Even if you know triathlon, you’d be forgiven for not knowing USA athlete Erika Ackerlund. On the outside, Ackerlund looks like your typical professional triathlete but, at the age of 25, the self-proclaimed “black sheep” of USA Triathlon has made her own unexpected path to professional triathlon.
Unlike most short-course triathletes, Ackerlund didn’t grow up doing triathlon. She wasn’t a competitive swimmer or a track star either. She wasn’t recruited by any colleges for sport and had no aspirations to be a professional athlete. Ackerlund’s entire relationship to sport was more seasonal and just a part of her family life. Ackerlund did team sports in high school but, she says, “My parents didn’t push running with the team in the summer because they wanted to be out doing activities with us.” Backpacking and rafting were summer family favorites. “In the winter, instead of going to travel swim meets, we would go skiing instead.”
When it was time for Ackerlund to follow an academic scholarship to the University of Montana, she had wanted to swim “but they didn’t have a swim program,” Ackerlund says. “I ran in high school but, with injuries, I was fading out and so was the fun. I was bummed I wouldn’t have a sport in college, but my mom knew someone who had been on the triathlon team years before. I went to school looking for that club. I thought it would be a hobby.”
Triathlon didn’t stay a hobby for long. “I went to one race with the team and actually won it, not knowing what I was doing. That spurred people in the town to get me in the right gear and help me figure out training,” Ackerlund explains. She also met her now-boyfriend who took her under his wing and showed her the world of triathlon even further, Ackerlund says. “The idea of ITU racing was really exciting.”
After more local success, Ackerlund was encouraged to reach out to the college recruitment program but, she admits, “My times were much slower than the kind of people they were looking for.” It was then that she began to realize she didn’t fit the standard pro triathlete mold. “I think I’m a different athlete than the stereotype that they are looking for. I’m very endurance based and so I’ve approached the sport differently, with my strengths,” she explains.
Her biggest strength at the time was her experience in all three sports. Thanks to her diverse background in sports from her family lifestyle, Ackerlund had been mountain biking before. Although she didn’t have the competition background and the speed that came with it, Ackerlund could do all three sports, not just one or two like most new recruits. “I came from it as, I can put all three sports together and I just have to slowly gain speed in them all,” she explains.
Ackerlund started racing more and, despite racing against athletes with deep competitive history, she consistently found herself at the front of the race. “You start to get belief in yourself from race results, but I was continually shocked the first few years at where I would finish in races,” she says. Ackerlund quickly earned her elite racing license and has now been racing professionally on the world circuit for six years.
Currently, Ackerlund is ranked an impressive 27th in the world and, just recently, was announced as the newest member of the USA national team. Despite all that she has achieved, Ackerlund still feels like she is learning and “playing catch up.” However, once again, she has found strength in what is conventionally seen as a weakness. “I haven’t spent that much time training hard,” she explains, pointing out the years of intense training most of her peers have, often coming hand in hand with injuries or burnout. “I wonder, had I raced that much when I was younger to be at the level [college recruiters] were looking for, would I still want to do this every day?”
With her sights sets on making an Olympic team in the future and even long course racing beyond that, there is definitely a lot more in front of Ackerlund than behind her and we have a feeling she won’t be the one playing catch up.