Sonni Dyer, Head Coach at Queens Univ of Charlotte on Club vs NCAA Triathlon
We sat down with Sonni Dyer, Head Coach at Queens University of Charlotte the other day for a chat on the difference between his NCAA women's triathlon squad and his club triathlon programs.
Add to this the fact that Queens University of Charlotte just announced it will transition from NCAA D-II to NCAA D-I starting 2022-2023, and the theme of our conversation got an additional, very unique twist on top of the already interesting differences such as eligibility, pro-status, age of the athletes, scholarships, practice schedules and race formats.
"What I'm looking for is a lot of what's up here between their two ears!"
Queens has been a powerhouse within the sport of triathlon for many years, not only the NCAA women, but also at the club level.
While most people may have heard of the NCAA squad, we were specifically interested to learn more about the club level, how things work compared to the usual NCAA way and the co-existence of such programs at a school.
For starters, let's recap on a couple of important things to set the scene for the conversation:
How Can Triathlon Be Both A Varsity Sport (NCAA) & Club Sport?
Triathlon is a NCAA sport on the women's side, but not a sponsored sport on the men's side for Title IX reasons.
Club sports don't underly NCAA rules, but a school is free to offer any number of sports as part of their athletic programs alongside NCAA-governed sports. While some schools differentiate club sports clearly from varsity sports, you would have to dig deep to understand this technical difference at other schools, such as Queens University for example, which lists men's triathlon among other varsity sports.
Essentially, NCAA and club programs are separately functioning programs and if an institution were to decide to run a NCAA program, this does not necessarily consitute the end of a before-established club program. With regards to the status of the club and NCAA programs, such decisions would be made by collegiate institutions.
Triathlon Race Format
- Draft Legal Racing
- Non-Draft Racing (Club)
- Mixed Relay (Club)
Queens University of Charlotte - Triathlon Powerhouse
The athletics department at Queens runs the following 3 triathlon teams:
- NCAA women's: Independent member in its inaugural D1 season (the ASUN conference doesn't yet sponsor triathlon)
6x Varsity NCAA D2 National Champions
- Club women's: Mid Atlantic College Triathlon Conference
2x Overall Collegiate Club National Champions
- Club men's: Mid Atlantic College Triathlon Conference
2x Men's Collegiate Club National Champions
2x Overall Collegiate Club National Champions
With that said, enjoy the interview we did with Sonni Dyer some weeks ago, who not only runs one of the most successful triathlon programs, but who also sets the direction and standard for other NCAA schools looking to build sustainable triathlon programs, with (men's) club teams being an important building block to maintain a healthy roster size:
"You don't ever help a gender by excluding a gender. We brought on men and women and ironically by bringing on men and women, we're a sustainable women's varsity program, which - guess what - helps women!"
Differences Between NCAA Triathlon Programs & Club Triathlon Programs
SMARTHLETE: Do your athletes regard each other as one team? Is there a lot of interaction between them?
HEAD COACH DYER: We have a saying, "one team, three squads" is essentially what it is.
You know, it's a men's team and in collegiate club you race draft legal sprint, you race Olympic distance non draft and then you also have the opportunity to race mixed team relay.
Then we have what we call a women's long course squad and that long course squad race is non draft Olympic but then they're also racing a sprint distance race and a mixed team relay with the men. Another reason that you want a collegiate club men's and women's team, so that they can compete together for the overall; because that mixed team relay score means if you don't score there, you're not going to win the overall collegiate club nationals.
And then we have a women's NCAA squad which does race sprint distance sometimes super sprint, but also it's draft legal. And so for me, it's a matter of not all female triathletes are going to be draft legal specialists. They're not all going to have that front end swim. They're not all going to run the sub 18 5K, that kind of thing. There are going to be some non draft stars out there that would be excluded by NCAA triathlon if we did not have a long course women's squad. And so to be able to offer "the round hole for the round pegs and the square hole for the square pegs" is a good thing. That's really what we want to do: I want to put our athletes in the best position to succeed. Yeah, that's the best place to make a travel squad, the best place to score, the best place to earn a championship ring, basically.
