TEMPE – The Arizona State triathlon team is no stranger to challenges.
First it had to build its program from scratch. Then its four-year national champion streak was curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. A whole season of competition was canceled, while some of the squad’s international athletes became stranded in Arizona for the summer because travel wasn’t an option.
Nearly two years without collegiate competition was simply another challenge for the squad to face head-on.
They didn’t just meet it. They dominated it. ASU’s triathlon team swept the podium at the Pleasant Prairie Qualifier in Wisconsin over Labor Day weekend, its first collegiate race since 2019. Then it placed first in the team-time at the 2021 Dual in the Desert NCAA Challenge the Sun Devils hosted in Tempe Saturday, defeating San Francisco and South Dakota.
During their competition hiatus, the athletes focused on mental health training in addition to their typical physical training, which includes about 20 hours a week of lifting, swimming, biking and running.
Every two to three weeks, coach Cliff English recruited guest speakers to facilitate open discussion with the team and coaching staff. Topics of these meetings included performing under pressure, how to manage being a student athlete, and the difference between a challenge and a crisis.
“When you’re training, there’s so much more than just that physical component,” English said. “It’s what’s going on in your own head. It’s what your opponents are doing to you, and then preparing yourself to be mentally resilient and strong, to be able to withstand what’s happening.”
To complement the group discussions, English incorporates individual meetings with each of his athletes to set goals and give them a “toolbox” to pull from during races where “15 to 20 components” could go awry, he said.
“If you’re a very talented athlete, and when you perform everything’s going well, that’s actually kind of easy,” English said. “I think it’s when it doesn’t go well, when you’re pushed into a corner, when you have to fight your way out. That’s the stuff I love about the sport.”
English has led ASU triathlon to the NCAA national championship in its first four years of competition. An ASU athlete has stood at the first and second places on the podium for the past four years.
Before taking the ASU coaching reins, English led athletes to all the major Games (Olympic, Commonwealth and Pan American).
“I’ve had multiple world champions that I’ve coached over the last 20 to 25 years,” English said. “And that’s what it takes, you need to have that ability to problem solve and to adapt.”
ASU athletes took the canceled 2020 season as time to reflect on why they choose to weather an hour-long 750-meter swim, 20K draft legal bike and 5K run year after year.
“I think just having that time to sit back and realize why you love triathlon and why you do it was really important,” Kyla Roy, a graduate student, said. “I think we realized that we were racing because we loved it, so that’s what kept us going. It was a good thing just for the future of sport.”
Roy placed second in the Pleasant Prairie Qualifier. She placed first in the 2019 national championship and third in 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 was something that I’m not used to,” Schlebusch said.
Schlebusch grew up in South Africa, individually racing triathlons alongside young boys, never as a part of a team.
“There’s something about a team that just feels really comforting,” Schlebusch said. “You know all those girls and you know that you’ve trained with them. They’re going through the same pain that you’re going to go through. You’re all going through it together.”
At the Pleasant Prairie Qualifier, Schlebusch placed fifth, which she wasn’t upset about, but not too happy about either, she said.
Although ASU swept the podium at its most recent competition, not every athlete’s goal is to place in every race. English sets realistic, individual goals for each of his athletes prior to competition and measures performance based on those goals.
“Seeing this last race, not everyone’s race went smoothly,” English said. “But every single one of them handled it and took care of what needed to be done. And honestly, I’m so proud of that. Not everyone’s gonna win, but everyone can control their race and they can get the most out of their race and execute the way they want to.”
After the Sun Devils’ success in their first two events, they’re prepared to host the national championship for the fifth year straight on Nov. 13.
“We’re on the right track and excited to keep going for nationals,” Roy said.