On April 21, six varsity athletes tested their strength and mental fortitude in a competition unlike any other. At the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, the newly-formed Williams College Triathlon Club competed in the Collegiate Triathlon National Championships. The men were the sixth-best Div. III school to conquer the Olympic-length course, which consisted of a 1.5k swim, 40k bike ride and 10k run.
Of the six competitors, five were new to the event. Capitalizing on their winter training from swimming, nordic ski and cross country, the squad of Erik Anderson ’12, Dimitri Luethi ’12, Davis Filippell ’12, Greg McElroy ’12, John Armstrong ’13 and Liam Gallagher ’14 shocked the field in Alabama. Despite little formal experience, disparate equipment and difficult travel, the men finished sixth out of all Div. III teams at the event and top among NESCAC schools.
Filippell, who was inspired to compete in an Olympic triathlon after his experience on the Oxford triathlon team last year, formed the club this spring. When he first tried to register for the championship, Filippell learned that each athlete needed to be affiliated with the team at the event. And so Filippell launched a personal quest that was eventually realized in a written constitution, a successful student interest meeting, a post on daily messages and consideration by College Council (CC). His proposal passed the Student Organization Committee, albeit with reservations, and landed a vote in CC. Despite several skeptics, Filippell was able to persuade the motion to pass. “The turning point came when I told them that we had a broad interest group beyond just this one event … that would prove sustainability,” he said.
Filippell had one more hurdle to face, however. Since the Collegiate National Championship requires qualifying standards to be selected to the event, Filippell struggled to convince the event coordinators to invite his team. After several exchanges with multiple officials, Filippell was allowed to petition the invited schools to determine if Williams would be allowed to compete at Nationals. Incredibly, Filippell’s requests were met favorably, and Filippell amassed enough signatures from athletic departments across the country to guarantee the Ephs a spot at the coveted championship. Armed with CC’s approval and an official invitation, Filippell was ready to build a team and prepare the trip.
When Filippell learned that his proposal had been accepted, he and the team had less than three weeks’ time to prepare. “The preparation was a bare minimum for many of the competitors,” Armstrong said. “Most of us would have to rely on the our winter training to carry us through.”
Although each of the men excelled in a specific part of the race, their greatest difficulty was in piecing all of the legs together: One of the athletes had never ridden a bike before, and another could not swim more than 50 meters freestyle.
Despite these seemingly daunting impediments, the men embarked on the 1200-mile car ride with fresh faces and a strong sense of purpose. The men became more than just athletes on the car trip, they became teammates. “We were all athletic people, but we were all strangers,” Armstrong said. “We truly became a team that day.”
When the Ephs arrived in Tuscaloosa, they had missed the pre-race registration and had to wake up early the next morning to register. “They told us to arrive at 5:30 a.m. to check in,” Filippell said. “We figured we would be the first people there. We were the last team to arrive. The race didn’t start until 10 a.m., but several teams were already warming up four hours before the race. But we sat in our van.”
The men were surprised at the professionalism and intensity of the athletes at the event. The other competitors had racing bikes equipped with aerodynamic helmets, aerobars and special camelbacks for streamlined hydration. Although all six Ephs managed to acquire wetsuits and roadbikes, they stood out without aerodynamic equipment – only Anderson and Luethi had standard aerobars. Armstrong even noted that several athletes taped pills and other supplements to the handlebars of their bikes. “After careful scrutiny, as Williams College students, we realized that these pills were chemically incapable of having any effect,” Armstrong said proudly. “If not the most athletic team, we were clearly the most informed.”
Immediately before the race, the men decided to get excited with a Williams cheer. “Bizarrely, the entire crowd at the event was quiet,” Filippell said. “I guess cheering is not a thing at triathlons.” Despite this different race atmosphere, the Ephs felt comfortable. A welcome break from the high-pressure environment of NCAA Championships, the Triathlon Nationals were more relaxed. The competition revolved around conquering the course, not each other.
The race started well for the men. Since four of the Ephs are members of the varsity swim team, the men had a strong showing in the swim leg. The transition into the bike leg also went smoothly until Gallagher suffered a flat tire. The last portion of the race was difficult for the Ephs. It was at this point that exhaustion, dehydration and inescapable lethargy began to wear away at the men. But McElroy said it was made easier by the people at the event. “When athletes passed you on the course, they were quick to give some words of encouragement,” McElroy said. “It was a very supportive atmosphere.”
In a remarkable illustration of perseverance, all of the men successfully finished the race. The men finished 57th out of 75 collegiate teams participating and in sixth within their division. Filippell was the top scorer for the Ephs, finishing 155 out of 539 athletes. Luethi also notched an impressive performance, surpassing over 200 competitors after a difficult swim leg to finish 271st. Armstrong turned in the 37th-fastest swim in the field.
The men were proud that they completed what they set out to accomplish. “Our goal was to represent Williams College to the best of our ability,” Filippell said. And the men did just that. The success of the Triathlon Club is a testament to the institution that they represent. These six student-athletes had the courage, wherewithal and aptitude to create the club and the training and athleticism to pull through a grueling race.
For the men, this experience is likely one they will never forget. “We beat LSU,” Armstrong said. “So now we are the official purple-and-gold school of the nation.”