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Pioneers empowered by new women's triathlon team

In their inaugural season as a varsity team, the University of Denver women's triathlon team is already blazing trails and setting expectations high.

DENVER — The 5am alarm comes quickly, especially with this lineup on the horizon: swim half a mile, cycle for 12.4 miles, and finish with a brisk 5K (3.1 mi). It's a grueling Sunday for some, but for University of Denver senior Amanda Ballard, it's like clockwork.

"I started doing little kid triathlons when I was little just with my swimming background," the former Lakewood High School swimmer said. "My mom would just sign us up randomly and tell us the morning of and wake us up at six in the morning and say 'hey, we're going to go do this!' It was not fun, but it felt really good afterwards."

Ballard started a triathlon club team at DU during the 2020-21 school year, when she didn't make the first installment of the varsity team. Due to the pandemic, that varsity team only participated in one race and wasn't able to earn scholarships or even recruit outside of the campus. Fast forward to the Fall 2021 semester -- the first-ever chance for a full season with a full squad of recruits -- Ballard was offered a spot on the inaugural DU Women's Triathlon team... and a scholarship.

"It felt pretty awesome," she said. "I'm a hard-worker, so it felt really satisfying to see that hard work pay off. And Barb [Perkins] is awesome. She was super supportive through the whole process."

Perkins was named the first-ever head coach of the women's triathlon team in the summer of 2021. Formerly the assistant coach of the swimming and diving team, Perkins has a strong background in swimming and triathlons, and even personally ended 2019 ranked 30th in the world in the women's 30-34 age group, the ninth-best ranked American in the division. She is a two-time Kona IRONMAN World Championship finisher (2017 and 2019) and a six-time IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship qualifier (2015-20).

Triathlon was approved in January 2014 as the next Emerging Sport for Women for NCAA Division I, II and III institutions. In 2021, it became the 17th varsity sport to make its mark on the Denver campus, and became only the third sport dedicated only to women.

"It's definitely an emerging sport for both women and men, but an all-women's team is super empowering," Ballard said.

"You have to feel like a little bit of a trailblazer, don't you?" I asked.

"A little bit, yeah, a Pioneer you could call it!" she laughed. "But I'm happy to leave what I've left behind and I hope this team continues to grow and get better."

As the Coloradan competed at her first-ever home event, she thought about the ones who inspired her and aimed to impress.

"I hope [my mom] is just proud. She definitely was the person throughout my swimming career to push me," Ballard said. "My dad was definitely more on the soccer side. But they've both been super supportive and they're just amazed that I've been able to do this just in the past year and how far I've come with it."

The Pioneers won the Oktobefest Sprint Triathlon on Sept. 19, with Ballard finishing in 11th place (1:13:48). Her freshman teammate Freya McKinley took home gold in only her second collegiate race ever, winning the individual title with a total time of 1:03:28. Graduate student Emily Pincus took second place (1:05:17), with freshman Avarie Faulkner rounding out the podium in third place (1:06:10).

For a team that formed only months ago, they have goals to reach the summit in only a short time.

"We've got fire now," Ballard said. "We want to comeback, we've got a comeback to make and a trail to set, so people watch out at NCAA's for us."

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