Change of Course: Former North swimmer headed to triathlon nationals

When Sam Russell headed to the Naval Academy in the summer of 2019, he thought about walking on to the swim team.

But not long after he arrived in Annapolis, Maryland, the former Columbus North standout swimmer decided to branch out a little. He joined Navy’s club triathlon team.

“During plebe summer, where I had to go right after high school, everyone has to do a sport, so I swam there,” Russell said. “I loved the team. They were an awesome group of guys. It was such a good group of guys that I thought about walking on for a little bit. Then I finished the summer and was about to go into academic year, and I just wanted to change it up. So I sort of threw all my eggs in one basket, went out for triathlon and made the team.”

The move is paying off for Russell, now a junior. He and the Midshipmen team have qualified for the USA Triathlon National Championships, which will be March 31 to April 2 near Atlanta. While triathlon is an NCAA sport for women, it is a club sport for men.

Russell was a state swimming qualifier his final three years of high school and was The Republic Boys Swimmer of the Year as a sophomore and senior. He also ran cross-country for two years at North and was a teammate in both sports of former Arizona State and current USA Triathlon Project Podium triathlete Chase McQueen.

“Triathlon was a perfect balance of cross-country and swimming, the two sports I did in high school, and I’m loving it right now,” Russell said. “The thing that made me want to try out was Chase McQueen. Having him as a teammate and always knowing about triathlon in the back of my head, I figured I’d just try it out, and I’m loving it. It’s a really good group of dudes and girls, so I’m super appreciative.”

After competing in meets his freshman year, Russell saw all of Navy’s events his sophomore year canceled because of the COVID pandemic. So that year was mostly spent training.

This year, Russell and the Midshipmen have done three triathlons, all in Virginia, and a mix of Olympic and sprint distance. Russell won the Giant Acorn Triathlon, clocking 2 hours, 1 minute, 47.6 seconds for the Olympic distance (1,500-meter swim, 25-mile bike, 6.2-mile run) event.

Russell also did both an Olympic distance triathlon and a Spring Draft Legal Triathlon on the same day in October at the Kinetic Cup in Huddleston, Virginia.

“This year has been super fun because all the work we’ve been putting in the last year, we’ve been seeing it pay off,” Russell said. “So it’s been pretty cool.”

Although he ran cross-country and swam in high school, Russell’s triathlon experience prior to Navy came in the former Columbus Challenge Triathlon at Tipton Lakes. He hadn’t had a whole lot of experience on the bike.

“The practices are fun because it’s a mix of all three,” Russell said. “(Biking) took a little bit to pick up. You just have to put time into it.”

Following their fourth year at Navy, every senior picks a service assignment. Russell, who majors math economics, isn’t sure where he’ll end up, but he wants to continue competing in triathlons.

“Triathlon has been super fun and definitely is a sport I can do even post-military,” Russell said.