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Daemen unveils triathlon as a varsity team sport

After three years, Ashley Cheff is a seasoned triathlete. She’s raced and trained on her own, earning a spot at the USA Sprint Age Group National Championships. Her sixth-place finish there earned her a spot at the World Championships in 2016.

But starting at the Lake George Triathlon Festival over Labor Day weekend was something brand new for Cheff. She wasn’t just racing for herself – she was part of Daemen’s first women’s triathlon team.

“I never trained on a team before and I never had a triathlon coach,” said Cheff, a junior from Niagara Falls. “I thought it’d be different and it is. I like it a lot.”

While Cheff now has formal coaching and people to train with, one of the biggest differences came on race day when she lined up with her teammates, including graduate student Anna Lyons, who was competing in her first triathlon.

Cheff placed second in her age group on the Olympic-distance course with Lyons just nine minutes behind for a fifth-place finish.

“In this past race, Anna was so strong,” Cheff said. “I knew she’d have a good race. She was kinda doubting it but I knew she’d be great. Having her there really pushed me, even though I’d done a tri before. Having a strong teammate really pushed me. It’s hard when we can’t always get together as a team, but it’s nice to have that support.”

As Daemen officially entered the 2015-16 academic year as a full-fledged Division II member of the NCAA, the Wildcats unveiled their triathlon program.

Women’s triathlon is an emerging NCAA sport, which means it has all the rights and privileges of being an NCAA-sanctioned sport, including all of the rules. The sport has a 10-year period to have 40 schools offer women’s triathlon as a varsity sport to earn a permanent place in the NCAA repertoire.

There are currently 11 teams across all three divisions and Daemen is one of 10 schools to receive a grant from the USA Triathlon Foundation to establish a program.

The $70,000 grant dispersed over the next three years allows Daemen to offer scholarship money and help with equipment expenses.

And it allowed Athletic Director Bridget Niland to offer a sport she not only is personally passionate about but believes is a perfect fit for Daemen. Niland points to the rigorous academic nature of the health science majors. Those in programs such as physician assistant and physical therapy find it difficult to participate in athletics with their academic schedules.

Triathlon opens up athletic possibilities.

“No. 1 what I loved about it is that it’s an individual sport. … You don’t necessarily need your team there to practice. It’s not the same as having to run plays in soccer or basketball or volleyball,” Niland said. “That fit very well with our rigorous academic programs in PA and PT. Which I also think the rigorous parts of PA and PT tend to attract that kind of disciplined, focused personality that you need for triathlon.

“I wanted to make sure that when we made this move to Division II that we still provided ample opportunities for student-athletes in all of our majors. In the health sciences it does become a challenge. But with individual sports there’s more ability to work around that.”

While the workouts can be done individually – a key for Lyons who is doing a clinical rotation in Rochester this semester – the team element is still vibrant and crucial during races.

There are individual awards, but also team points based on where competitors finish, similar to the team scoring in a cross country meet. The stronger the athletes are from top to bottom, the better result for the team.

Additionally, the Women’s Collegiate Triathlon National Championship is a draft-legal event, meaning competitors can cycle in a pack. Combine that with the ability already to work together on the swim and run and team success fosters individual success.

“Although it’s an individual sport what ends up happening at the varsity level is it becomes a team sport on the playing field,” coach Jon Metz said. “The goal is to have them, within the rules of the sport, work together. In the swim, not only is drafting allowed but it’s encouraged. So Anna is a touch faster swimmer. You know who Anna is. You’ve done some open water swims with her. Get on her heels and let her drag you along.

“Most of the races we’ll be doing are draft-legal on the bike so if you have someone who is a stronger cyclist, they help pull others through. So it does work in a team atmosphere.”

There are challenges to offering an emerging sport.

One comes simply from fitting aspects of the sport into existing NCAA rules. For example, the NCAA has strict guidelines about the dimensions of corporate logos. No problem for a triathlon kit (essentially the triathlete’s uniform), but a problem when it comes to wetsuits and bikes. That was solved by the existing equipment exemption (think of logos on baseball bats) and once wetsuits and bikes were categorized as exempted equipment, that NCAA legal snafu was avoided.

Recruiting is a new piece of the puzzle for Metz, who has been coaching all levels of triathletes on an individual basis in Western New York. That will involve talking with high school swimming and track athletes, which includes educating some that triathlon and the ultra-endurance event Ironman are not the same thing. Collegiate triathletes are on short-distance courses. The national championship includes a 750-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike and 5K run. Metz is also creating a presence for Daemen at local triathlons where numbers of competitors under 19 are slowly increasing.

“It’s really just getting the word out,” said Metz who had a family contact him from Anchorage, Alaska, to ask about Daemen’s program. “At Lake George people were like, ‘Oh, you’re an NCAA varsity team? I didn’t know they had that.’ So it’s educating people in general that it exists and the difference between how triathlon existed on the collegiate level as a club sport to now where there are scholarships available.”

Daemen will compete in the Finger Lakes Triathlon in Canandaigua on Sunday. The Wildcats then will travel to North Carolina for the East Regional Qualifier on Oct. 3. As a USA Triathlon grant recipient, they already have an invitation to the Collegiate National Championships, Nov. 7 in Clermont, Fla.