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How Wingate triathletes placed second nationally in inaugural season
by Chuck Gordon

Nick Radkewich was in a remote fishing village in Japan, back in the ’90s, when he realized that the new wheel he’d brought with him from the States didn’t fit his racing bike. Excited to compete in his first international triathlon, a harried Radkewich scouted around for a solution.

“There was no bike shop,” he says. “They sent me to a guy in an alleyway who had a bucket full of washers, and he just figured out a way to make it fit.”

Last fall, Radkewich was that guy. From his windowless office deep in the Cannon Complex, the former Olympian dealt with any number of obstacles and challenges – canceled races, injured runners, jet-lagged athletes and, yes, broken bikes – as he led Wingate’s first triathlon teams.

It’s a good thing that “Coach Rad” is something of an overachiever. Many triathletes are. In fact, it’s kind of in the job description. You don’t bike 300 miles a week on top of swimming 20 miles on top of running 40 miles without having ambitious goals, the organizational skills of Leslie Knope and a motor that won’t quit. “I think all the other coaches and people in the athletic department, they know we’re a little crazy now,” Radkewich says.

Radkewich fashioned a bike rack out of materials he bought at Home Depot, so his team could more realistically practice transitions from swim to bike and bike to run. He devised countless swim workouts to accommodate athletes with a range of aquatic abilities. He kept up the incredible recruiting he started a year earlier.

The biggest thing he’s done since arriving on campus in October of 2020 is, in barely a year, to build a national-championship contender from scratch, serving notice to the powerhouse just 45 minutes away that Wingate is in it to win it.

Wingate triathlete on a bike

The vast majority of nascent triathlon programs bring in a mix of athletes, some  (sometimes all) of whom have never competed in a triathlon before. They’re accomplished runners or swimmers, but they have to learn the other disciplines and figure out how to put it all together.

All but one of the Bulldog athletes Radkewich recruited were triathletes before coming to Wingate.

“I was a bit blown away by the quality that we got, by the number that we got,” Radkewich says. “To be honest with you, at the end of the spring when I sat down and looked at my team, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. We’re going to be good.’”

And they were, possibly beyond his expectations. In the NCAA Division II national championships in November of 2021, Wingate’s women’s team placed second overall (to six-time champion Queens University of Charlotte). And freshman Finja Schierl took home the individual gold medal in the middle of a personal whirlwind of a fall season.

The team members knew they had a pretty strong team, but even they were taken aback somewhat by how well they did.

“To finish second in our first season is pretty crazy,” says freshman Dylan Kirchner.

While the team looks forward to potentially an even better result next season, let’s take a look at how they went from 0 to 60 so fast.

Startups draw interest

Triathletes could be considered jacks (and jills) of all trades – which perhaps implies masters of none. Radkewich, a member of the first U.S. Olympic triathlon team, admits to getting into the sport because he was “mediocre at all three” events. But in reality, most triathletes are pretty close to being masters of several trades. Radkewich ran cross country at Notre Dame and won a conference title in track and field, in the 5000 meters. Schierl is one of Wingate’s top cross country runners, earning All-American status at the nationals a week after winning the NCAA Division II triathlon title.

Female triathlete running alongside bike

In truth, most triathletes migrate to the sport not because they couldn’t master any one leg of it but because they love the combination of the three. Schierl, a former competitive swimmer who favored the individual medley over any one stroke, likes the variety. “I’m bad at deciding,” she says. Kirchner says, “It’s more dynamic than running.”

For the uninitiated, triathlon is some combination of swimming, cycling and running, most often in a continuous race (hence the focus on making quick, seamless transitions). The collegiate sport starts with a 750-meter swim, most often in open water, followed by a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) bike ride and 5k (3.1-mile) footrace. For those couch-to-5k’ers out there who just grimaced, know that you’re not alone. It’s a grueling sport.