SMARTHLETE: That means as a female, for example, you have the option of moving into the NCAA team if you were to start as a club athlete, so to say?
HEAD COACH DYER: And just like any student can show up on campus and try out for the men's football team and make that squad. Yes! You can start on the long course squad and move to the NCAA squad. And I've had individuals who came in thinking they wanted to try the draft legal racing out, and after a season realize, "draft racing is not for me. I'd rather go the long course route and then move in the opposite direction with that as well." So yes, it's about really fitting people where they're going to have the best opportunity for success.
SMARTHLETE: To what extent is the practice schedule different for club teams? Because as a NCAA student, you're subject to certain rules in terms of hours and competitions. Do do you basically run the same practice schedule across or does it mean that there are some differences in volume?
HEAD COACH DYER: There are some differences. The long course women, obviously, their long runs, their long rides get longer. The NCAA women will do a session each week where it's more rotation team tactics, where we're chasing hard, we're working on different race scenarios because it is very tactical. Obviously, you don't want to chase your own teammates down, you know what I mean? There's more of a bike racing element to draft legal racing than non draft racing and that kind of thing. So there are some nuances there that we specify that we specialize in for different squads and things like that. But I mean, that's even the case on our men's squad where we have some short course draft legal folks and then we have some long course non draft men. But then some of those sessions, just because of lane time and things like that in the pool, happen to be at the same time, same session. It's a mixed bag of a lot of things.
SMARTHLETE: Do any of your athletes also compete in another sport at Queens, such as track, cross-country or swimming, or are they purely triathletes?
HEAD COACH DYER: We've had some athletes earn a roster spot in CC/track team. And even one on the QU swim team.
SMARTHLETE: It is the national champion!
HEAD COACH DYER: That's right. Division II swim team. So I've had one female who has in the past made our swim team. That's very difficult to do. But I've got several women and quite a few men who made our men's and women's cross country and track teams as well. So like this past year, Mathurin Boutte, he's from France, went 29:32 for 10K. He came as a triathlete, has also run track. Fatima Alanis: when she showed up she was a mid 17, high 17 5K runner and this past year she ran 16:04 which would have put her #12 among all Division 1 women in indoor track and field. So yes, as they develop, they do have options to be able to run cross country and track.
SMARTHLETE: That means if you are a male club athlete with, let's say 50% tuition (scholarship) and then you do run for the cross country team. Maybe you get a couple of percentages on top of that, right?
HEAD COACH DYER: Exactly!
SMARTHLETE: Now, speaking about scholarship budgets, could you elaborate a little bit on what that looks like? On the women's side, you work with an NCAA budget that is limited. And on the men's and women's club team side, that depends on just the model that the school provides you with?
HEAD COACH DYER: That's exactly right. We're working with equivalency on the NCAA side. As a Division II school, our equivalency was 5 scholarships that we had to offer and divide. Yet at the NCAA Division I side of things it bumps to 6.5, so you get 1.5 more scholarships. Doesn't sound like a lot, makes a world of difference when you get 1.5 more scholarships.
Historically, we've always been "D1-competitive" despite the lower D2 equivalency. This is why I recruit excellent students who're capable of earning more academic $. It's reflected in their work ethic and GPA!
In our transition from D2 to D1, we won't get to D1 equivalency overnight. But we'll get there gradually.
On the collegiate club side of things any merit-based grant $ is strictly determined by the school's admissions department.
SMARTHLETE: Makes sense! What I was also wondering about is, could you give us an example of what a typical practice week looks like? Just because I know from experience that's what athletes are so interested in. And some even ask, do I get to practice enough? So can you give us a take both for club and NCAA, even though I do think it's probably going to be very similar and/or the same.
