In fall 2019, the USF women’s triathlon team became the fifth NCAA Division I program, joining Arizona State University, East Tennessee State University, the University of South Dakota, and Wagner College in sponsoring the sport. Triathlon beyond the club sector is fairly new in and of itself, becoming an NCAA Emerging Sport for Women in 2014, which would officially acknowledge athletes at the NCAA level.
USF Head Coach Gina Kehr found herself in the middle of a transition period when the NCAA movement for triathlon was being discussed. As a triathlon coach for Stanford University’s club team at the time, she noticed schools such as NCAA Division ll’s Queen’s University of Charlotte make the shift to hosting a club as well as NCAA-sanctioned sport. “There were obviously a lot of growing pains, but I didn’t really know a whole lot was going on,” Kehr said. “I did know I still very much wanted to be a part of it.”
After finishing her eligibility for collegiate swimming at the California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, Kehr, who is a part of the 2002 Hall of Fame at San Francisco State University for her two years of swimming with the Gators before transferring, wanted to continue her athletic journey. Although she never tried cycling or running, she decided to play as a walk-on for a local club triathlon team in San Luis Obispo. This would not be an easy feat, though, as a triathlon consists of a 750-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike ride, and a 5-kilometer run.
“That’s kind of what triathlon is about, and it’s really grown and where it is with NCAA is really amazing, but back then, that’s kind of how you did things. You were just like, I’ll give it a try,” Kehr said,
Kehr’s courage paid off as she went on to race professionally with International Triathlon Union racing and finished eighth at the 2000 Olympic Trials. She would later finish with a women’s top ten finish at the Ironman World Championships.
Through her many athletic endeavors, Kehr found that tenacity is one of her most valuable qualities. “The tenacity to keep pushing is what I brought as an athlete to coaching,” Kehr said. “When you’re doing races that are an hour, [and] when your first two minutes don’t go the way that you want, if you don’t stay gritty and focused you can be missing a lot because those first minutes should affect what happens over the course of an hour.”
The Dons themselves have made strides towards their national championship goal this season. Trailing just behind four-time national champion Arizona State University, they have hit second place in all three of their past regional qualifiers this season, achieving a team time of 1:50.43 against Arizona State’s 1:49.01 in Tempe, Arizona for the USA Collegiate National Championship on Sep. 18.
“I’m really about trying to create a culture that wins national championships, that has competition, but that is friendly, empowering and uplifting, [a] very safe environment,” Kehr said.
The team took to Tempe, Arizona Nov. 13 for the Women’s Collegiate National Championships and finished second as a team within their division. Kira Gupta-Baltazar grabbed the individual champion win with a time of 1:04.20, as well as Gillian Cridge and Molly Elliot who finished third and fourth place on behalf of the Dons to close out the fall season on a record breaking note.
“The win yesterday felt especially good because it wasn’t for me. The girls and I have put our literal blood, sweat and tears into training for this race and it was special that I could help us get here today. I am so grateful for the support of my coaches and for USF for giving us an incredible opportunity to train in such a special environment and culture here in San Francisco. We are just getting started as a team and are well on our way to a national championship next year,” Gupta-Baltazar said in a statement to the Dons Athletics’ official website.
The team starts back up Feb. 19 for the Tritonman hosted by the University of California, San Diego to kickoff the spring season.