Is the USA set to dominate the women’s triathlon scene?

Columnist Tim Heming takes a look in his crystal ball and considers how triathlon becoming a college sport in the USA could impact the years ahead

An illustration of athletes on a podium

Triathlon is ready to be sworn in as a fully-fledged women’s college sport in the USA, says Tim Heming, and the impact could be huge.

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Interviewing Britain’s Sophie Coldwell for issue 402 of 220 Triathlon, I asked about the importance of ‘getting on the wheel’ of Olympic champion Flora Duffy during the bike leg. “Or Taylor Knibb’s,” was Coldwell’s rapid response.

It was a reminder that Knibb is making some impression at the senior level of this sport. Last year, aged 23, she became the youngest woman ever to qualify for the US Olympic triathlon team. Silver in the mixed relay followed, she set the fastest women’s time at the inaugural Collins Cup in Slovakia, and won the World Triathlon Grand Final in Edmonton.

Knibb graduated from Cornell University in 2020 where she competed in NCAA track and cross-country for four years and joined the swim team for her final year. She also squeezed in a bit of triathlon – becoming youth and U23 world champion.

As a hybrid way of competing, it has served her – and others – well. Alongside Britain, the USA leads the world in women’s competition. Gwen Jorgensen won Olympic gold in 2016; Katie Zafares bronze in 2021. Like Knibb, both competed at single sports throughout college, as did the third US Tokyo Olympian, Summer Rappaport. Unlike Knibb they were all recruited to triathlon mid-20s and post-education.

Taylor Knibb competes during the run leg of the World Triathlon race in Yokohama in 2021, which she’ll later go on to win (Credit: Nobuo Yano/Getty Images)

So, imagine the results the USA might produce if athletes of this calibre attended university on triathlon scholarships, trained by high-level coaches, learning their trade through high-level competition – even being given kit in their formative years to fast-track progress.

That’s the step the National Collegiate Athletic Association is about to take after women’s triathlon – nominated as an emerging sport since 2014 – reached its target of being included in 40 college programmes.

Imagine the results the USA might produce if athletes of this calibre had scholarships

USA Triathlon gave around $3.5 million in grants to institutions to develop their varsity women’s triathlon programmes, resulting in its ascent to fully-fledged NCAA sport status, replete with all the scholarships, competition, backing and exposure that goes with it. From 40 programmes, opportunities are now likely to rise exponentially.

It doesn’t guarantee world domination. The coaching and support structure has to be correct, of course. But after that it becomes a numbers game to an extent. Consider that around 500,000 US high-schoolers run track, 220,000 cross-country and 175,000 swim.

If even a fraction cross over to triathlon then it’s a turbo boost for the USA’s fortunes. Net result? Brace yourself to see the Stars & Stripes billowing above far more Olympic podiums in the years to come.

Only Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand have won two individual triathlon medals on the same Olympic podium. It might take until 2028 and beyond, but what price the USA women for that trifecta? 

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Top image credit: Dan Seex