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Triathlon: Just a piece of the puzzle

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Rebekka Brown

On a Monday evening, four members of the Iowa State Triathlon Club cycle together in one of State Gym’s multipurpose rooms. They sit on stationary bikes, kept inside and away from the elements during the frigid Iowa winter months. The comrades pedal steadily in a neat line, two face the door while the other two sit opposite.

The triathletes maintain their rhythm despite the action from the boxing club practice taking place around them. Perspiration beads on their foreheads as they pedal along, putting in miles of effort without moving an inch.

Kyle Swenson sits on the second bike from the right. While perched on his black Diamondback with yellow-green accents, Swenson informs the crew that he and his fiancee received their engagement photos. Later in the ride, he briefly discusses his tentative post-undergraduate plans with the teammate to his left.

Swenson, a senior studying kinesiology and health, is this year’s president of the Iowa State triathlon club. For the past two years, he served as the club’s vice president before moving to his current role. Planning to graduate this spring, this will be Swenson’s first and only year serving as the president.

Swenson currently holds the highest position within the Iowa State Triathlon Club. On the surface, he is responsible for ensuring his crew meets the requirements Iowa State Recreation Services has set in place for sports clubs. He also works to recruit club members, offers coaching advice, facilitates many practices and coordinates other relevant tasks.  

In addition to carrying out leadership responsibilities related to his sport, the Minnesota native has established himself as an accomplished athlete in the triathlon community. In 2021, Swenson was named the Men’s Junior Age Group Triathlete of the Year by USA Triathlon and has competed in triathlon events at both the national and international levels.

“Triathlon has kind of been my second home at college, the place that I always turn to when things have gotten challenging with school,” Swenson said. “To have that easy outlet has been a real blessing.”

Triathlon Club at a glance

With the bulk of the collegiate club triathlon competitions taking place from late May to September, the group is currently amid its offseason. However, according to Swenson, approximately 16 members comprise an “active core” of the club, consistently training and participating in events. This past August, Iowa State finished as the second-place male team and third-place combined team at the Midwest Collegiate Triathlon Conference championship. 

Most of the races in which the club competes during the summer are the Olympic triathlon distance: a 1.5-kilometer swim, 40-kilometer bike ride and 10-kilometer run. The USA Triathlon Collegiate Club National Championships is one of the most prestigious races they compete in each spring. The crew also has opportunities to participate in competitions that cover shorter distances throughout the year, such as an indoor race hosted by the University of Iowa.

Although the club enables members like Swenson to compete at a high level, the group also has flexible training options that can be adapted to beginner triathletes — and everyone in between.

A family affair

Swenson’s triathlon career commenced long before he became a Cyclone. Swenson said he was an active kid, participating in multiple sports each season. Cross country, soccer, football, basketball, hockey, swim — the list goes on.

“My whole philosophy is that the more activities you can get the kids involved in, it just develops their natural abilities and keeps them very balanced,” Greg Swenson, Kyle’s father, said. “That interest in being in a sport that has three different disciplines really showed up at an early age.”

When Swenson was still a toddler, his sister competed in her first triathlon. Kristina Dennison, formerly Kristina Swenson, is Kyle’s only sibling, five years his senior.

“She started [triathlons] when she was seven, so I was two at the time,” Swenson said. “When I say I’ve been around the sport my whole life, it’s pretty accurate. I have been exposed to triathlons since before I can even remember.”

Dennison was the first member of the Swenson family to enter the triathlon scene. After trying numerous sports, this was the one that finally clicked with her. Although the triathlon is considered a team sport at different levels, Dennison appreciated the individuality of it. She could focus on bettering herself without worrying about sitting on the bench.

Swenson said his entire family has been supportive of his and Dennison’s undertakings as triathletes from the beginning, albeit in different ways.

Shortly after Dennison’s first triathlon, Greg Swenson was inspired by his daughter to venture into the sport himself. As a swimmer in high school and someone who had always enjoyed biking, Greg Swenson saw triathlon as a fun opportunity. Today, he participates in as many as seven competitions per year, including the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships.

Greg Swenson views himself as less successful than his children in the triathlon world. However, the way he looks at it, competing in the same sport as his kids allows him to encourage them on a deeper level.   

“For me, it’s doing those activities that support them to enable them to be as successful as they are,” Swenson said.

Despite not participating in these events herself, Swenson said his mother has found ways to get involved in triathlon by supporting her husband and children through their endeavors. She enjoys coordinating many of the family’s race-day logistics, carrying everyone’s gear and capturing pictures at special moments. 

“My mom has been the backbone of support throughout my journey,” Swenson stated. 

