For the first time in more than two decades, the University of Denver is adding a new intercollegiate varsity sport. Denver is now the 37th institution in the country to offer women’s triathlon and the ninth at the NCAA Division I level.
This encouraging announcement, delivered in early July, came as welcome news to beleaguered Pioneer fans, still smarting from the cancellation of spring sports in the wake of the coronavirus’ U.S. debut. And with their eyes on the virus’ continued threat, fans spent much of the summer bracing for more disappointing headlines. Sure enough, July 31 delivered word that the championship would be cancelled in 2020, and the sport would look at the feasibility of hosting a spring championship in 2021.
What’s behind the addition of DU’s 18th varsity sport? It was made possible through a grant from the USA Triathlon Foundation, which aims to expand participation in—and access to—the sports of triathlon, particularly for youth. In 2014, USA Triathlon announced it was creating a multiyear NCAA Women’s Triathlon Emerging Sports Grant to accelerate the establishment of the women’s triathlon at the collegiate level. DU is the beneficiary of this effort.
And the program’s leadership has wasted no time in jump-starting DU’s effort, naming current men’s and women’s swimming assistant coach Barbara Perkins as the program’s first head coach.
“I like the balance of all three sports and trying to hone your abilities in each one,” she says. “I always wanted to eventually be a head coach, but didn’t expect this to happen. I’ve been talking to other coaches, and one of them [explained] it the best when she said, ‘You’re flying the plane while you’re also building it.’”
Perkins brings firsthand experience and deep appreciation for the sport to the coaching post. She competed in her first triathlon in 2009 when she was a college student and ended 2019 ranked 30th in the world in the women’s 30-34 age group. She is also a two-time Kona Ironman World Championship finisher and a six-time Ironman 70.3 World Championship qualifier.
Her enthusiasm for the sport translates into optimism about the future success of DU’s program. For one thing, Colorado offers one of the best locations in the world when it comes to training for triathlons.
“Denver is a perfect place for this sport,” she says. “I think we will be able to get a ton of athletes interested in the sport, [and] we will get some fast triathletes. Once we get things going, I think this will be a huge legacy for Denver.”
Women’s triathlon typically competes in the fall, but this year, thanks to COVID-19, USA Triathlon and the College Triathlon Coaches Association will be forced to look into the possibility of a spring championship. This affords Perkins more time to assemble a team that will be ready to compete later this academic year. Currently, she has recruited four club sports athletes and is continuing to look for additional student-athletes to make up the seven-woman team.
The three events comprising the collegiate triathlon are an open water 750-meter swim, 20-kilometer cycling and a 5-kilometer run. As in skiing—a sport in which Denver has won more national championships than any other institution—individual titles are awarded and team titles go to the school placing the most individuals with the highest overall finishes. Perkins is confident that it won’t be long before DU makes its mark.
“I think if we bring in the right people, within three to five years we can be competing for a national championship,” she says.
Her optimism is shared by triathlon aficionados throughout collegiate athletics. In a press release referencing DU’s new team, USA Triathlon CEO Rocky Harris hailed the University’s move to add the sport: “The addition of the University of Denver to the women’s collegiate triathlon family is groundbreaking for several reasons. Colorado is one of the nation’s thriving triathlon hubs. With DU’s prestigious academic reputation, and as the first Division I program in the state to add the sport, the school is sure to attract top student-athletes and become a force on the national stage.”
Even though it’s a new sport to campus, and even though the pandemic will make building a fan base more challenging, Perkins hopes students and alumni will embrace the new sport. After all, she has plans to give them something to cheer about.