Eastern Mennonite University has added women's triathlon to their athletics program, with funding provided from a three-year USA Triathlon Foundation grant, In the NCAA, triathlon is classified as an emerging sport. Coaches and prospective student-athletes include (from left) assistant coach Joanna Friesen, Lydia Chappell Deckert, Emma Hoover, Abigail Shelly, Michaela Chowning, and head coach Bob Hepler, who leads EMU's cross country and track and field programs. (Photo by Macson McGuigan)

EMU becomes 10th D-III school to add women’s triathlon

EMU announces the addition of women’s triathlon to its athletic program. The program will begin its first competitive season this fall, with Head Cross Country and Track and Field Coach Bob Hepler taking on leadership, according to Director of Athletics Dave King.

Women’s collegiate triathlon, which features a 750-meter swim, a 20-kilometer bike ride and a 5-kilometer run, is classified by the NCAA as an “emerging sport.”

Leading the way for the addition, Eastern Mennonite University received a three-year grant from the USA Triathlon Foundation. With the grant essentially covering the expenses of the program through the 2021-22 season, and qualified coaches already on campus, Hepler said EMU was prepared to jump on a good wave and ride it.

“There is already an interest in the sport from the women of EMU,” he said, “and we have expert coaches on campus who are also enthusiastic. And there was this small window in time that if EMU acted quickly that we could apply for and receive a grant from the USA Triathlon Foundation that would pay for the first three years of the sport. We needed to act quickly to take advantage of the moment and, with the support of our administration, we did. As a result, we officially received a generous USA Triathlon Foundation grant, and we start practice on August 18. Kowabunga!”

Hepler himself spent many years as a competitive triathlete and participated seven times in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. Assistant Cross Country and Track and Field Coach Joanna Friesen will also give time to the new women’s triathlon team, and Professor Chad Gusler, an accomplished swim coach, will take on an assistant coach spot.

Bob Hepler, head coach of EMU’s track and field and cross country programs, will also coach the new women’s triathlon team. He is a former national-class triathlete and seven-time Ironman qualifier.

“A year ago, women’s triathlon at EMU wasn’t part of the conversations around strategic initiatives for enrollment growth,” King said. “However, the convergence of forces has created the ‘perfect storm’ and we are very excited about adding this new program. Bob Hepler’s knowledge, experience and passion for the sport, along with Shenandoah Valley’s rich biking culture, the interest level of distance runners in triathlon, the increased use of water training for runners and of course the support from USA Triathlon and funding opportunities from the USA Triathlon Foundation all add up to this being the ideal time to add the sport.”

With the addition of women’s triathlon, EMU now sponsors 19 collegiate sports. Women’s lacrosse will also be starting play in the spring of the 2019-20 academic year.

“USA Triathlon is pleased to welcome Eastern Mennonite University — a school that not only offers excellent academic and athletic opportunities, but also prioritizes service, social justice and global engagement — to the women’s NCAA triathlon family,” said Rocky Harris, CEO of USA Triathlon. “We are proud of the fact that, with the addition of EMU, prospective varsity triathletes now have eight universities in USA Triathlon’s Mideast Region to choose from.”

Because of the status of the sport, collegiate teams can participate in any event sanctioned by USA Triathlon, yet not necessarily hosted by an NCAA institution. Hepler is building a schedule for this fall to include events at various locations around Virginia, such as nearby in Charlottesville and Richmond.

With the cross training already being used in his program, Hepler says triathlon will supplement what he does with his runners in cross country and track and field. He envisions some of the women on his team participating in both sports.

King is also excited how triathlon could benefit existing students but also give EMU a unique draw to prospective students.

EMU is one of 10 Division III colleges and universities to support a women’s triathlon team.

“There is always excitement when new opportunities are made available to student-athletes in their pursuit of a holistic educational experience,” King said. “I’m grateful for the leadership that Coach Hepler has, and will continue to provide in establishing this program. Of course, this isn’t possible without the support of USA Triathlon, whose staff have been excellent to work with.”

Hepler is hosting an informational meeting this Thursday night at 7 p.m. in the Conference Room in the EMU Athletic Suite. The time is geared towards EMU students interested in joining the team, although anyone with questions regarding the sport are welcome to attend.

Triathlon was approved as an NCAA Emerging Sport for Women in 2014, and has a 10-year window to demonstrate sustainability as a NCAA sport option. Triathlon is a fall sport in the NCAA schedule, with the Women’s Collegiate National Championships generally set for early November.

About USA Triathlon
USA Triathlon is proud to serve as the National Governing Body for triathlon, as well as duathlon, aquathlon, aquabike, winter triathlon, off-road triathlon and paratriathlon in the United States. Founded in 1982, USA Triathlon sanctions more than 4,300 races and connects with nearly 500,000 members each year, making it the largest multisport organization in the world. In addition to its work with athletes, coaches, and race directors on the grassroots level, USA Triathlon provides leadership and support to elite athletes competing at international events, including International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Championships, Pan American Games and the Olympic and Paralympic Games. USA Triathlon is a proud member of the ITU and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC).

Current Varsity Collegiate Triathlon Programs (as of March 12, 2019)

NCAA Division I
Arizona State University (Tempe, Ariz.)
East Tennessee State University (Johnson City, Tenn.)
Hampton University (Hampton, Va.)
University of San Francisco (San Francisco. Calif.)
University of South Dakota (Vermillion, S.D.)
Wagner College (Staten Island, N.Y.)

NCAA Division II
American International College (Springfield, Mass.)
Belmont Abbey College (Belmont, N.C.)
Black Hills State University (Spearfish, S.D.)
Colorado Mesa University (Grand Junction, Colo.)
Daemen College (Amherst, N.Y.)
Davis & Elkins College (Elkins, W.V.)
Drury University (Springfield, Mo.)
King University (Bristol, Tenn.)
Montana State University Billings (Billings, Mont.)
Queens University of Charlotte (Charlotte, N.C.)
St. Thomas Aquinas College (Sparkill, N.Y.)
Southern Wesleyan University (Central, S.C.)

NCAA Division III
Calvin College (Grand Rapids, Mich.)
Concordia University Wisconsin (Mequon, Wis.)
Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, Va.)
Millikin University (Decatur, Ill.)
Milwaukee School of Engineering (Milwaukee, Wis.)
North Central College (Naperville, Ill.)
Northern Vermont University-Johnson (Johnson, Vt.)
Transylvania University (Lexington, Ky.)
Trine University (Angola, Ind.)
Willamette University (Salem, Ore.)