In most triathlon races, it’s the stitching together of the three disciplines that generates much of the excitement. Transitions can play a huge role in the outcome. Have trouble peeling off your wetsuit or stumble a bit while slipping on your shoes and you can lose valuable positioning.

Having three disciplines also creates room for strategic moves. Schierl came into the nationals knowing she needed to perform well in the swim and bike portions of the event if she was going to best the 2019 champion, Davis & Elkin’s Natalia Hidalgo Martinez. Schierl won the regional event despite being outpaced by the Spaniard by 40 seconds in the running leg, so she knew that in the nationals she’d have a tough time pulling away if they were deadlocked after swim and bike.

“It ended up that I had a really good swim, and she did too,” Schierl says. “I didn’t think I could beat her in the run, because 40 seconds is a lot. We managed to be on the bike alone in the front. I tried to do smart biking. I tried to get her pretty tired. I tried to do some smart moves. I think I managed that pretty good.” Schierl won by 10 seconds.

Schierl, who placed 15th at the World Junior Triathlon Championships a week before winning the NCAAs, was a huge catch for Radkewich. But with the nation’s top program not even an hour down the road, how did he persuade her to enroll at Wingate, which didn’t even have a program yet?

One reason was the natural tendency for triathletes to do things the hard way. “I don’t want to get into the best team, because I think it’s much cooler when you can build up and maybe be the best team one day,” Schierl says. “If I went there (to Queens), I would be winning the nationals, and then I would be like, ‘What can I do now?’”

“I was excited that it was a new program,” Kirchner says. “Something I thought was cool was being part of something that’s just starting up, I guess.”

Being Radkewich’s first recruit, Kirchner really took a leap of faith. “I need people,” she told her would-be coach. “If you can promise me you’ll get me a team, then I’ll come. I can’t train alone.”

Within a few days, he’d added another recruit. Things snowballed from there, and Radkewich wound up with eight women and eight men.

Landing the German Schierl was huge. She liked that Radkewich had competed in the Olympics (finishing 40th in Sydney in 2000) and that she would be able to also run track and cross country, something that not every school would let her do.

“And then, we had guys,” Radkewich says.

Get a men’s team

For women, triathlon is an “emerging sport,” according to the NCAA. That means that teams follow all the normal NCAA rules and get to compete for a title, but it’s still not a full-fledged championship sport. It’s growing, however, and will most likely be fully sanctioned in the coming years.

For the men, it’s a different story. Wingate fields a club team, since the NCAA doesn’t even consider triathlon “emerging” for men. But there, Wingate’s program is in a little bit of a gray area. “A traditional club sport would be student-funded and student-run,” Radkewich says. “Maybe there would be a faculty advisor. Obviously, we have a coach, we have a budget, scholarships. For the most part we follow NCAA rules.”

Wingate male triathletes riding bikes

This is one area in which Radkewich can be thankful that he signed on to coach at Wingate. The recipient of the past 13 Echols Athletic Excellence Awards (the 2022 award will be handed out this month), Wingate’s athletics department is serious about winning. While some triathlon programs have just three or four athletes and often don’t bother fielding a men’s team, Radkewich was given the resources to create two full squads.

Fielding a men’s team provides a boon when it comes to recruiting women. The teams train together, so the men, in addition to preparing for their own competitions, serve as rabbits for the women’s team. “It’s always good to train with people who are better than you,” says Julia Kekkonen, the women’s team’s only sophomore.

When Radkewich posts photos on Instagram of his female athletes riding alongside their male counterparts, it confers an advantage in recruiting. Someone like Schierl, who has Olympic aspirations, wants to train alongside the strongest athletes possible. “To some of the elite women, like Finja, that’s more attractive than just going and being on a team with seven or eight girls,” Radkewich says.

Then again, she can be pushed by her female teammates, too. Kekkonen, from Finland, placed fourth in the nationals, despite coming off a foot injury that limited her to pool and bike workouts leading up to the event. Kirchner finished 16th.

