Back on the elite triathlon track

Last weekend Avery Evenson ran a 17:19 5k to leave her nearest pursuer 18 seconds in her wake to win the Clermont CAMTRI American Cup. At age 23, and three years after leaving a bright future in triathlon to study political science and run cross country for the University of Michigan, Evenson appears to be back on track for an elite international triathlon career.

In her return to triathlon last September, Evenson won a silver medal at the ITU World University Games. In just her second triathlon back, Evenson’s performance in the Clermont sprint race seems like she has picked up where she left off in 2015 at the ITU Under 23 World Championship in Chicago, where she finished 4th behind three women who are now ITU elites including Frenchwomen Audrey Merle and Leonie Periault (who was competitive at the recent Super League finale) and Melanie Santos of Portugal. And back then, she was also ahead of other current ITU regulars Natalie Coevorden and perhaps the most decorated current competitor in that field, Joanna Brown of Canada.

On the basis of a first pack swim and a decent run, her early successes in triathlon marked her as a top prospect - 2014 Junior Elite national champion, 5th at 2014 Junior Worlds, 4th at 2015 U23 Worlds. At Michigan she was a 2-time NCAA All-American, a competing member of two NCAA Championship podium (top-4) teams and three Big Ten XC Championship teams. And while she stuck to cross country after multiple injuries sidelined her track career, she managed to post a 16:34 5k PR which marks her as a first rate elite triathlon possibility.

Slowtwitch: What led you to triathlon in the first place?

Avery Evenson I was a nationally ranked swimmer and runner in high school. A new program (at the time), the Elite Triathlon Academy, was emerging at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. They were looking for high schoolers, like me, that they could teach to bike and turn into a triathlete. At the time, I was being recruited to run NCAA, but when I took a recruitment visit to the Olympic training center and realized the opportunity of a lifetime that it truly was, I decided to put running aside and pursue triathlon full-time while I attended the University of Colorado - Colorado Springs to start my undergraduate degree.

ST: Why did you decide to switch to Michigan?

Avery: I never competed for the University of Colorado - Colorado Springs, but rather just attended classes there as the college was in proximity of the Olympic Training Center. After 2.5 years there, I realized my NCAA eligibility “clock” was running out, and I still really wanted to have the collegiate running experience. I also knew in order to be a world class ITU triathlete, I needed to further develop my run. UM was where I always dreamed of running, especially under Coach Mike McGuire. I also grew up just north of Ann Arbor and my family, which I’m very close to, still lives in the area. It was hard decision to leave the training center. But UM is not only a well-known women’s distance running hub, but also a highly ranked academic institution. After the first half of college at UCCS, I realized graduating from a prestigious university was also very important to me – so transferring to UM was a no-brainer!

ST: Did you consider the example of Gwen Jorgensen who took up triathlon after running and swimming at the University of Wisconsin?

Avery: I think Gwen, among other successful post-collegiate runners, joining the sport of triathlon helped raise the bar for running in ITU triathlon, especially for the US. I knew if I wanted to be elite on a world stage, I needed to develop my run and what better way to do that than compete collegiately at UM, the school I always dreamed of running for.

ST: Did your run coach at Michigan take into account your triathlon experience?

Avery: Coach Mike (McGuire) knew of my early collegiate triathlon background when he helped me transfer to UM. He definitely took a chance on me after being out of the running world for a few years, and for that I’m forever grateful. He knew I found success keeping my running mileage at a minimum and continuing to swim and bike to supplement mileage. I have been quite injury prone above 40 miles of running per week, and we flirted with 40+ early on at UM and it didn’t go so well. So we worked well together, especially in later years, to balance cross training with overall running mileage.

ST: What did you study at Michigan and how that will play into your future career?

Avery: I graduated with my undergraduate degree in Political Science and Economics last April. Now, I am a masters student at UM’s Ross School of Business where I’m getting a Master of Management degree (a new program many top business schools in the country are offering - basically the first year of an MBA). It has been a dream to get not one, but two degrees from UM after making the life changing decision to transfer.

ST: How are you mixing triathlon with your studies at the Ross School?

Avery: It has been somewhat hard balancing tri training with the demands of Ross. However, my triathlon coach Ken Axford has been really great in helping me find the right training volume and school balance. I graduate in May and plan to train and race tri full time through the summer and into the fall.

ST: How did you progress as an athlete at Michigan?

Avery: My main event was cross country (6k) at UM. I was on the track roster and ran parts of one indoor season, but never could seem to stay healthy on the track – so we focused on cross country.

ST: What were your best performances?

Avery: - My top performances were at NCAA cross country Nationals in 2016 (18th) and 2018 (38th) where I finished with All-American honors in both (All-American is top 40). At the 2018 cross country Big Ten Championships I made my first B1G podium finishing 3rd, and earned All-Big Ten honors both 2018 and 2016 (14th).

As a team, we won 3 B1G Cross Country Championships when I was at Michigan (2016, 2017, 2018). There’s no feeling quite like winning a B1G title with your closest friends!

My most memorable race in collegiate running, though, was NCAA cross country National Championships where we finished runner-up as a team by ONE point to Oregon. Ouch. But, we had come in as a dark horse, so to wow everyone and miss a national championship by just one point was a very, very special moment I will never forget.

ST: What were your PRs?

Avery: My most notable performances are in cross country, was my 6k PR of 20:12 (on a hard Terre Haute, Indiana course). I was a much better cross country runner than track runner, which my UM coach and I realized pretty quick. I loved the challenging terrain Midwest courses had to offer. I also suffered from injury most indoor and outdoor track seasons, barring two indoor marks 3k (9:27) and 5k (16:34) a couple of years back.

