By Ian Garcia
TEMPE – The Arizona State triathlon program has had its fair share of international recruits.
Since the program’s inaugural season in 2016, the four-time national champion team has brought on athletes from Canada, South Africa, Israel and Germany.
Now, the program has kicked off its 2021-22 season with its first Latin American member.
Freshman MJ Lopez Aguirre is the first Mexican triathlete to sign on with coach Cliff English’s Sun Devils.
“I picked ASU because it’s a really prestigious triathlon team,” she said. “The coach is amazing. He has so much experience. The girls are so strong. I’m so privileged to be able to work with them and push each other every single day.”
Born in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, Lopez Aguirre moved to The Woodlands, Texas, with her family when she was 5.
She was 7 when she became interested in triathlon after her brother competed in a race.
“There was this local triathlon that my brother was going to do,” Lopez Aguirre said. “Some family friend told him, ‘You should do it,’ and then I was like, ‘Oh, I want to do it too.’ It’s been a lot of fun since then.”
As she grew up, Lopez Aguirre gained experience in all three individual triathlon legs: swimming, cycling and running.
She swam for a club team, ran cross country in junior high and competed in many cycling races throughout her youth.
It became evident that Lopez Aguirre had a future in triathlon.
She won back-to-back titles at the Iron Kids USA National Championship in 2012 and 2013 along with the USA Triathlon Youth and Junior National Championship in 2013.
With a bright triathlon career on the horizon, Lopez Aguirre had to begin considering her career path, but options were scarce.
Then, in 2015, ASU became the first NCAA Power Five conference school to officially adopt triathlon after it was one of 10 NCAA schools to receive the multi-year Women’s Triathlon Emerging Sport Grant from the USA Triathlon Foundation.
The news opened up a whole new opportunity for Lopez Aguirre academically and athletically.
“As I grew up, it wasn’t really an option,” she said. “Collegiate triathlon barely came onto the stage five years ago. As soon as I found out, I was like, ‘Oh, I need this.’ This is a great way to pursue my academic career but also pursue my career in triathlon.”
Despite being thrusted into a completely new environment, Lopez Aguirre, majoring in mechanical engineering, took the challenge of balancing school and athletics head on.
“It’s been a ride,” she said. “It’s definitely an adaptation. It’s not easy because you have to really know what you want. You need to know that you need to get all your school work done, you need to get enough sleep to go to practice in the morning and wake up at 5:30. It’s all about time management and really prioritizing what you need to do, but it’s been fun.”
Lopez Aguirre entered the program with international experience.
She is a member of the Mexican National Elite Team and won silver in her age group at the 2019 National and National Youth Olympiad.
Lopez Aguirre made her presence at ASU felt early, placing first in a bike mount, ride and dismount course at the Dual in the Dessert NCAA Challenge in September. Next up for the Sun Devils is the St. George National Qualifier in Utah Oct. 30.
With a strong cycling background and loads of experience, Lopez Aguirre joined a talented recruiting class that will continue to develop together.
“She is an incredible addition to the team,” assistant coach Nicole Welling said. “This is one of the best freshman classes we’ve ever had. They all get along really well, they’ve meshed together with the group super well. The way she shows up to practice, she’s just always ready to go. She’s always got fun things to say, always got a great attitude, and we have loved working with her so far.”
Lopez Aguirre is part of a roster that currently has several international triathletes, a feature English believes is vital to the program.
“With it being such a strong program, we really want to have that international feel and diversity on the team because we know how important that is and what it brings,” English said. “I’ve been coaching for so many years, and a lot of the times I’ve coached international squads of triathletes you just learn so much about each other’s cultures. It really helps their development, and it’s a good experience.”
While her experience in BMX and mountain bike racing has already translated to results, Lopez Aguirre’s actions outside of the sport have caught her coaches’ attention.
“She’s a very thoughtful young person,” English said. “Right from day one, she showed up with little helmet stickers with each athlete’s name on them with their little national flag and the ASU logo. That’s never happened before. It’s really cool because here you have someone who’s an elite-level athlete and, sometimes, they can be a little more self-absorbed, but she’s someone that’s thinking about her team and just so excited to be here. She’s really trying to bring a lot to the team.”
With four years of NCAA competition ahead of her, Lopez Aguirre looks to consistently improve in hopes of competing at a high level – specifically, at the Olympics – and getting her degree.
“My main goal so far would be to really push my boundaries, push my limits in what I believe I can do, and maintain who I am,” she said. “That applies in school and sport. Just being true to myself, staying on the path that I’ve chosen and to just not let go of those goals that I have set for me.”
According to Lopez Aguirre, while triathlon is growing in the country, Mexico does not have as much exposure to high-level racing or sports as
the United States.
As the first Mexican triathlete to join the Sun Devils, she hopes to uplift and motivate her country by continuing to push and be the best version of herself.
Lopez Aguirre certainly won’t be the last Latin American triathlete to compete in maroon and gold, but she now has the opportunity to set the standard throughout her collegiate career.
“It feels good,” she said. “Hopefully, in the future, there will be more Mexican triathletes and Latino triathletes joining our team. I just hope I’m a good example for them and a good representation of what our people are like.”