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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

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