ST: What was your closest race?

Probably the end of the B1G cross country championships this past fall (2018) when I finished on the podium. I was 8th or 9th heading into the final straightaway and had the kick of my life to finish 3rd for my team.

ST: What did you get from the team aspect and camaraderie of the college track experience?

Avery: There’s nothing quite like the team atmosphere of a collegiate team, especially in cross country, which is such a team sport. At UM cross country, we did everything together as the top 7-12 traveling athletes. We ran hip-for-hip together in every workout, long run, base run, and hobby jog even. It was fun to be a part of an environment where individuals mattered little, but rather “the team the team the team” was the focus. It wasn’t always easy, but we taught each other to grind through some of the hardest workouts and just hold on to each other’s hips when things got tough.

ST: Who were your closest friends and what did you learn from them?

Avery: My best friend and former UM teammate, Sophie Linn, is now my main training partner for triathlon. She competes for Triathlon Australia, but is also coached by Ken Axford. She too is a masters student at UM and training full-time for triathlon post-collegiately. Back in our collegiate running days, she and I would always cross-train together, as she also grew up swimming at a high level and rode avidly. I convinced her to dabble in some triathlon racing, and in no time she had her elite license for Tri AUS and actually made their U-23 world team in that same first year (2018)! She also placed 6th at the World University Games in Sweden, where we were able to share the worlds experience together. I’m so thankful to have her in Ann Arbor training for ITU triathlon. We make each other better every day.

ST: Do you see the opportunity for some team camaraderie in triathlon?

Avery: I already miss the team camaraderie that was so special on UM’s cross country team. However, with ITU triathlon adding more opportunities for mixed team relays, it provides an opportunity to have that team feeling once again. I competed on the USA mixed team relay at the University World Games -- it was super fun, fast and furious and I look forward to more relay opportunities in the future.

ST: How has USAT encouraged you and coached you in your triathlon path?

Avery: I have worked with a number of USAT coaches and support team members along the way. Each and every person I have worked with has helped me learn and grow as a triathlete through the different stages of the sport. I feel like a “newbie” again as I return to the sport, but the USAT support is unbelievable!

ST: You are aware that the U.S. women's elite program has been dominant with Katie Zaferes leading the way and Kirsten Kasper, Taylor Spivey, Taylor Knibb and Renee Tomlin among many talented competitors. Are you looking forward to training with them and expanding your limits?

Avery: The US is STACKED with talent on the women’s side and has been for some time! I’m excited to continue my return back to the sport full-time and look forward to racing with my fellow country-women in the near future!

ST: What is your current ace in swim bike run? What discipline needs most work?

Avery: I’ve always been a strong swimmer and have continued to progress my run, but biking has always been the biggest learning curve!

ST: The women at the top of the sport have run in the low 16 minutes for the 5km in a sprint event. How close can you come to those standards?

Avery: I guess we will see! Running at UM really helped develop my run as well as give me confidence in my running ability.


ST: Where did you grow up?

Avery: Hartland, Michigan about 45 minutes north of Ann Arbor. My parents now live just outside of Ann Arbor, so I go home quite frequently!

ST: What sports did you like growing up?

Avery: I did everything from soccer, running, and swimming to ballet dancing! I loved the team atmosphere of soccer, but cross country was always my first love. It was fun to see how far I could test my limits with every new challenging terrain.

ST: By the way, what are your parents’ backgrounds in sport?

Avery: My dad Kirk Evenson was a ball sport guy (mostly football), but also ran track (shorter distances/400m). He was recruited to play football at smaller universities, but elected to stay in-state for college and pursue his teaching degree. My mom AJ was a softball player and was recruited to play at UM! She ended up graduating from the University of Kentucky, however. They’re definitely where my sister and I get our internal drive and competitiveness.

ST: Do you have siblings involved in sport?

Avery: My sister Kylie is a FISH! She is 10 times the swimmer I ever was. She is 10 years younger than me (13), but already swimming crazy fast nationally ranked times. The 200 backstroke is her specialty. She also swims for Club Wolverine, where I grew up swimming. I’m (secretly, but not so secretly) hoping she’ll choose to swim at Michigan one day!

ST: How have your parents supported you in sport?

Avery: My parents are the reason I got as far as I have in any sport. They have supported every decision I made along the way, whether that be to pursue triathlon, collegiate running, and now triathlon again. They instilled in me to never settle and always follow what makes me happy, because doing something I don’t fully love is a waste. Many of my peers in grad school are trying to solidify jobs for post-graduation. While my parents have encouraged me to keep my options open, they are in full support of me following my professional triathlon aspirations as long as I see fit!

ST: So far in life, what has been your toughest setback?

Avery: I don’t think there’s been one worse than the others, but the many injuries I’ve faced along the way have made every comeback to sport that much harder. I’ve had 7-8 significant injuries throughout my athletic career, the most recent being a fibula break last February. Continuing to find happiness outside of sport with family and loved ones in those times and continuing to try and love and appreciate my body, though challenging, was something I really focused on.

ST: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Avery: Remembering to have perspective. If you have a bad race or workout, or get a bad score on an exam, it’s not the end of the world. The sun will still rise tomorrow. Emotionally detaching performance from my overall happiness has been something I’ve tried to master in recent years. Once I realized performances, specifically in sport, don’t define me as a person, I was able to enjoy doing the things I love.