Partway through high school, Dennison took her relationship with triathlon to the next stage. She joined the Minnesota Junior Elite Triathlon Team, which eventually partnered with Z3 Triathlon Team based out of Des Moines. Like his sister, Swenson was also a part of Z3 prior to college. Before joining the team, he competed in his first triathlon at 6 years old.

Swenson participated in his first handful of triathlons by helping fundraise for Miracles of Mitch (now known as Pinky Swear Foundation). He and his family became involved in this organization that provides support for children with cancer and their families, not only raising money but also volunteering during his childhood.

“I really enjoyed the aspect of giving back to a community that was far bigger than myself, and that continued into high school as I was involved with three different sports teams,” Swenson said.

While at St. Michael-Albertville High School, Swenson ran cross country and track and swam. While Swenson was in school, his father served as the school’s assistant swim coach after being Dennison’s head coach. 

“It really came down to, with Kyle, just spending time observing, reminding him that he needs to listen, try new things, encourage other kids that may be struggling, as well,” Greg Swenson said.

Although Swenson was committed to each of his sports in high school, triathlon remained his true passion.

“I always had more of a passion for triathlon,” Swenson said. “As much as I loved swimming and cross country and track individually, in the very back of my mind, it was always like, ‘OK, how can I use this to improve where I am as a triathlete in the summer?’”

Now, Swenson trains at least once each day, focusing on each of his sport’s events at different times throughout the week. He attends most triathlon club’s daily practices in addition to training on his own. 

Another connection that Swenson shares with both his father and sister is his soon-to-be alum status of Iowa State. Swenson and his sister were raised as Cyclone fans, attending football and basketball games as a family throughout their youth. When it came time for Dennison to make her college decision, Iowa State stood out for one main reason: its triathlon club. Even though Dennison knew she wanted her sport to be an integral part of her college experience, her final choice came down to Iowa State and Drake University, neither of which has a triathlon team associated with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Triathlon is only available as a women’s sport within the NCAA, and according to USA Triathlon, 42 NCAA schools currently sponsor it across all three divisions. 

Dennison was impressed with how Iowa State’s club had established itself through the years. At Drake, she would have needed to start things from ground zero. She initially had her mind set on attending a smaller institution, but Iowa State offered just what she was looking for. The club’s structure, storage space and support from the university made it feel more like a sports team and less like a sports club. Dennison also had a connection to the former coach at Iowa State, as she worked with him during her club endeavors prior to college.

“It was really the tri club that landed Kristina there and ultimately Kyle followed the same level of interest with being close to his sister,” Greg Swenson said. “He had a strong interest in following in her footsteps.”

Dennison graduated in May 2020, just months before Swenson began his journey at Iowa State. Throughout her college experience, Dennison served as the triathlon club’s race director, trip coordinator, vice president and president. After witnessing firsthand the joy his sister found as a member of the “Triclones,” Swenson’s college decision was easy.

“It was almost a no-brainer. I went into sophomore year of high school, almost, and was like, ‘I don’t have to make a decision. I just know where I’m going.’ I only applied to one school, I only toured one school,” he said. “I really never had to think twice about where I wanted to go because I knew Ames was going to be home for a few years.”

Swenson said Dennison inadvertently set the bar high for him by leaving such a positive impact on the triathlon club. Her contributions as a leader added to some of the pressure Swenson initially felt when starting at Iowa State. 

“I came in and people knew who I was, and everyone was always like, ‘Oh, Kyle, you’re going to have to be the president someday. You’re going to have to take this over; your sister did that,’ and that was always something that was a little intimidating for me,” Swenson said. “My sister is someone who is a wonderful leader and really changed a lot of what the triathlon club did for the better, and looking up to her as much as I do and being competitive, I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can fill her shoes like that.’”

In the moments where Swenson might feel pressure to live up to his sister’s expectations, Dennison’s support of her brother’s personal journey has helped him put things in perspective.

“In conversations with her, she just said, ‘I don’t look at you as an extension of me. I look at you as someone who can do so many different things, and a lot of things better than I could do,’” Swenson said.

When faced with challenges related to the club or the sport, Swenson knows that Dennison is just a phone call away, available to offer him comforting words of wisdom.

“More often than not, it’s exactly what I needed to hear,” Swenson said.

Following such similar paths might drive some siblings apart, but not Swenson and Dennison. It seems to have had quite the opposite effect.

“[Triathlon] became part of our identities as people and as siblings,” Swenson said.

The two have been able to push each other while training, Swenson encouraging Dennison in his more dominant events and vice versa. While she has enjoyed supporting her brother’s collegiate experience, Dennison looks forward to the prospect of competing together down the road.  

“I’m just really excited to have the opportunity to connect on that into adulthood and think about all the fun races and things that we, I know, will do together,” she said.

