When Brady O’Bryan embarked on a road trip to Tuscaloosa, Ala., for the USA Triathlon Collegiate Nationals this week, it was a familiar journey.

It was at the same meet in the same place one year ago that O’Bryan took home the title of undergraduate national champion.

This year, however, he will be playing in a different role: that of coach.

While O’Bryan can’t compete in the race ““ he graduated from UCLA in 2011 and is no longer eligible for collegiate competition ““ he is still an active competitor on the elite circuit, which gives confidence to the athletes hoping to follow in his footsteps.

“I really like having a coach who is not only telling us what to do, but is right there with us,” said Dylan Bridges-Oliva, a third-year economics student who will be competing at nationals this weekend.

“Actually, he’s usually beating us. That gives me some added reassurance that this is really what I should be doing if I want to get better.”

O’Bryan’s efforts appear to be paying off in more ways than one. Last year’s men’s squad took fourth place in the nation, securing room for seven men and seven women in this year’s national championships.

And thanks to his rigorous workout plans, which start with two-a-day practices and additional informal workouts, the team looks to match last year’s performances. O’Bryan says he often caters workout plans to the needs of the individual athlete.

“In addition to the scheduled workouts, I’ll send out a suggestion of how your week would look if you want to go to nationals and do really well,” O’Bryan said.

Such intense training is required for the increased difficulty of the nationals course, an Olympic-distance race which features a 1,500-meter swim, a 40-kilometer bike and a 10-kilometer run ““ more than twice the length of most races during the season.

These grueling distances make the triathlon an ideal competition for athletes with a background in other sports who are looking to stay in shape or try something new, team members say.

One such competitor, Greg Kubitz, came to the team after spending five years on the NCAA track team at Western Washington University.

Kubitz, a doctoral student in economics, said he was only looking for a way to keep running in graduate school, but was drawn in by the high level of talent and coaching on the triathlon team.

“(O’Bryan) is younger than me, but he’s still more knowledgeable than I am about running,” he said. “He really knows what he’s talking about.”

And while Kubitz is already thinking beyond nationals to his next big race ““ he hopes to compete in a half-Iron Man at the end of summer ““ most of the team is much less ambitious. Team members say the club is open to anyone, with any level of experience.

“The vast majority of us are amateurs,” said Josh Reyes, the team’s vice president. “I didn’t even know how to swim until freshman year.”

Despite this diversity of experience and ages ““ O’Bryan said members of the team range in age from 17-30 ““ the team describes itself as extremely tight-knit, a product both of hours of practice per day and of countless hours spent together outside of training.

“I love everyone on this team ““ it’s definitely been the best decision I’ve made in college,” fourth-year nursing student Vivien Cook said.

“We have practice two or three times a day, and then we hang out after, too. It’s just really fun.”

And, as befitting a team which spends so much of the day in training, many of these bonding experiences are based on food. Bridges-Oliva said the team’s fondest tradition is the pre-IronBruin bake-off.

The night before the annual UCLA-hosted triathlon, team members ““ who must get up at 3 a.m. to prepare for the day’s events ““ forego sleep to cook massive amounts of food and relax.

“None of us were going to sleep very much that night anyway, so we just went to my house and hung out and made a bunch of really delicious food,” Bridges-Oliva said.

The team’s more regular social outings include weekly team dinners at Literati, a restaurant near O’Bryan’s house.

Last week’s Literati dinner had a special significance. The team sent off its national squad which, unlike last year, contains 13 competitors ““ only one less than the maximum ““ all of whom are focused on achieving success.

“Last year, there were only four girls that went, and we went more for fun. We weren’t as competitive as the guys were,” Cook said.

“It was a really tough race because it was really hot, and it definitely prepared me for this year.”

O’Bryan says Cook and the rest of this year’s female competitors are a particularly strong group because of their diverse backgrounds in competitive running and swimming.

With these experiences under its belt, Cook says that this year’s women’s team should post its most impressive results in years.

“With only two girls finishing, we were fifth at conference,” Cook said.

“With a full team of six of us going to nationals, I think we’re going to do really, really well.”