by Dezmond Remington
A grueling, painful, death march. Triathlon, in the minds of many people, can typically be summed up with adjectives like these. In this sport made up of three endurance events already immensely challenging on their own, competitors race in a 750 meter swim, a 20 kilometer bike ride, and a five kilometer run. The words “fun,” “supportive,” and “enjoyable” do not often come up. However, Head Cal Poly Humboldt Women’s Triathlon Coach Kinsey Laine hopes to build a team which embodies that positive energy.
“My main goal for all of my athletes is that they enjoy their experience,” Laine said. “The way that they’re going to ultimately improve in the sport is by being excited to come to practice.”
Laine has experience fostering these environments with her athletes. Before coming to Humboldt, Laine was a triathlon coach at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado, and before that she was the swim coach at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. While at Colorado Mesa in 2021, her team placed fourth at the National Championships in Tempe, Arizona, and had three All-American finishers. Laine has also raced long-course triathlon professionally, but that ended when the pandemic started and she started coaching at Colorado Mesa.
This prior experience has prepared her to coach athletes like junior Elizabeth Odell and sophomore Emily Cates, who like triathlon as a way to avoid injury and seek new challenges.
When Odell first heard about the nascent triathlon team, she wasn’t too interested. However, the lower risk of crashing appealed to her, and she started learning how to swim and run this past spring. Though difficult, Odell said the process of picking up two new sports has been enjoyable.
“It’s been a good change. I’m not always comparing my times to how fast I was a year ago or something,” Odell said. “It’s just completely new. So all I’m seeing are gains and it’s just all pretty much getting better.”
Getting away from the stress of injuries was also a motivating factor for Cates when she joined the triathlon team. From a running background, Cates had dealt with a spate of overuse injuries that had left her stressed and frustrated. Training for triathlon, where two out of the three disciplines are zero-impact, was attractive.
“I realized that running, just running, was not going to be sustainable for me,” Cates said. “And it’s a great opportunity to cross-train, and if I’m going to be cross-training that much on my own, I might as well race it and have another team atmosphere.”
Cates has not quit running entirely; she is also on the cross country and track teams at Cal Poly Humboldt. Being a dual-sport athlete does have its challenges, Cates said, as it’s often tiring to train for two sports at once. Recently, she went straight from a swim workout directly to a mile repeat workout for cross country.
Hosting this unique sport puts CPH in a unique position– it is the only Division II school on the west coast to offer a women’s triathlon team. Only two other NCAA affiliated schools on the west coast have a team. Laine sees this fresh start as a great opportunity.
“I think in three to four years this team is going to be competitive at the national level for DII,” Laine said. “There are teams that have been around five or six seasons, but there is instability in those teams, so we’re not five to six years behind. I think we can come in, and then in a few short years be competitive against those schools.”
Women’s triathlon in the NCAA is a new sport – the NCAA classified it as an “emerging sport” for women in 2014, and currently there are only 17 Division II schools that host triathlon. Triathlon is only available as a women’s sport in the NCAA.
The largest challenge facing the fledgling team is the late start– Laine was hired on a fairly short notice, and as such, there are only four races the team is scheduled for this season.
Recruiting is mainly coming from current students with a background in running or swimming or both. A few of the prospective athletes do have a past racing triathlon. The roster will be kept small, with the eventual goal of 9-12 athletes on the team.
“[I want] a small, focused group of people that are very supportive of one another…but also really passionate about the sport,” Laine said. “As a coach, you can’t make them want to be better at triathlon–they have to provide that passion.”
Odell agrees. She has a background in mountain biking, but when a bicycle crash in January fractured her neck and gave her a severe concussion, she had to re-evaluate how she wanted to compete. She had to drop out of most of her classes and move home, and could barely walk for two months.
“About two and a half months in, I was able to go for a two mile walk, and that was so exciting for me,” Odell said. “Just walking around the block my head would start pounding. It took me like five months to become a functional human being again.”
The late start and injury-riddled pasts of many triathletes has not made getting the team off the ground easy. However, Cates said she couldn’t wait to race and see what her teammates can do.
“I’m excited to know them, to get to travel with them,” said Cates. “They seem like really awesome, dedicated people, and I think we’re going to make an awesome team this year.”