As the older sibling, Dennison came to understand the influence she had on Swenson while growing up together. She felt responsible for setting a positive example as one of her younger brother’s role models.

“He got to grow up watching what I was doing and how I was doing it, and I think I became, as I got older, acutely aware of how closely he watched me,” Dennison said. “It challenged me to try to set a good example for him.”

The siblings continued to bond over the love of the sport as they grew older.

“I think it just became so much more fun when he was interested in triathlon, and then as he got older to see how interested he was, that was sort of like a built-in best friend,” Dennison said. “I could go out for a run that he would want to come out and do it with me.”

The sides of Swenson

As he begins sharing his thoughts on Swenson, Kurt Brase’s watch buzzes with a notification. What are the odds? It’s a text from Swenson himself.

Don’t tell any of my naughty secrets,” Brase says, reading the message aloud. He chuckles a bit.

Brase, a senior in agricultural engineering, is one of Swenson’s fellow triathlon club members.

“It’s just Kyle,” he said.

Both Brase and Reese Manternach, another member of the triathlon club, shared “goofy” as being one of Swenson’s dominant characteristics.

Manternach, a senior studying statistics, joined Triathlon Club prior to Swenson’s arrival in Ames. He got to know Dennison while she was president of the club and recalls his first impression.

“When I first met him I was like, ‘Wow, this is a very excited freshman about the sport of triathlon,’” Manternach said. “He’s a really great kid and I could tell he was excited, and Iowa State was a perfect fit for him.”

Over the years, Manternach has grown to know Swenson more deeply and considers him one of his closest friends. The two have helped each other through some of the highs, lows and in-betweens of life.

Manternach was part of Swenson’s sounding board when he was preparing to propose in September. Swenson supported Manternach through a challenging time with another friend. Both on the route to becoming physical therapists, these pals have guided each other throughout the graduate school application and interview process.

“He’s a real friend. He’s going to be there for me when I need help or one of my other friends needs help,” Manternach said. “We’ve sat in his car and talked for an hour just about some mental stuff, which it’s really great to have a friend that can do that with you.”

According to Brase, Swenson is the type of person who almost always picks up the phone when someone gives him a call.

“There’s a rare occasion, I think it’s only been two times or so where you call him and you’re like, ‘Wow, he’s actually not picking up this time,’” Brase said.

Brase also noted a practice earlier this semester where a student interested in joining Triathlon Club attended one of the group’s practices. Swenson stepped off his bike for about half an hour, sacrificing this time to train to show this individual around the practice facility and tell her more about what the club offers. 

“If you’re willing to be the president of a club that is basically an evangelism tool for your sport, you clearly are willing to give of your time and efforts to bring people in.” William Jenks, Iowa State’s triathlon club adviser, said. “Of all the things I would think of about Kyle, it’s trustworthy,  I know his commitment to his club, I know his commitment to his academics, I know his commitment to his athletics. If he were to tell me he was going to do something, I would know 100% that it would get done.”

Looking ahead 

When reflecting upon the months and years spent with the triathlon club thus far, Swenson appreciates his teammates’ focus on building each other up, encouraging club members in a way that helps “fill your bucket.”

“I hope that I’ve created a positive enough environment where people feel like they’re accepted to come back whether or not they’ve done triathlon before,” Swenson said. “That’s something that my sister strived to do and definitely something I hope I continue on.”

Once graduating in May, Swenson will look for ways to stay involved in his sport.

“[Triathlon] definitely isn’t something that’s going to go away,” Swenson said. “It’s become a passion and something I love doing more than just competing.”

In addition to all the changes that come with completing one’s time in college, Swenson is preparing for marriage to Sarah Schroeder, a senior studying food science at Iowa State. The two met as freshmen during the first weekend of college and will be married this June.

Although Schroeder is not a triathlete, Swenson appreciates how Schroeder has fully accepted his way of life. She has been supportive of Swenson’s training and competition schedule, sometimes sacrificing time with him so he can complete a long bike ride.

“Sarah has embraced triathlon into her life with the utmost grace and understanding,” Swenson said in an email. “While it may not be a sport that she would have chosen for herself she has become a foundation on which my success and place of enjoyment in this sport has been built.”

According to Manternach, Schroeder has been involved in many of Triathlon Club’s social activities.

“She’s been a part of the club without being on the club,” Manternach said.

As Swenson takes the steps to become a physical therapist after his time at Iowa State, he hopes to continue training however his schedule allows. Once finishing graduate school, he plans to compete in varying triathlon distances, whether that be a “sprint” or something as endurance-heavy as an Ironman (a race consisting of a 3.9-kilometer swim, 180-kilometer bike ride and 42.2-kilometer run).

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