St. Xavier High School’s triathlon team grew from an idea, to a vision, to a club, to a national championship in less than four years.
The Bombers claimed the 2019 independent club high school national championship on April 5 in Tempe, Arizona. This was the first year such a division existed, and St. Xavier (Cincinnati) can forever claim its title as the first independent high school national champions.
“They started announcing teams and the next thing you know, we heard our name and it was immediate euphoria. It was pretty cool,” said Jim Murphy Jr., the program’s founder and director.
Many of the top teams competing on the national stage are regional clubs, not confined to one high school. Even against such top-tier programs casting a far wider net, the Bombers held their own.
“We also finished third in the country against the elite regional teams, which was shocking,” said Murphy. “They appreciate the fact that collectively as a team they were able to go up against the big boys.”
Ohio is not thought of as a triathlon hotbed, but there is no better time to be a triathlete in the Midwest. This year will be the ninth in a row that USA Triathlon holds its Youth & Junior National Championships in West Chester, in August. The Ohio State age group and high school championship is in Columbus in July. The USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships will be in Cleveland for the second straight year in 2019.
The passion for the sport continues to grow locally. While the Bombers are the only high school team in the area, there has been interest at St. Ursula, Sycamore, Indian Hill and Wyoming.
“We worked closely with USA Triathlon as they launched this (high school) program. We wanted to do it the right way and make a blueprint so that other schools in the GCL or in public school districts could start their own. Someone has to have that passion to get it off the ground,” Murphy said. “As we put the word out, we found parents who were triathletes, kids who had some interest, and it really has just gone from there.
“Now we’re seeing younger siblings and middle school kids who are thinking about triathlon who weren’t before. This is starting to have an impact. We’ve had several parents who knew nothing about triathlon watch their kids do it, then they go do one. It’s become a really feel-good story in that way.”
The Bombers have benefited from the coaching of Colin Riley, a professional triathlete and former amateur national champion. They also have the support of the Cincinnati Triathlon Club, run by St. Xavier alums Chris Macke and Justin Bifro. Still, it takes a special mental toughness to compete in a grueling sport with little payoff.
“This is a sport where you don’t get to play every weekend or twice a week. You’re going to practice, practice, practice, and build up to one race,” said Murphy. “They get it. They’re in it for the camaraderie of it. It’s something new. They’re loving it.”
While they traveled to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for the national championships the past two years, Murphy did not expect to pull off the trip to Tempe this season. But the team’s five seniors and the team parents were committed to the experience. Nine Bombers made the trip. The national championship was a pleasant surprise.
“We had a blast,” said Murphy. “This was a really fun cherry on top.”
The program had a breakthrough when the school allowed the triathletes to convert an old storage closet into a training studio. The program has expanded to allow middle school aged students to train with them, even those who may not end up attending St. Xavier. Growing a new sport at the high school ranks takes a committed effort.
“I’ll give a lot of credit to the schools themselves. They acknowledge that there are only so many spots on the basketball, soccer, football team. They’re trying to find new things, so when something like this comes along, they embrace it,” said Murphy. “We have this really feel-good thing where everybody is working together to help the kids out and provide equipment.”
There was not a concerted effort to recruit from the already successful St. Xavier athletic programs. Naturally, swimmers and runners decided they wanted to challenge themselves for more than one season. Even the eventual national champions had a steep learning curve.
“Our swimmers are animals as far as their endurance. By far, it was the easiest for them. Cross country runners had limited swimming experience. Nobody had a cycling background, which I was kind of surprised by. They all had to learn how to bike,” said Murphy. “We commonly referred to ourselves as the Bad News Bears of triathlon. Everybody went through a learning phase.”
The passion for competition and camaraderie is what has fueled the TriBombers. The college club national championships occur in conjunction with the high school championships, and will be held in Tempe again next year. The Bombers seniors, who four years ago had not competed in a triathlon, are looking forward to continuing to compete.
Someday, Murphy expects, a TriBombers alum will come back to direct the program.
“Our older kids are already talking about coming back in the summers and training with us, competing at the collegiate club event and seeing us there.”