More than 1,500 student athletes competed in 35 club sports teams at CU last year, and 21 of those clubs went on to their national championships. The list of sports includes baseball, crew, dance, field hockey, freestyle skiing, hockey, soccer, lacrosse, rugby, soccer, softball, swimming, ultimate, volleyball, water polo — even fly fishing, though that’s a more recreational undertaking.
On average, CU wins two or three of those championships each year. This year, the triathlon, swimming/ diving and freestyle skiing teams won. In 2005, club sports won an unprecedented five national championships.
Getting teams to nationals has gotten harder in the 25 years since Kris Schoech, director of club sports and a former hockey team member, started working with student athletes at CU.
“Each national governing body now has qualifications for teams to even go to nationals, so they’re not allowing just anybody to go; you have to actually qualify to get there,” Schoech says. “So the criteria for getting into the national tournament is getting tougher and tougher each year. To win two and three and still compete on that level is a great attribute to the students that come here. We’ve been really fortunate to have a lot of talented athletes come here who could play on Division I teams elsewhere, and they come here for the academics.”
Club sport athletes take seriously the fact that they’re representing CU, just like varsity athletes, he says.
Teams practice two or three times a week with games on week ends. And getting on a team is not as easy as just paying membership dues. Tryouts for the 44 spots on the soccer team can see up to 150 aspiring athletes.
“We try to set them up with that mentality of yes, it’s not a varsity sport, but it is very, very competitive,” Schoech says.
And the attitude is infectious. Though the triathlon team faces 12 hours of practice a week, including four swims, four runs and three or four bike rides a week, head coach Michael Ricci says that’s not what’s brought them their 13th national championship title.
“I think that the training honestly is probably a small piece of what makes the team successful, and it’s really about the camaraderie of the team,” he says. “It’s a close-knit group.”
Younger students starting out have role models for how to behave on the team, he says, but there’s also a support system for students on the team.
“Being on the triathlon team helped with my adjustment to college so much,” says Tess Amer, a senior psychology major at CU and president of the CU triathlon team. “I live out of state, so when I got here, I didn’t know that many people or have that many friends. You’re just kind of clueless and lost when you’re a freshman. Having practices to attend, it was a nice thing to fit into my schedule. And seeing these familiar faces week after week, seeing people who were doing things similar to me, I eventually had a group of friends.”
That group of friends and teammates has built off each other’s energy to win another national championship title this year.
But there are challenges students face balancing academics with goals like a national championship.
“It definitely can be a struggle,” Amer says. “You’ll have a test, so you can’t attend practice. … It can be difficult, but it can also provide that bit of structure — I have class at this time and practice at this time, so I know I need to use that other time to study.”
Almost five times as many students participate in club sports as are on varsity teams, which see just 350 to 400 members.
And just because it’s a club doesn’t mean it can’t produce professional-level athletes. The rugby and hockey teams have both seen players graduate to professional levels.
But that’s really not the focus.
“We try to make sure that not only they develop a social network, but there’s some student development involved in our program, so the student-athletes actually take over the administrative duties, that’s the learning process,” Schoech says.
Students will make schedules, make travel arrangements, order uniforms and do budgeting, as well as fundraise for the money to support their team. Last year, fundraising brought in close to half a million dollars, money that went mostly toward travel for those teams. They’re also required to do a community service activity, which has included canned food drives, clothing donation drives and free sports clinics for kids.
With so many teams scheduling practices, finding space can be difficult at times. Particularly over the coming years, the recreation center continues to be remodeled, indoor space will be tight, Schoech says. That leads to practice sessions early or late in the day, sometimes resulting in a shift that ends at 10 p.m. or that started at 6 a.m.
“You have to be creative in a way, but what I’ve found is club sports athletes, there’s a different type of commitment that they’re willing to sacrifice in order to be successful. So they’re willing to get up at 6 a.m.,” he says.
But those schedules might send ripples that affect the number of national championships CU club sports is scoring if some athletes can’t work with late-night practices.
Once construction is complete in 2014, however, the Rec Center will have added a new weight room, an indoor turf field and new ice arena — all things that will help in the long run, Schoech says.
“So it’s going to be a short-term inconvenience for a very long-term improvement.”