race from one vantage point. Racing for less than an hour is important to keep the excitement up. Spectator boats can be provided for fans and the media. These Team Pursuit races are proving popular around the world.

3. An annual rotation of venues between an East Coast seaside course, a Southern lake course, a West Coast ocean course and a Midwest lake course. Touching the four corners of America an provide a variety of conditions and venues that would call attention to the beauty of the country and the sport of open water swimming.

4. If the race is held in collaboration with triathlon in a standard 1.5K triathlon swim leg course, the course can be set for a 2-loop 3K race. Alternatively, a 5K course can be 3 loops of the 1.5K triathlon course + an extra 500 meters at the start or finish. We recommend a shoreline start and finish in order to add an extra element of excitement for the athletes, fans and media.

5. Team scoring can be kept as the NCAA does in its cross-country running championships.

6. Time qualifications should be slower than the current NCAA Division I time standards so open water can draw from a wider net of potential competitors. Swimmers could qualify by meeting time standards in any of the current stroke or distance events (e.g., 100 butterfly, 200 breaststroke, 400 individual medley or 1650 freestyle).

7. An alternative race format could be the 3K Team Pursuit race. The race can be a single-sex 3-person format and/or a mixed-gender 4-person format where the athletes draft off one another and athletes switching positions in the lead to create fast-moving efficient pelotons in the water. A randomly selected staggered start of 10-15 seconds with athletes decked out in their college gear would generate substantial excitement.

This Team Pursuit concept, proven at the European Championships and World Swimming Championships, can leverage the boundless collegiate spirit, enable teamwork, showcase racing tactics and effectively eliminate much of the physicality (i.e., jostling) and maneuvering that occurs in mass races with solo swimmers.

8. An addition or alternative to the Team Pursuit would be a traditional 4-person relay where each leg would be short (e.g., 500 meters) and the exchanges would be crowded, physical and exciting.

9. Split times should be taken and post-race video analysis should be conducted for a better understanding of pacing, positioning, navigating and stroke technique to enhance performance levels. These concepts will be tested at the upcoming USA Swimming National Open Water Swimming Championships.

Time has come for collegiate triathlons. The time is now for collegiate open water swimming.

Photo of Sara McLarty, a pool swimmer, open water swimmer and triathlete.

Copyright © 2012 by Open Water Source

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