Triathlon: De La Cruz reignites competitive fire

RTHS alum Nikki De La Cruz competed at the 2022 World Triathlon Sprint & Relay Championships in Montreal earlier this summer. De La Cruz has competed in around 25 triathlons over the last eight years. (Courtesy photo)

RTHS alum competes at 2022 World Championships in Montreal

From her time as a Rochelle Township High School student-athlete to her earliest days as a dancing youngster, Nikki De La Cruz has always been a competitor. After earning her college degree, however, she found herself searching for a new outlet to reignite her competitive fire.

De La Cruz competed in three sports at RTHS including track and field, basketball and volleyball. She continued her athletic career at the University of Saint Francis in Indiana, where she played volleyball and earned her bachelor’s degree in communication arts and graphic design before choosing to attend Northwestern University and earn her master’s degree.

Now living in the Chicago neighborhood of Rogers Park, De La Cruz has found a new athletic vessel to channel her competitive spirit: triathlons. Her most recent event was the 2022 World Triathlon Sprint & Relay Championships in Montreal, where she finished in the top half of her division despite dealing with a plantar fascia injury that hampered some of her training.

“I was looking for something to compete in and keep me in shape,” De La Cruz said. “There were days where I would be at the gym and ask myself, ‘why am I here? I have nothing to train for anymore.’ Being an athlete and growing up playing sports in Rochelle, I was always motivated to reach the regionals or make it to the state meet, so I felt like the world triathlon was the highlight of my athletic career and it was really special to compete at the highest level.”

De La Cruz began competing in triathlons about eight years ago, when she first attended a small sprint triathlon in Rockford. She’s since competed in about 25 triathlons including this year’s world championships, which had been canceled over each of the last two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. De La Cruz earned her way into the world championships, qualifying with a top-10 finish in her age group at a national event about two years ago.

“It was an awesome experience,” De La Cruz said. “I was really excited to finally race. I made the 13-hour drive to Canada and I learned a few things about crossing the border. The race was really cool because I was able to compete with other athletes from countries like Poland, Germany, France, Australia and more. There was a competitive nature during the event, but a lot of the athletes were working together and everyone was pushing each other to be their best.”

Triathlons are races that combine three sports including swimming, running and cycling into one event. It’s a fitting match for a multisport athlete like De La Cruz, who stays active year round and trains from March through September for her triathlons. Her training includes specific swimming, cycling and running sessions. She also races with a Chicago-based cycling team called xXx, which she says has improved her physical strength and her racing strategy.

“What I enjoy most about racing in triathlons is being able to compete and push myself to new limits,” De La Cruz said. “Things can change on the day of the race and there’s always some kind of adversity such as the weather or whether or not I have the right equipment. I always have to be on my toes and it’s made me mentally stronger in other aspects of my life.”

De La Cruz, who currently works as a product designer for Wilson Sporting Goods, said her future plans include competing in the 2022 Chicago Triathlon later this month and possibly transitioning toward cycling next year in order to fully recover from her plantar fascia injury. Of the three triathlon sports, De La Cruz said cycling has surpassed running as her favorite. 

“Running was always my outlet and I haven’t had that recently because of my injury,” De La Cruz said. “I haven’t been able to train or run as well as I would like and cycling has taken that place. It’s become my go-to for workouts and my go-to for getting around the city. I commute to work and run errands on my bike and it’s also been a great way for me to meet new people.”

A self-described competitor, De La Cruz recalled her mother signing her up for ballet, tap dancing and gymnastics when she was young. She also played soccer through the Rochelle AYSO and basketball through the Rochelle Youth Basketball Association before arriving at RTHS, where she stayed involved in multiple sports before beginning her collegiate career. Her eagerness to explore the unknown is something she said she encourages for others.

“It was fun picking up different sports and trying something new,” De La Cruz said. “Sports were always my outlet when I wasn’t working and it was a great way to stay in shape… It can be intimidating to try something new, but I’d encourage anyone who’s considering a triathlon to avoid having that feeling. I wouldn’t consider myself a swimmer, a runner or a cycler, but I think anyone can pick it up and give it a try to see how it goes. It’s not as intimidating as it seems.”