When Mary Alex England lapped around the track for the final time as an Ole Miss runner in 2017, some may have thought her athletic career had ended. England, however, had other ideas.

A longtime swimmer turned runner in high school, England craved a new athletic challenge after graduation: triathlon. She and another former Division I runner, Stanford graduate Sophie Chase, accepted an invitation to join the USA Triathlon Collegiate Recruitment Program (CRP), a new training team designed to help recruit and develop former NCAA athletes into world-class triathletes.

“With this new sport, it’s nice because I don’t know much about the sport, so one, it’s been fun to learn,” England said. “And two, I’m pushing myself to my limits and seeing how far that can take me, I think that’s really important in sport.

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England came to the sport of triathlon with a swimming and running base, but her only biking experience was “casually riding around to different places” with her friends. Taking on new goals, however, is a task England is familiar with. As a walk-on at Ole Miss, she started running cross country her sophomore year and quickly became one of the team’s most valuable assets. She set a school records in the 5,000m and finished third all-time for Ole Miss in the 10,000m with a time of 33:47. Her standout performance helped attract the attention of USA Triathlon coaches who thought her combination of endurance, speed and discipline could transfer to nicely to multisport racing.

The transition to triathlon, however, would require nearly triple the training, triple the intensity, and triple the challenge.

During her college career, England completed what she called a “low-mileage plan,” running approximately 50 miles and 12 hours of aerobic activity every week. Now, she and Chase work out up to 30 hours a week, and the workouts are tailored specifically to each athlete’s individual goals with the overall intention to help them gain the skills and speed necessary to compete at the highest level in the sport.

“It’s so different because with triathlon you can handle much more volume than you can strictly running just because swimming, biking and running use completely different muscles groups,” England said. “Running is so hard on your body with all the pounding in the legs, but swimming and biking are very low-intensity aerobic activity, body wise, so that’s been a big change.”

Making the jump from a single-sport athlete working out less than 15 hours a week to three-sport athlete training 30 hours was not an easy process, England said. She relied heavily on the wisdom of the program’s head coach Jarrod Evans to help her not only learn bike technique and triathlon rules but to also assist her in training her body to handle heavy amounts of training. England and Chase moved through the development process under Evans' instructions, and he started them out on low-intensity plans and gradually increased the difficulty to help them adjust to the elite triathlon lifestyle.

“It’s a lot more mentally and physically demanding than college was,” Chase said. “I’ve been challenged to do things and perform at a level that I’ve never been challenged to do before, and that can be a little scary at first.”

The training sessions England and Chase complete now typically include some kind of intensity element every single day, Chase said, and this could be everything from hill runs to speed sessions on the bike to all-out swim sets. The idea behind the fast, focused, swimming, biking and running training sessions is to teach the athletes how to string together three strong segments during a race, and, in the competitive field of elite triathlon, Chase and England will need to be racing at top speed for the entire duration of the Olympic distance triathlon (1.5k swim, 40k bike, 10k run) event to stay in the elite group of racers.

“A big jump for me has been learning how to run off a really hard bike,” Chase said. “I think for me it's just that mindset shift as well as just knowing that the first 1k to mile off the bike isn’t going to feel great, but I just have to focus on form and cadence rather than the effort.”  

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A hard day of training could include as much as a four-hour ride, a 90-minute hard run and a 90-minute hard swim, but England and Chase have made the adjustment to the heavy volume without sacrificing their speed. They continue to work through the training in a structured manner, with rest, training and racing layered scientifically in an online training dairy created custom for them. Chase and England are also supported financially by USA Triathlon and other sponsors as a way to allow them to focus exclusively on performing and becoming elite multisport racers.

“I would say that the goal is for us to transition from primarily a run background to a multisport background,” Chase said. “This program has had a really good track record of producing some of the best women in the sport for the US…It’s just an incredible program that gives you the support at the very early basic level in the sport and then [provides] the foundation to then move up in World Cup, WTS [World Triathlon Series] rankings, and hopefully making the Olympic team.”

Chasing Gold

According to the CPR website, 19 of the 22 Olympic triathletes in the sport’s history have been former NCAA runners or swimmers, and Evans, the head coach of the Collegiate Recruitment Program, hopes he can add more athletes to that list with the help of CPR’s catered training and support.

