It’s a relatively quiet and gray Saturday morning on the UCLA campus, yet within the confines of the eight-lane swimming pool at the Student Activities Center, coach Gareth Thomas and a handful of his triathletes are hard at work.
Thomas stands off to the side with arms folded across his chest, keeping one eye out on his athletes’ mechanics and the other on the scoreboard’s digital clock.
Meanwhile, Brittany Day and her teammates are furiously pedaling away on the exercise bikes and simultaneously losing beads of chlorine water that drip down to the floor. Soon, they will jump back into the pool for another set of laps before returning to the bikes.
It’s a rigorous, amphibious routine for a weekend morning, but considering the state of the UCLA triathlon team nine years ago, such a structured regimen speaks to the ongoing growth of the program.
It was in 2001 that a student named Marcus George founded the team, but membership consisted of only six athletes back then, and the coaching was minimal.
“I was brought in to coach literally one hour a week,” Thomas said. “We didn’t have any uniforms or anything else to start with.”
Contrast that with the 2010 triathlon team that boasts 100 male and female athletes, and the evolution seems all the more remarkable.
Today, the makeup of the program ranges far and wide. From a world-renowned coach to a scholarship athlete to a community member whose experience with triathlon spans less than a year, the triathletes who represent this multi-faceted sport have come together via different routes. But one thing is clear: All have found common ground in arguably one of the most physically challenging sports.
For Stephanie Pacitto, a native of Toronto, what the city of Los Angeles has to offer is awe-inspiring.
“I call this a mecca for athletes; you can train year round, and to have that flexibility, I try not to take it for granted. It doesn’t get old for me,” she said.
Having an extensive background in running, the 30-year-old Pacitto recently decided to challenge herself by taking on a multisport, and in October, came across the UCLA triathlon program.
“I knew that I wanted to be coached, so I was thinking of the LA Tri Club, but there was nothing formal in the way of coaching, so I decided to go through the UCLA team,” Pacitto said.
Meanwhile, Brittany Day has accomplished what few others have during her four years on the triathlon team. This past year, Day was one of just four athletes to have been awarded a non-academic scholarship, making her mark as one of the elite athletes on the team. Yet given the demands of joining a triathlete program, she was initially reluctant to commit.
As a former member of the swim and cross country teams in high school and a former swimmer on the UCLA women’s swim team, Day was fully prepared to take on the swimming and running aspects of the sport, but not quite the biking part.
“It was scary at first,” she said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to be dedicated enough to get a bike because they can be pretty expensive.
“It was overwhelming because there were so many things to learn in terms of safety, bike maintenance, where to ride and how fast to ride. But the team here does a really good job of helping everyone out. We all know what it’s like to be new to biking, and that’s generally what most people have to get used to when they start triathlon.”
Now, having graduated UCLA as an accomplished triathlete, Day is eager to continue training, with the hopes of one day becoming a dietician.
As for the man at the helm, Thomas is as accomplished as they come. Prior to his arrival at UCLA six years ago, he had already established a reputation as a world-class endurance coach and athletic consultant. A former member of Team Great Britain at the World Long Distance Triathlon Championships, the England native has worked with top-tier athletes from all over the world, yet finds his occupation as a collegiate coach most rewarding.
“It was hard at first because everything was so basic,” Thomas said. “But I’ve come to love it much more than working with professional athletes because we have a great camaraderie, and the team is just really, really cool.
“Everybody socializes well together and trains well together. There’s just something about this team that is very special.”
And if today’s team of 100 determined athletes is of any indication, the future remains bright for Thomas and his burgeoning program.