BILLINGS — In the summer of 2018, Madisan Chavez was coaching freshman girls basketball at Hardin High School when her dad spotted a news release about Montana State Billings' intention to bring NCAA triathlon — an emerging sport for women — to Montana for the first time.
“My dad told me about the announcement and it immediately sounded interesting to me,” said Chavez. “I didn’t feel as though I could focus all my energy into a single sport anyway, and triathlon was a combination of three different sports.”
On the surface, the Hardin High School graduate didn’t necessarily fit the typical profile of someone who would potentially become a Division II triathlete. After all, she had no formal training in the sport and had recently finished her first season as a basketball player at Sheridan College in Wyoming. What’s more, Chavez was in pain and required postseason surgery on both of her feet. She had even elected to take a year off from school as part of her recovery.
Several months later, no such obstacles stopped her from becoming the first signee in the history of MSUB triathlon and she quickly exceeded expectations in the fall as a member of the Yellowjackets. Along with teammate Madalyn Terwilliger, Chavez wore the MSUB logo for the first time in the Southern Hills Triathlon on Aug. 31 and the pair pioneered the sport at the collegiate level in the Magic City. She continues to pave the way for others to follow her example.
Growing up in Crow Agency, Chavez played a wide array of sports growing up. In high school, she participated in basketball, tennis, cross country, and track and field and excelled in all four. Perhaps most impressive on her prep resume was the State A team championship in cross country in 2016, where she propelled the squad to victory as lead runner. After graduation however, Chavez continued her pursuit of basketball at Sheridan College in part because of the sport’s high profile in the community.
“As a Native American, basketball is really the main sport that people follow and recognize athletes for,” Chavez explained. “I loved playing basketball in high school but once I got to college, I didn’t have as much fun and wanted to try something else.”
It was obvious Chavez was a capable runner and conceivable that she could potentially adapt to that aspect of college triathlon, which also includes swimming and bicycling. Local high schools didn’t sponsor triathlon teams and MSU Billings was set to become the first NCAA sanctioned program in the state of Montana. Their closest competition was a whopping six hours away in Spearfish, South Dakota, home of Black Hills State University. Chavez didn’t have any formal training prior to her signing at MSUB, but what she did have was valuable experience and skills developed long before college triathlon was even on her radar.
During Native Days in Crow Agency, the community holds an annual competition. Ultimate Warrior is a long individual race for a wide age range. Participants begin by running approximately 1.5 miles over hilly terrain down to the creek. There, they disembark in a canoe and paddle downstream for around one mile to an exit point. After getting out of the canoe, they traverse another four miles to the grandstand area, where family and friends gather to watch. The race is over after competitors have ridden three separate horses bareback over challenging terrain for several miles and crossed the finish line.
To win, a person must use a combination of, speed, endurance, and perseverance, not unlike some of the skills necessary for success in triathlon. Chavez was a regular in Ultimate Warrior and even took third place her first time entering.
Her other secret weapon is the support of dozens of friends and family. Whichever sport or activity she chooses to compete, her community is always following. The Hardin gymnasium was regularly packed with fans for Chavez’s basketball games and it was a similar scene for Ultimate Warrior.
“A lot of my community really supports and continues to follow my career even now,” Chavez said. “A few people even drove to South Dakota to watch my first triathlon there, which I really appreciated. I would love to have a home triathlon in Billings sometime because I know people would come out to watch and cheer.”
Helped in part by having Chavez on the squad, MSUB triathlon is gaining momentum. This fall, the Yellowjackets have appeared in races in South Dakota, Colorado and Virginia and there are two additional events still on the calendar. The team still needs more student-athletes to earn a team score in races, but hosting a future home event is a real possibility with a possible attractive venue in Lake Elmo State Park.
Outside of sports, Chavez is passionate about environmental science, her major at MSU Billings. It is a fitting field of study for an athlete who spends so much time training on the quiet roads of rural Montana.
“I really like the outdoors,” Chavez said. “I’m still figuring out exactly what I want to do, but with all the classes I’m taking, it’s really eye opening to know all the laws and policies in environmental science that I didn’t know before.”
The team regularly trains outside of town and can track upwards of 20 or more miles a day by bicycle up and down hills in all types of weather. Chavez, Terwilliger and MSUB head coach Kevin Bjerke have all worked hard to make the first season of triathlon at MSUB a success. It was Chavez’s fearlessness to try something new that started it all.
“I want people to know that there are other sports out there to try,” Chavez said. "You just have to find what you like to do. If someone is interested in triathlon but is nervous about what to do next, I would recommend they reach out to someone in their community who might know and just start asking questions to whoever you can. Don’t be scared of new experiences. Just go for them because in the end it will be worth it.”
Terwilliger joined Chavez on the team a short time after Chavez committed. Terwilliger ran cross country and track for MSUB but elected to make the leap to triathlon over the summer.
“I wasn’t necessarily nervous about being the only one on the team, but then once Madalyn joined, I was glad because I had a teammate and we could push each other in training,” Chavez said. “We make a good team.”
“The dynamic between Madisan and I is pretty laid back,” said Terwilliger. “We just mainly goof around with each other. It really helps having her as my teammate. It makes the tough practices a little bit better because you are never struggling alone. We support each other a lot.”
Both Terwilliger and Chavez have had to adjust to high-level competition right away. In their first season, the pair raced established NCAA Division I and II teams in multiple events and even competed against top-ranked Arizona State University in the NCAA East Regional Triathlon. Chavez took 18th among Division II triathletes in Virginia and 12th in South Dakota. Terwilliger took 14th in the same event in South Dakota after passing an experienced Black Hills State competitor in MSUB’s first draft-legal race.
“It has really been a fun season,” said Bjerke. “With the girls being brand new to the sport, we kept the volume very manageable during the first half of the season and worked on skills and fundamentals. There is a learning curve with everything, especially swimming technique but they picked things up very quickly. They have come a long way in just a few short months.”
MSU Billings is set to compete in the NCAA National Championships Saturday in Tempe, Arizona. Chavez hasn’t expressed too much concern about competing on the big stage. Instead, she has chosen to center her goals on bringing awareness to the sport and encouraging others like her to try new things.
“It’s nice to be able to introduce a new sport to my community, not just for Native Americans but also for Montanans,” Chavez said. “Triathlon is still so new but it’s a lot of fun. Hopefully it opens a lot of doors for people who might want to try it for the first time.”