One of the most notable CPR graduates, Gwen Jorgensen, competed in her first Olympics in London 2012 after being recruited into the sport by CPR leader Barb Lindquist. Four years later, Jorgensen raced in the Olympics again, this time joined by another CPR athlete and former NCAA runner Katie Zaferes. Jorgensen went on to win gold in the Rio Olympics, the first gold medal for a U.S. woman in the sports Olympic history, while Zaferes finished 18th. Zaferes is still competing in elite triathlon; Jorgensen has now transitioned into marathon running where she is running around 100 miles a week and hopes to qualify for, and win gold at, the Tokyo Olympics.

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Both Jorgensen and Zaferes came from top-performing Division I track programs, Wisconsin and Syracuse respectively, and Evans believes the collegiate recruitment program is helping to strengthen the pipeline from collegiate running to Olympic triathlon. He is also is quick to point out that the NCAA cross country and track experience has helped prepare his athletes for the rigors of elite triathlon training, and Chase agrees. She credits her NCAA running experience for helping her learn resiliency and balance, two traits that she has been able to apply to her triathlon career both in training and in racing.

The sooner the athletes can move into the elite racing scene, the sooner Evans can bring in the next batch of athletes and keep widening the talent pool.

“The biggest thing that I ended up bringing from my running background and from my college years is still having strength and just being more of an all-around athlete versus just being one distance runner,” Chase said. “I think the other side of it, is the mental aspect of it. A lot of distance runners in college go through really hard times and injuries, and I think at the end of the day those things ended up making me tougher and just able to not take running and take my abilities and things like that for granted.”

Patience with the process

Since 2009, Evans and his team have been recruiting top NCAA swimmers and runners like Chase and England who meet benchmarks in their secondary sport and are interested in learning more about triathlon. The process to join the CPR team, however, remains competitive, and USA Triathlon can only support up to eight athletes at a time. Both England and Chase received invitations to learn more about the program while in college, and while they each met the running time standard to be involved in the program, they had to spend time training the swim before they were eligible to join. The program requires that female runners who race a 5K on the track in at 16:20 or faster must meet swim times as fast as 1:03 for 100 yards and 6:00 for 500 yards.

Once an athlete enters the program, he or she works with Evans to develop an individual training program that will help foster continual improvement. Athletes must meet certain personalized standards to continue in the program, and Evans runs up to 25 training sessions a week, some of them group workouts and others designed for just one athlete. Evans said he hopes to take single-sport NCAA athletes and help them gain multisport skills as fast as possible, so these athletes can become professional and move on to a new training system. His athletes share this goal and train with the mission to earn a professional status and earn top finishes as quickly as possible.

“The goal of this is to transition us from NCAA runners into top ITU [International Triathlon Union] triathletes as quickly as possible,” England said.

Transitioning into ITU-level racing involves more than just gaining strength and fitness, however. Chase and England have also been working on the small elements of racing such as bike handling, transitions, open water swimming technique and run form. To improve their balance on the bike, Chase and England needed to learn how to ride on rollers, a stationary machine that includes a base, and two medal cylinders where the bike wheel rest and spin as the bike moves, forcing the athlete to stay upright and well as keeping an even pedal stroke. However, each workout and skill session is still designed with the athlete in mind and created to help strengthen certain elements of an individual's racing strategy. 

“Our program is athlete-centric, everything revolves around them as individuals and also as athletes,” Evans said. “This job is athlete driven - they want to win, and I want them to win, but it's a process of development.” 

The program continues to produce top-level, winning athletes, but Evans said USA Triathlon is constantly looking for new ways to draw more people into the sport and develop them at a faster rate.

“We’re already looking at ways we can engage NCAA programs and high school programs, so we can keep an eye on athletes earlier,” Evans said. “Triathlon is moving towards full NCAA inclusion and if that happens, I don’t think you need to be a rocket scientist to realize the sport will get larger at the collegiate and post-collegiate level.”

Evans hopes that as triathlon increases in popularity, more NCAA athletes will find the sport, and with the Olympics just two years away, the timing of triathlon’s growth couldn’t be better. USA Triathlon will enter the 2020 Games with the goal of producing more standout performances, and now, because of the CPR program, former runners turned triathlete England and Chase could have a shot at qualifying for the Games and delivering those results.