If there was any doubt about whether Arizona State’s women’s triathlon team could succeed, the Sun Devils put it to rest in their debut outing in Naperville, Illinois on September 3.
A trio of ASU triathletes competing -- junior Katie Gorczyca, freshman Charlotte Ahrens and freshman Delaney Bucker -- finished first, second and fourth respectively at the Central Regional Qualifier.
Led by Gorczyca, who was the only participant finishing in under an hour at 58:59, the trio earned the right to compete for the national title in New Orleans on November 5.
The feat is impressive for a program in its infancy, and head coach Cliff English is hoping ASU’s immediate success will lead other schools in the west to join the Sun Devils with their teams of their own.
“It’s a big task,” English said. “It’s a great position to be in, because we are paving the way. I’m really excited about that. I think, you know, hopefully a lot of other schools, after they see what we’ve been doing for the program and what’s attainable and achievable want to jump on board and support a varsity program. It’s definitely been challenging, yet rewarding at the same time.”
English came to the Sun Devils after coaching the United States Elite National Team where he coached in three Olympic games (2004, 2008, 2012). Before arriving at ASU, English finished his last year coaching the U.S. team in 2015 with a winner in an Ironman, two half-Ironman races, and two other triathlon competitions.
Making the transition from a national level to the college one is an adjustment, especially because English was afforded a much larger staff in his previous job.
“I’ve coached the U.S. team in the past, the difference would be that we had a pretty well established program in Colorado Springs,” English said. “We had assistant coaches, infrastructure. I mean, USA triathlon has a staff of probably 75, so it was definitely like swimming USA or even like running USA. Definitely a larger staff, so we had a lot of infrastructure and and a lot of things already in place. Yeah, when starting a program from the ground up, that’s the biggest challenge is that you’re building that foundation and trying to get more people involved.
“It’s coming together, but we’ve been scrambling and working hard to put it together for the last seven to eight months.”
Aiding English during his first season as ASU’s triathlon coach is an Olympian who just arrived back from the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Erin Densham.
Outside of appearing in Rio de Janiero, London and Beijing, and claiming a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics, Denham won the U23 World Championships in 2006 in Switzerland and the 2012 Sydney World Championship.
The Australian Olympian brings vast experience to a young roster.
“Yeah, she’s the Olympic bronze medalist from London, and she’s a three-time Olympian, so she’s bringing over 10 years of international experience,” English said. “She’s a very highly-skilled athlete, and has had a lot of experience doing training camps and clinics with other athletes.”
To help build a consistent winner in Tempe, English is looking for athletes that want to train in a family-like atmosphere.
“Looking for girls that want to be a part of a family, that want to be a part of a team,” English said. “We’re building a team that’s going to win national titles. At the same time we want them to be serious about their studies and be student-athletes as well.”
On its current roster, ASU has eight triathletes, including five freshmen. Successful recruiting for English is a main key in building a consistent winner for ASU’s triathlon program, even with the immediate success the Sun Devils are already having.
“Right now, I’m happy with the team that we have. We have a few top girls on that team,” English said. “There’s definitely a few girls for 2018, but they’re juniors right now so probably can’t mention names. Yeah, there’s definitely some really interesting girls that are coming along the way, especially here in the states as well. There’s some really good junior programs that are up there that are coaching these girls as well.”
In terms of location, English said basing a program in Arizona is a positive because it enables year-round training in all areas of the sport (swimming, biking, running). Arizona’s winters give the Sun Devils an advantage because they rarely deal with inclement weather.
As is the case for any young program, English understands sustained success will take years of development.
“There’s a lot to go into when you think about the young team that we’re building here, and developing these girls over the next three to four years as well, because you can’t expect them to come up right off the bat and be ready to go,” English said. “We definitely have some work to do. Hopefully, build those skills a little bit over time.”
Even though ASU just launched its program, the Sun Devils are the only power conference school with a women's triathlon team. Because of that, the amount of inquiries English receives from prospective athletes is about 10 to 12 times the size of the current roster.
“Since we’re the first program, we have 5.5 scholarships,” English said. “Yeah, I mean it’s quite competitive. We had over probably 60-75 inquiries last year. My inbox, even as I talk, it’s still probably filling up. I think in the last two weeks we had another 20 inquiries on our program, which I’m going to have to go through here real soon. We’re planning our strategy for some official visits coming up in the fall, and yeah probably looking forward to adding probably two to three to the roster for next year, and then hopefully another two or three for 2018.”
English left his perch in the USA triathlon program because of the committed support ASU athletic director Ray Anderson promised the coach in his inaugural season. With a goal of developing national champions and ultimately Olympians, English sees ASU as a place where triathletes can thrive.
“They’re incredibly supportive,” English said of the ASU athletics administration. “Really impressed right from the first day that I worked here, every time I see Ray (Anderson) he’s like, ‘Hey coach, how’s it going?’ It’s just so friendly. It does feel like a family. From my final interview, that was the reason why I said yes was just because I felt like this could be the right environment. They’ve always conveyed that they have our backs, which is really nice when you have an administrative floor that are really behind you that way. It makes a difference."