When Jake Pickett arrived at Cal Poly as a freshman three years ago, he probably never expected to be in the position he is today.
Like most newcomers to the Cal Poly Triathlon Team, Pickett had almost no competitive experience in any of the three events — run, swim and bike — but was intrigued by the inclusiveness of the largest club sport on campus.
The junior software engineering major from Laguna Hills ascended the ranks to become team president in June 2015, and he now oversees a thriving program that is considered among the top in the country.
“Honestly, it’s a rewarding experience,” Pickett said, “to see everything come to fruition, to see people benefit how I benefited as a freshman. It’s taught me a lot of things: leadership, responsibility, patience.”
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With the diverse Central Coast landscape as a training backdrop — tracing Poly Canyon Road on foot or biking up and over the Cuesta Grade — there are few dull moments during the seven-month season.
Pickett said there are between 35 and 40 student organizers who keep the club running smoothly, including 15 officers, eight assistant coaches and three race committees who direct three events annually in San Luis Obispo County.
“There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes,” Pickett said of the 160-member club.
The impressive participation numbers have translated into success.
Cal Poly placed ninth overall out of more than 150 teams at the USA Triathlon Collegiate Club National Championships last April at Clemson University Campus Beach in South Carolina. The Olympic-distance course encompasses a 1,500-meter swim, followed by a 24.8-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run.
Even bigger things are expected this spring.
Cal Poly has developed a reputation as one of the teams to beat in the West Coast Collegiate Triathlon Conference, which includes 18 schools from California and one from Nevada. With many of last year’s top finishers still on the roster, athletes and coaches say a top-five finish at nationals — held April 21-22 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama — is potentially within reach.
“Triathlon has an atmosphere that is pretty uncommon for other sports,” senior Devin Volk said. “The competitors are very encouraging to the other people racing and all the competitors in general. It’s more like a family.”
Similar to Pickett, Volk had no prior experience when he joined the Cal Poly Triathlon Team as a freshman. He came from a more diverse athletic background than most, having competed in soccer, baseball, track and cross country when he attended Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis, Oregon.
Fast forward four years, and Volk is arguably the top male athlete on the triathlon team. He placed 19th overall out of 757 competitors at nationals a year ago, completing the course in 2 hours, 4 minutes, 28.98 seconds. He trailed the individual champion, Mike Meehan of Penn State, by less than 7 minutes.
Volk called it “a breakthrough performance” and said he’s working toward a potential top-10 finish this season. He also plans to compete for the triathlon team next year as he completes his degree in biology, a luxury of not having to worry about athletic eligibility.
“With all our studies and everything,” Volk said, “you need to take time out for yourself, clear your mind, get rid of some stuff, and that’s really helpful with training.”
Student head coach Julia Mace, who oversees head run coach Denis Pyryev, head bike coach Joe DeCesaro and head swim coach Jamie Nelson, among others, said the team has become considerably more competitive at the top end in her three years as a member.
Mace also helps coordinate a diverse practice schedule, which generally includes three swim sessions, four bike practices and four running workouts each week. Practices are structured based on experience and ability, allowing for each member to meet their individual goals.
“The seriousness and competitiveness is getting a lot higher,” said Mace, a junior studying recreation, parks and tourism administration. “In the past, it used to be a few top athletes and then a lot of people who just enjoyed it. Now the level has definitely raised, which is cool to see.
“But there’s definitely a place for people who just want to do it socially.”
That’s an important sentiment for the majority of the team, even for those pursuing a trip to nationals. Mace said the plane tickets have already been purchased for the trip to Tuscaloosa in April, and fundraising plays a key role in covering those expenses. Member dues also help, with returning members paying $140 annually and newcomers paying $190 for the year.
“It’s obviously expensive to get to Alabama with plane tickets, hotel costs, bike transportation,” Pickett said. “So the team usually subsidizes about half of that cost or more. … Athletes probably end up paying about $300 out of pocket, which is still less than half of what it would cost normally for each athlete to go.”
Though Cal Poly has already determined who it will send to nationals, four events remain on the schedule over the next two months. The March Triathlon Series, the longest running collegiate triathlon on the West Coast, will be held March 26 in Cayucos and serve as the WCCTC championship meet.
It’s going to be held at a new location this year after the highly popular Wildflower Triathlon was canceled in October because of low water levels in Lake San Antonio, where the swim portion usually took place.
In the meantime, Cal Poly will continue with its proven training regimen, covering the trails along Montaña de Oro State Park or navigating the vineyards in Edna Valley en route to Pismo Beach.
“I think the biggest thing is just camaraderie,” Mace said. “... There’s a spot for everyone. As long as you’re showing up to practice and you’re a good person, the team loves you and you definitely have respect.”
Cal Poly March Triathlon Series
What: The longest running collegiate triathlon on the West Coast
When: March 26
Course: Racers will complete a 1,500-meter swim with two laps around Cayucos Pier, a four-lap, 24.8-mile bike ride on Cayucos Creek Drive and a 6.2-mile run alongside the coast.
Get involved: For Cal Poly students interested in joining the team, visit calpolytriathlon.com.