Cara Dunkelman enjoyed a stellar athletic career as a runner and a skier during her time at Douglas High School.
Her name is still on three school records, including a 2:17.97 time in the 800 during her freshman year in 2009, and she twice qualified for state.
It was enough to earn a spot running track and cross country for Colorado State University in Fort Collins this season.
The thing was, once she got there, she discovered it just wasn’t for her.
“We got new coaches and the dynamics started to change,” she said. “They were creating an atmosphere that I hadn’t really signed on for.”
Around the same time, she started talking with the school’s triathlon club coach.
“A number of runners had already joined the triathlon club and the entire environment suited me better,” she said. “I got out there and really fell in love with it. Instead of training for the same event every day, I was doing something different every day and working toward this overall bigger challenge.”
There was, however, a minor hang-up.
“I was terrified of the swimming,” Dunkelman said. “Not being in the water so much, but the idea that once you get out there, it’s not like you can just stop.”
Still, she took the plunge, literally.
“The coaches were really patient, because they knew I had the running down, and it’s not like the biking is easy, but it is something you can pick up. You can get through it even if you aren’t very experienced.
“The swimming, that took some coaching. They put me in my own lane and they’d videotape me so I could see what I was doing.
“I started swimming three to four times a week, and after a couple months I was confident swimming a mile.”
Dunkelman’s first triathlon also happened to be the regional championships and national qualifier in Lake Havasu, Ariz.
She was tempted to just try the shorter sprint distance her first time out, but wouldn’t have had a shot at the national championships if she’d done so.
Instead, she attempted the full Olympic distance (1,500-meter swim, 40-kilometer cycling and 10-kilometer run).
She finished in just under three hours, which was good enough to grab the seventh and final national qualifying spot.
Just a few weeks later, she improved her time by nearly a half an hour at the national championships, helping Colorado State to a ninth-place team finish in a field of more than 1,000 athletes.
“The atmosphere there was really incredible,” Dunkelman said. “I was very intimidated to be around so many other athletes who had been through it before. There were 150 schools represented. It was hot, like 95 degrees.
“It was scary out in the open water, just treading water until the start, but once the gun sounded that all went away.”
The sport itself is gaining momentum toward becoming an NCAA-sanctioned sport.
In late April, officials from the NCAA, USA Triathlon and college triathlon coaches met to discuss the sport earning NCAA emerging distinction.
The NCAA established the emerging sports category in 1994, with the purpose of adding additional opportunities for female student-athletes.
Triathlon debuted as an Olympic sport during the Sydney Games in 2000.
“I love it,” Dunkleman said. “It’s harder in different ways than running is. I feel so much more accomplished finishing a triathlon than when I’d finish an 800 in a track meet.
“The workouts are harder, every day I come home and my whole body is sore.”
Dunkleman will spend this summer training and competing in a number of area triathlons.
“My coaches have been really great in tailoring workouts specifically to me, and my weakest area is obviously the swimming,” she said. “I’m excited to see how far I can take it. My first triathlon, I placed in the top seven and I had no idea what I was doing.
“I just want to get as good as I can at this and see how far it goes. I’d encourage anyone interested in the sport to try it out. It really is fun.”