Finja Schierl head shot

And it goes without saying that Schierl motivates her teammates. A competitive swimmer in her youth who turned to triathlon to emulate her older brother, Schierl is unrelenting in her drive and determination. She has her eyes on making the Olympics one day, and, according to Radkewich, “she’ll definitely be a candidate for it.”

Radkewich expresses some loving exasperation when discussing Schierl, who spent consecutive weekends in Portugal, Arizona and Florida this fall, competing in the World Juniors, the NCAA triathlon nationals and then the cross country nationals. “She’s got to learn a little bit of patience, and she’s got to make some tough decisions sometimes,” he says. “She chooses to do everything – literally everything.”

The first alternate for the German team going to the World Junior Championships last fall, Schierl found out two weeks before the event that a spot had opened up for her. The problem was that they were being held only six days before the NCAA championships – and on the Iberian peninsula, 4,000 miles away.

Radkewich would have rather had Schierl stay in Wingate and train for the nationals, especially considering that she was the favorite after winning the regional event. But he left the decision up to her. “I talked to so many friends here, on the cross country team and the triathlon team, and everyone said, ‘Go!’” Schierl says. “Everyone said they would go. You have to take the opportunity.”

Also, Radkewich knew it would be slightly hypocritical of him to deny her the chance. In high school, he ran in the state cross country meet in Tampa one Saturday morning, drove back to Orlando and swam in the state meet that night. In college, he drove his cross country coach nuts. “I did the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon on a Sunday,” Radkewich says, “took a red-eye from San Francisco to South Bend and showed up for the first day of cross country practice. I could barely walk. My coach was like, ‘You’re not running in the first meet.’ So, when Finja comes at me with some kind of insanity, I’m like, ‘Ahhh. Do as I say, not as I did.’”

It’s tough to control someone with Schierl’s passion, drive and independent spirit, and Radkewich tries only so much. She would compete in a sanctioned race “twice a week,” he says, if that were possible (five races is usually plenty for a season). “She just likes to compete,” he says. “I definitely wouldn’t want to race against her. She’s just a competitor.”

Place (and coach) are important

Radkewich is hands-on as a coach, but not too much. He maps out training strategies and programs, is always poolside during the daily 11 a.m. swim sessions, and often rides along during cycling runs. But he also gives his athletes plenty of leeway to do what they deem best for themselves.

“He’s really good at listening to suggestions,” Kirchner says. “After regionals we had a meeting, and we discussed with him what we think could help us improve, and what we saw in our race that we needed to adjust or address. He’s really good about taking that and putting it into workouts.”

Nick Radkewich at practice

“There are so many coaches who don’t listen to their athletes and just train them hard, and they don’t get better and then they wonder why,” Schierl says. “I think it’s important that the coaches ask you how you feel. He cares that we really listen to our body. That’s important for a coach.”

The team members also respect his background. He’s been there, done that, got the T-shirt. Not many people have competed in the Olympics, after all.

Radkewich also benefits from coaching in rural North Carolina. “Back home we don’t have a lot of places to cycle,” says Kirchner, who hails from suburban Pittsburgh. “Here it’s so good for cycling. It’s mostly back roads.”

The weather in the Piedmont of North Carolina is also more conducive to training year-round. Kekkonen transferred to Wingate from St. Thomas Aquinas in New York for a variety of reasons, but weather was near the top of the list. “It’s so warm, compared to how it is back home,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to train all the time outside.”

Will all of that training lead to a national title? After all, Queens also has a men’s team, benefits from North Carolina’s weather, and has a six-pack of national titles under its belt.

Wingate’s group of motivated triathletes is at least going to shoot for them.

“Definitely,” Kekkonen says.

“I think it’s possible,” Kirchner says. “Obviously they have a lot more experience than us. They’ve had a team for so long. But I think we’re heading in that direction.”