Saturday, June 15, 2024

Michigan State University senior Jackson Harrell shows off his club gear after a practice session at MSU on May 16, 2024.

The MSU Triathlon Club earned respect at the National Championships. Now it needs the respect of the university.

The Michigan State Triathlon Club recently attended the USA Triathlon National Championships in California, where the relay team placed fourth among 44 teams -- the club’s best finish ever in that event. Marketing senior Jack Harrell, a three-year member of the club, placed fifth in the draft legal race and ninth in the Olympic race.

But even though the club had three standout performances in nationals and has gained more popularity in recent years, it is still treated as a regular registered student organization, or RSO, in the eyes of the university. Members of the club do not agree with this classification and have been pushing for specific changes they deem necessary in order for the club to maintain its competitiveness and ranking status.

Harrell wasn’t always a triathlete; he swam in high school and eventually went on bike rides and runs with friends before eventually joining the MSU Triathlon Club his freshman year. Just a few weeks ago, Harrell attended nationals, a triathlon event he said is like no other.

“College nationals is by far and away the most energetic event out there,” Harrell said. “There’s nothing like that.”

He went on to place and play a role in Michigan State’s historic performances, an experience he said was completely worth all of the practice that it took to make it to California.

“It felt pretty insane to be up there,” Harrell said. “I was extremely proud to be there with my teammates and see all the progress that not only I’ve made but also to see everyone else’s (hard work) pay off.”

Mechanical engineering junior Annie Suranyi, one of Harrell’s teammates who raced in nationals, has been a part of the club for two years. This year, she realized how special it was to attend nationals and take part of an event where dozens of colleges meet.

Suranyi said that at nationals, every team is “decked out in gear, everyone is chatting” and groups of students come together to “sing songs and dance around” before the races start. And, during the races, people from various universities cheer each other on, combatting the cutthroat behavior often associated with triathlon races.

But at nationals, Harrell realized a huge difference that separated the other universities from Michigan State: overall funding.

“There are varsity teams across the country that compete at nationals, and when I go there, I’m just a member of the Michigan State student-run organization,” Harrell said. “I’m competing against multiple teams that have athletes on scholarships.”

Other schools were receiving more funding and resources for their triathlon club; some students received scholarships to be a part of the club. More importantly, the clubs have more resources for facilities. Michigan State Triathlon Club members don’t have access to either. 

“Triathlon can be an expensive sport, so the more funding, the better,” human biology senior and four-year club member Matthew Dull said. “(Funding from the school) can be very beneficial to us.”

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The MSU Triathlon Club is funded like any other RSO. The club can apply to receive up to $4,500 in funds, but logistically, having to fly out 25 students to California, pay for their food and housing and transport their bikes, that amount isn’t enough. 

The club ended up raising over $25,000 through fundraisers and could pay for everything except each person’s flight; every attendee had to pay for their plane ticket. Fundraising efforts included hosting an indoor triathlon called the Sparty Tri, a "Swim-a-Thon" where each participant pledged a certain amount of money per lap over the course of 30 minutes and general crowdfunding. By the end, an anonymous person donated $10,000 to the club.

The funding that Michigan State gives the club is not enough, some members said, which has been a continuous problem among other issues that, in the club’s opinion, need to be fixed.

Another problem that has plagued the club is its lack of a solidified spin room. In the past, the club has rented out spin rooms in IM East and West, which the club pays for, but the members weren't able to practice biking on their own bikes. Instead, they had to practice on the stationary bikes in the room.

Dull mentioned that in his three-year experience, spin locations would change every year and the time slots would change depending on a few factors, leading to inconsistencies. 

“We need facilities if we’re meant to develop as a team, but it’s hard because a lot of the time you can’t get them and there’s just not enough to go around,” Harrell said.

Because the club doesn’t have its own spin room, members are forced to practice in their dorms, apartments or houses if they want to use their bikes outside of practice time, which takes up a lot of space. 

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Suranyi had her triathlon bike and training bike in her dorm which “took up so much room,” and caused her to work out by herself and not with the team, something the club tries to avoid. 

“Between the benefits of practicing on our own bikes – just because everybody’s fit and shape is different – and also being able to train together rather than apart would be so amazing,” Suranyi said.

The club practices swimming on Monday and Wednesday, runs every Tuesday, does a spin session every Thursday and a “brick” workout – a bike and run workout – every Sunday. This schedule in its best and most effective form helps the club’s members form better relationships and get closer with one other while also making each other better in all three sports.

Recent psychology and human capital in society graduate Connor Johns, who was a part of the club for four years, said that the spin room issue can affect each person’s performance because practicing on a stationary bike not adjusted to one's fit will worsen their performance. 

“I’ve been in the club the past three years and I only saw gains in my biking really this year because I was able to rent a house, and so I was able to set my bike up in the house,” Johns said. “But before, I was in a dorm and an apartment, so it didn’t make sense to (set the bike up). I think having a bike room would be super beneficial. I’d be super invested in making (a bike room) happen.”

Dull said that not having a set spin room designated for the Triathlon Club can deter new people away from the club, especially if they need to improve their biking skills. 

“For new people, you want to expose them to the good sides of biking, and it’s not as good of a space for it if you’re stuck in your dorm,” Dull said. “It’s not really as fun.”

So what exactly does the club want? Harrell figured it out while at nationals and hearing about the triathlon club’s bike/spin facility at Queens University of Charlotte.

The university designated a spin room where the club members can store their bikes and have keycard access so people outside the club can’t go in and steal them. This way, the entire club can practice together using its own bikes adjusted to fits and builds. Harrell said the club would even pay for the room.

Harrell doesn’t think Michigan State University will accept such a request from a club.

“I wish the university treated us a little bit more like a varsity sport. We don’t deserve a full-on varsity status but we definitely deserve more facilities than we have,” Harrell said. “We have no priority at all, we’re just treated as a normal RSO, when in reality, it’s a lot more than that. We’re competing at a ridiculously high level where there isn’t any other outlet.”

With new historical performances and the club gaining more popularity, Harrell and teammates are trying to earn more respect from the university to possibly persuade them into designating a spin room.

“We are doing everything in our power to try and gain some access to more facilities,” Harrell said. “The future of the club is related to that. It’s just continuing to develop as a serious club and gaining respect in that regard, so we need to gain the respect and favor of higher-up university officials.”

As the club pushes forward in making changes, its members haven’t forgotten what they truly are: a group of college students who all share similar interests and want to improve their running, swimming and biking skills while creating friendships.

“It’s a great opportunity to stay in shape, meet really cool people and do fun things,” Johns said.

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