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Swim, Bike, Run: Willamette’s Women’s Triathlon team dominates the Pacific Northwest and beyond

by Sophie Cipolla,

Willamette’s program, the first NCAA Varsity program of its kind in the Pacific Northwest, has garnered significant national recognition in less than three years since its inception.

Coach , who most recently was honored as an , has been an assistant coach of and at Willamette since the fall of 2006. When the university announced it would be starting a women's triathlon program, he was intrigued at the prospect of building a program in an emerging sport for women.

The Women's Triathlon team
Willamette hosts Cal Poly Humboldt in Salem, Oregon on Sept. 3, 2023. Pictured: Paulina Pioszak, Natalie Thomas, Veronica Castille, Molly Parsons, Alessandra Armenta-Lopez.

Willamette’s intimate campus and broad offerings of extracurricular activities provide students with many opportunities to practice leadership and achieve excellence outside of their academic studies — something Franz has experienced since coming to Willamette.

“I have seen how a Willamette education can be paired with a high-level athletic experience and how transformational it can be for a student-athlete,” Franz said.

Thanks to his leadership and the team’s eight dedicated student-athletes, Willamette’s triathlon program has reached soaring heights. In 2024, the triathlon team and four Bearcat triathletes were named Scholar All-American for the 2023 season. That is not their only accolade. The group walked away with two All-American medals and the Division III National Freshman of the Year Award, given to Riga Grubis BA’27.

Coach Franz
Coach Brett Franz and the Women's Triathlon Team on Sept. 3, 2023.

“This year, as the Regional race was unfolding, we were in the mix for a top 3 finish, and being able to see the breakthrough races from a few of the student-athletes was amazing to watch,” Franz shared. “Watching the team receive the runner-up trophy at the West Regional Championships was a huge highlight of my 20 years in coaching — to have a group with very little experience in the sport come together and be competitive so quickly was incredible.”

What is even more remarkable about the team’s success is that no member had a triathlon-specific background. Rather, each student came to the sport as either a dedicated runner or swimmer. Franz’s goal is to continue to create an environment where participants are galvanized by the program and motivated to challenge themselves.

“Honestly, all of the student-athletes on the roster bring something unique and strengthen the program so much,” Franz said. “They each have an amazing story.”

The team’s ultimate goal is to be the best NCAA Division III program in the country. Given how quickly the Bearcats have charted a winning trajectory for themselves, that goal seems well within reach.

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