HEAD COACH DYER: Sequence is going to be roughly the same. But, for instance, for NCAA women, we're going to swim five days a week, Monday through Friday. The Thursday swim is more stroke-focused and it is optional. I mean, we as NCAA coaches, we have to give our athletes a day off each week. For a lot of sports, it‘s a Sunday or a Saturday. For us - by proximity of the geography of where our campus lies - that's the best days for us to get out on the road without traffic. So from a safety standpoint, we switch that „off“ or „coach-unobserved“ day to Thursday. So if they want to come in during an open swim time and do some stroke work in the water, that's on them, it's their choice. But it is a „coach-unobserved“ day. Our hard swims are Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Those easy stroke focused swims are Tuesday, Thursday, and then on Sunday evenings we offer a recovery swim option again if somebody wants to come in. So that's the swim training.
The run training, we'll do an interval session on Tuesday mornings. On Fridays, we'll do more of a Friday morning tempo and then there's a long run on Sundays that they can do. We usually do that in a park on soft surfaces.
For the bike, there may be a morning run in there. Also, we try to schedule some time with our strength coach so that they can do some functional Pre-T, for injury prevention, because there’s a lot of volume. On the bike we do our NCAA women's kind of group team rotation and paceline ride on a Wednesday and we do that immediately out of the water. So we'll do like a hard set in the water and then immediately out on the bikes. We have a 5K criterium loop that comes around our campus, which is really convenient because we get right out of the water (...) just like a race and work on our grouping or paceline or attacks or tactical scenarios, things like that. So and then we do the long ride on Saturdays. That long ride can be 3 hours, could be up to 4 hours max. And then after the Wednesday, you know, swim to rotation ride, we'll work on transitions as well. Then Thursdays again is on their own. They can ride easy, they can swim easy, they can run easy. It really depends on their recovery status and what they need. That's kind of a day in the life.
SMARTHLETE: What is the biggest misconception with club sports in your experience and opinion?
HEAD COACH DYER: I think the biggest misconception is that it is less competitive than NCAA; and exactly the opposite is true. And the reason is, number 1: it's been around 20 plus years. Number 2, which you have to understand with club sports, at least in the sport of triathlon, is most of the top club athletes have already exhausted their NCAA eligibility in swimming or running or even some other sport. So a lot of times and a lot of these guys are coming in as former All-Americans in swimming, former All-Americans in running and that kind of thing. Then they decide to become professional triathletes. And so as professional triathletes at the club level, they're not subject to the same amateurism rules as NCAA athletes are. They already have sponsorship deals, they're older athletes, they may be coming to grad school, etc. It is very competitive at the collegiate club level.
SMARTHLETE: See, that's something I haven't even thought of. So that means on average, your club team roster is older, right? And your club team roster has already come further in their "educational path", so to say?
HEAD COACH DYER: Yes. In 2019, our top male on our team is a guy named Jack Felix, who had run at Clemson for years and was just above a 4-minute mile.
SMARTHLETE: Right. Got to be a pretty strong runner there.
HEAD COACH DYER: Exactly. And then came in to triathlon. Last year Alec Mundt who was an All-American, four year, four time all-American at Oklahoma Baptist, and an Olympic trials swimmer for the country of Denmark, came in as a triathlete. We kind of coached him up to a point where he's done a 3:47 Half Ironman and he's a professional triathlete now. So we have several guys, Keegan Hurley, who's a member of our team now. He's a former runner at Iowa State. I mean, we have a lot of Division I athletes who come to us kind of with a … searching a second athletic life collegiately for triathlon.
SMARTHLETE: Do you see a lot of them then adding on a second bachelor, or is that usually a grad degree for two years?
HEAD COACH DYER: Usually grad school, usually it's an MBA or master's of communications. One of our top female club athletes, Julia Flower, ran four years at Iona College and now she earned her pro card in fact, a couple of weeks ago at a Half Ironman. So it's competitive. (laughs)
SMARTHLETE: Interesting, that's really a key difference for everybody being in that situation. That means you're essentially able to recruit professionals, while that is strictly forbidden by NCAA rules?Basically, that's what I'm trying to get at.
HEAD COACH DYER: Yes, they could get support with equipment for example. But we are in a situation now and going from Division II to Division I, where, if a male grad student, for instance, does not meet the NCAA eligibility requirements any longer, he cannot train with NCAA women.
