Cal Triathlon’s journey to Nationals

Erin Colletta/Courtesy

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Crammed amid thousands anxious college students from across the United States, 40 brave racers representing Cal Triathlon inched toward the edge of their seats and crossed their fingers last Saturday. It had been a long three days in Tempe, Ariz., for these athletes. Stepping off the plane on Thursday afternoon, they were cordially welcomed to the site of the Collegiate National Triathlon Championships by a scorching desert breeze and hundreds of scattered cacti. Friday was a rest day for most, but Cal’s top male and female triathletes placed third and second in the short, fast and highly competitive draft-legal race.

But Saturday’s Olympic-distance triathlon would decide the 2013 National Champions. With a promising lead from the draft-legal race, Cal’s male athletes plunged into Tempe Town Lake at 7:30 a.m., and after six heats, nearly 650 pairs of arms and bobbing swim caps fought toward the distant finish line. After almost a mile of swimming, the men speedily exchanged their wetsuits for bikes in the transition area and conquered about 24 miles of curvy Arizona roads. Finally, carried by burning leg muscles, the athletes slipped on their running shoes and raced 6.4 miles under the relentless Tempe sun.

“And in second place, we have the men from the University of California, Berkeley,” the announcer declared that night. Following the University of Colorado on the podium, Cal’s men gave an admirable performance with four individuals in the top 55 finishers.

But diving into the water at 11 a.m., Cal’s female triathletes promised a glorious race. With two professionals, a UC Berkeley swim team alumna and a handful of Cal Tri veterans, this women’s team has been dubbed the strongest in the club’s history. The Cal women battled more than 420 bodies in the swim, bike and run portions. Seemingly unfazed by these unforgiving conditions, they placed four individuals in the top 26 finishers, including two in the top four females.

And for the first time in Cal Triathlon’s history, the ladies took the national title, moving Colorado’s women into second place. After galloping onto the podium and posing for pictures, the victors settled back into their seats. One award remained.

The most coveted title, the Overall Team Combined honor, is bestowed annually on the best triathlon team in the United States, and for the past three years, it has been hoarded by the University of Colorado at Boulder. But this year was different. With an excruciatingly slim gap between Cal and Colorado’s athletes that day, the Bears knew they had a legitimate shot at the national title.

“In third place, we have the University of California, Los Angeles!” the announcer boomed. Clad in baby blue and yellow, our UCLA friends bounded gratefully onto the podium.

“And in second place, the University of California, Berkeley,” he intimated. Shocked and tinged with disappointment, the Bears walked steadily up to the stage amid Colorado’s jubilant cries. For the fourth year in a row, Boulder took the team title.

Staring into flashing cameras with manufactured smiles, the 40 Berkeley racers crowded onto the podium’s second tier. As the nation’s top triathletes walked back to their seats, the announcer added, “This year, we had one of the slimmest margins in history between our top two finishers. Cal Berkeley finished with 3,924 points. The University of Colorado had 3,926 points. It will probably never get this close again.”

And with that knowledge, the awards ceremony concluded. Lost in thought, the Bears drifted slowly to their vans and rode back to the Days Inn in virtual silence. But when tears surfaced and disappointments were voiced that night, 40 pairs of shoulders and 40 voices of sympathy rose to the occasion. There was no finger pointing, no sifting through the results, no “what ifs.” Cal Tri embraced the realities of the weekend without discrimination.

Even though sports movies and coaches often emphasize the importance of winning first place, most people don’t value the short walk to the podium or the color of their medal as much as you’d think. When the members of Cal Triathlon are telling their grandchildren about college five decades from now, that awards ceremony will hardly enter their thoughts. Lauri Takacsi will share the story of how he lost his front tooth descending Pinehurst Road on a slippery winter morning. Varun Pemmaraju will explain how he met his first girlfriend through the team. Shelley Harper will remember losing her voice from leading so many cheers on Saturday. Catharina Giudice will proudly tell of how she biked up Mount Diablo on a GU-only diet. They cherish the beach volleyball games in Oceanside, the Tri-Proms, the Wednesday night swims and the times they almost didn’t make it back to Berkeley while running or biking. Despite the huge concentration of talent, Cal Triathlon’s most noteworthy successes are its sense of camaraderie and the contagious passion that its members demonstrate for the sport, and we congratulate them for completing a season that will stand proudly in the record books.

Contact Katherine Velicki at [email protected]