ASK ROCKY HARRIS, the former athletic director at Arizona State University (ASU) and current CEO of USA Triathlon, why he hired Cliff English to coach the women’s triathlon team at ASU and his answer might surprise you.
“I hired Cliff because during his interview, he told us that his goal was to help the athletes develop to their full potential,” Harris says. “He said his approach would eventually result in championship teams, but that wasn’t the first priority.”
English was, in fact, not completely truthful when he made that statement. There was no “eventual” in the process at all – last fall, ASU scored its second NCAA women’s triathlon national championship (there have only been two), confirming its status as the premier women’s program in the U.S.
It should come as little surprise that English would coach a program to such success. In some ways it’s surprising that English even went after the ASU position. He got the call for his final interview the day after the Ironman World Championship and had to take the red-eye to Phoenix to be at the school in time for the fourhour final interview. His coaching roster at the time included 28 elite competitors, 16 of them pros, including a who’s who of ITU and long-distance racing – names like Leanda Cave, Heather Jackson, Ashleigh Gentle, Josh Amberger and Hunter Kemper. English’s resumé also includes working with athletes like 70.3 world champ and Olympian Samantha Mcglone (who he was married to for many years) and Tim O’donnell, who he helped to an ITU world title and the American Ironman record.
Born in Montreal, English’s coaching career spans almost 30 years. He fondly remembers his days as a masters swim coach in Montreal – one year he had a relay team with a combined age of over 320 years. The four men set three world records and seven national records.
“The one guy was 84 years old and was swimming 1:19 for 100 free,” English remembers.
Over the years English worked his way through the system – personal coaching, Mcgill University’s triathlon club, some time spent with the USA Triathlon program in Colorado Springs and that impressive elite squad that racked up so many titles. This made the step to college coach that much more difficult.
“After all I worked for almost three decades, to have to say ‘shop’s closed for now’ was very hard,” he says.
He hasn’t completely “closed shop,” though. He continues to work with a small group of pros including Liz Lyles, Asa Lundstrum, Justin Daerr, Blake Becker and a few agegroup athletes. But most of his time is now spent working with the 12 young women who are part of the ASU program.
Although he has been living in the United States for a number of years, Canada remains very close to his heart. He doesn’t miss the mornings he would wake up for a swim practice in Montreal and see only a pile of snow where his car was parked the night before, and his parents remain in Montreal and provide regular weather updates for him. He’s also enjoyed that the ASU program has welcomed two of Canada’s most promising juniors: Hannah Henry, last year’s NCAA champ and Kyla Roy, who finished third. (Their teammate Germany’s Charlotte Ahrens finished second.) He stays in touch with Triathlon Canada to work on race plans and training schedules to ensure Henry and Roy both follow a reasonable path toward their Olympic aspirations.
“Some schools might be looking for national titles, but for me the Olympics is always special… and I’m very fortunate to have ended up at a school that has those ambitions,” he says.
Two for two is a pretty good record when it comes to national titles, but my bet is Cliff English won’t be too upset when the inevitable time comes that ASU doesn’t win. When Harris hired English three years ago he didn’t know it, but he was making his life easier in his new role with USA Triathlon. With a program like Cliff English’s to emulate, the NCAA women’s triathlon program has a very bright future.—km