Jeff Xu’s first practice with the triathlon club three years ago was traumatic, to say the least.
The athletes set out on their bikes, eventually crossing the George Washington Bridge and heading into New Jersey where the roads are more cyclist-friendly. The ride was supposed to be no-drop, meaning that everyone stayed together, but the lead rider thought otherwise.
“[The leader] was like, ‘I’m going to do my own workout, guys,’ and just flew away,” the Columbia College senior said. “And we were like, “What the fuck, we’re in New Jersey, what are we doing.’ So then I almost didn’t want to join triathlon club because of that.”
But Xu stuck with the club, making his way up to the executive board. He now serves as vice president and is piloting a bike-sharing program set to debut in the spring.
One of the greatest problems the club has seen with recruitment is that some potential members do not have access to bikes.
“A lot of people say, ‘I run and I swim, but I don’t have a bike or I didn’t bring it,’” Xu said.
Emulating programs at schools such as Harvard and Williams, Xu is spearheading a bike-loaner program that would alleviate this recruitment issue.
The club is planning to purchase bikes in the spring upon approval from Columbia’s General Council. Because the bikes would be the property of the University and substantial risk is involved, the officers were tasked with formulating a waiver and working with club sports administrators for approval.
The team will purchase the bikes using money saved by no longer hiring coaches to lead practice, which Xu estimates to be about $8,500.
“We realized we could free up a lot of money,” he said. “Then the next year, we had all this money on our hands and we were like, ‘what are we going to do with it?’”
Triathlon is on the rise. Conceived in 1974, the sport made its debut at the Olympics in 2000 and is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. Olympic Movement. The three-event competition, which includes biking, swimming, and running, was approved as an NCAA Emerging Sport for Women in early 2014 and is currently in a 10-year trial period to prove its viability as a collegiate varsity sport option.
But Xu said that obtaining varsity recognition is less than an afterthought for Columbia’s club. This year, the team chose to forgo its usual USA Triathlon Collegiate Club races in favor of more enjoyable races which are beginner-friendly.
“We have a lot of very top-quality athletes. It’s just that we decided as a club that we wanted to do more for our members—all of our members,” he said.
In the past, the club competed against collegiate clubs across the Northeast in races hosted by USA Triathlon. From these events, participants score individual and team points to qualify for the National Collegiate Championships. However, these races were very competitive, and as a club sport, Xu said that it was not the team’s priority.
“You can go to nationals if you’re a good athlete,” he said. “There are always ways to qualify.”
By passing on the conference races, the club has seen increases in its membership as well as the number of athletes who stick with the program. Currently, the club boasts a roster of around 30 members, with a larger number of undergraduates than usual. The club is open to anyone with a Dodge Fitness Center membership, including alumni and faculty.
Jessica Lu, the club’s secretary, joined the club during her first year in Morningside Heights, having never participated in triathlon before. The Barnard junior said that in the past, the club was mostly composed of grad students who wanted to “win, win, win.”
“They all graduated, and then it was just us,” she said. “We wanted to cater to people who are newbies and doing their first races … and to get more of a team atmosphere, because that was sort of lacking in the past few years. I think now it’s totally different.”