SMARTHLETE: Makes sense!
HEAD COACH DYER: Yes, for a male to train with NCAA women, he also has to be NCAA eligible, you know. But that's fairly easy to manage on our end. We don't have a lot of our NCAA women who are riding with our professional males all the time under coach-observed practice.
SMARTHLETE: Interesting. One question that we had prepared for you, turned out a little different: how do you go about recruiting your athletes? You're obviously looking at high school graduates, but given the club squds, your pool is naturally way larger than that.
HEAD COACH DYER: Yes. So interestingly, in the first four or five years, it was just a matter of me beating the streets, "stalking" people on social media, going through lists and lists of race results and different things like that, going to a lot of junior elite races. Winning sure helps to build our athlete-development reputation and brand. And this helps recruiting.
SMARTHLETE: The big question always is how good an athlete do I need to be? What are the main things you're looking for in a recruit? I understand it's most likely academics, it's got to be to some extent, personality, mentality. But what comes first, needless to say, is the athletic component, right?
HEAD COACH DYER: That's a great question, because I've had some kids come to us and on paper … We are at an advantage in the sport of triathlon because triathletes are not born, they're made, you know. And so what I'm looking for is a lot of what's up here between their two ears as opposed to are they 6‘8’’, are they 280 pounds? What do "they run the 40 in"? I mean, all those classic components and metrics. For us, I've had some kids that because they were just very mentally strong and determined and disciplined as human beings and student athletes, they came to us with very average metrics who are no longer average at all. You know what I mean? We've got a kid who came from Germany. And in Germany as a long course athlete right now, you know, he came to us just honestly, very average, good swimmer, not a great swimmer, good cyclist, not a great cyclist, and really not even that good of a runner. He has become a phenomenal swimmer / cyclist and now his run is really getting there as well. I mean, he's a kid that will be a professional triathlete at some point just through that development process. So what I'm looking for is someone that is willing to embrace the process for someone who ... I tell people all the time, I'm looking for someone who's going to be a professional triathlete, whether they were going to come to Queens or not, because I'm not going to babysit them because it's too hard work. Our sport is a lot of work. It's a lot of miles and I'm not going to force anyone to work hard for 4 years. So essentially if they're going to do it, we’re in and they're going to do it with or without us:
"We want to offer the coaching and academic medium that allows those who're willing to do the work, to thrive in a Tri-optimized student athlete environment."
SMARTHLETE: Out of curiosity, which sport is least important in the sense that you’re not that All-Star right from the beginning? Is it racing, is it running, is it swimming?
HEAD COACH DYER: Depends if you’re long-course or draft legal. If you’re draft legal, you've got to be able to swim. Because the swim positions you on the pack and the pack determines where you’re going to run from, you know what I mean. And so you’ve got to be able to swim. … From a coaching standpoint, we can coach a lot of the bike, on the draft legal side of things. I came from a professional cycling background. I was a high school and collegiate Division 1 runner, I racebiked in Belgium and Europe and then I came back to the United States and did triathlon. So I can coach a lot of cycling in that way for draft legal athletes. For the long course kids, it’s really a lot about the bike, that bike/run combo and so, on the bike, if you’re not a good cyclist, you could lose 5, 6, 7 minutes on the bike. On the other hand, if you’re not a great swimmer, you would only lose 1 or 2 or 3 minutes on the swim. So, it’s different for non-draft and draft legal. Draft legal really rewards swimming and running, non-draft really rewards the bike.
To get a bit of an idea, we look at below metrics:
- Swim (500 yards)
- - Women: Sub 06:20
- - Men: Sub 05:50
- Bike (20K solo - TT)
- - Women: hold 32K/hour
- - Men: hold 38K/hour
- Run (5,000m)
- - Women: Sub 19:00
- - Men: Sub 17:30
SMARTHLETE: Sonni, thank you so much for sharing those insights with us & our readers! This has been super interesting!
Any questions about triathlon, club sports or triathlon? Feel free to share with us at email@example.com and we'll get back to you with an answer.
Photo credit: Queens University of Charlotte