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Behind the Grassroots Efforts to Make Triathlon More Diverse

Jacqueline Sweet takes a look at the burgeoning grassroots efforts to make the sport more diverse.

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Triathlon has struggled historically to attract women and minorities. Jacqueline Sweet takes a look at the burgeoning grassroots efforts to make the sport more diverse.

On a warm Sunday morning last June, dozens of swimmers in wetsuits congregated on the quiet shore at West Neck Beach in Huntington, N.Y., a protected sandy inlet on Long Island Sound. In a small, shallow roped-off area, 11 women warmed up with an easy swim. Two coaches instructed and applauded them for accomplishing seemingly small yet crucial milestones: a first open-water swim, a first lesson in open-water sighting.

For these women, the journey to get to that bucolic beach at 8 a.m. that morning wasn’t easy. Most of them drove an hour or more from Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and northern New Jersey. The majority of the team are women of color, a demographic that’s severely underrepresented in triathlon. In fact, USA Triathlon estimates that as of 2015, 37 percent of active members are women, and only one half of 1 percent of active members are African-American.

What brought these women out this morning was a club called All Women’s Tri Team. Founded in 2012, its mission is simple: to help foster the growth of women of all races and ethnicities participating in the sport of triathlon in the five boroughs of New York and Long Island. Five seasons later, the team boasts four first-time Ironman and six half-Ironman finishers among its 43 members, 80 percent of whom are non-white, many from Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan.

It’s an incredible feat, particularly considering how much triathlon, at the highest levels, has struggled to speak to both women and minorities. And it’s one that highlights how the charge toward increasing diversity in the sport is coming from the ground up. In addition to the All Women’s Tri Team, there is now the Black Triathletes Association, a national group that promotes triathlon to the black community, and women-only races like Power of a Woman in East Meadow, N.Y., and The Mighty Mujer triathlon in El Paso, Texas, that encourage women—especially minority women—to enter the sport.

“We get negative messaging from everywhere, as black women,” says Ironman finisher Ovetta Sampson, who lives in Chicago. “You’re not this, you can’t do that, you’re not pretty, you’re not worthy. For me, as a black woman, to say I finished an Ironman, it shuts up the room.”

Sampson, 44, calls herself two things: the Harriet Tubman of Triathlon, and a stealth athlete. The first moniker comes from her passion for ushering women of color into the multisport world. The second stems from her unlikely path to Ironman, since she didn’t come from an athletic background and began training for a sprint triathlon at 300 pounds as a black woman in 2004. She went on to complete Ironman Cozumel in 2013.

One of the main obstacles for black women is the swim, she says. Seventy percent of black adults in the United States cannot swim, a fact attributable to a complex mix of political, cultural, economic and geographical factors limiting access to pools, and the ramifications of generations lacking a strong swimming culture. “If I can get an athlete who won’t even put her head underwater in the deep end of the pool to a half-Ironman in the open water, then the rest will come. We have to keep expanding the community pipeline in triathlon, and connect the majority resources and infrastructure to the minority groups,” Sampson says.

Education, awareness and connecting those dots between untapped talent and unused resources are common themes among a new crop of grassroots groups that are springing up nationally to promote diversity in triathlon—and triathlon’s major institutions are taking notice. Both USAT and Ironman are recognizing that nobody can engage fellow potential triathletes like their peers, and they are now giving grants to support these organizations’ efforts to increase diversity in the sport.

Last year, for example, USA Triathlon Foundation awarded a grant to Maryland-based group International Association of Black Triathletes (IABT), while Ironman partnered with Life Time Fitness in 2015 to launch Women For Tri, an organization that also awards grants to women and clubs encouraging women to take up triathlon*—including the barrier-breaking NYC-based All Women’s Tri Team.
But progress in the sport mustn’t only be gauged by participation on the recreational level. Sika Henry, a 33-year-old former high school swimmer and college track athlete from Virginia, is determined to become the first black female pro triathlete and to use that platform to welcome minorities to the sport.

“You can’t do something you’ve never heard of,” Henry says. “There aren’t that many of us, so we aren’t shown.” Just as Simone Manuel’s success in Olympic swimming last year created a visible female black role model swimmer, Henry hopes to see role models in triathlon inspire the next crop of potential athletes: “[Manuel’s success] was so huge in our community. It was ground-breaking.”

Still, Henry is aware of the entrenched challenges around the issues of swimming and access to training resources in urban areas, and doesn’t know how quickly the demographics will change. “I hope it skyrockets like it has with running—black women now make up the fastest growing segment of endurance running—and with such a low number of us in the sport, any progress is important.”

And progress is becoming more visible, particularly to the barrier-breaking women who’ve been in the sport the longest. Last year, “at a half-Ironman in Steelhead, Mich., I counted 15 black women. I was like, ‘Where did all these black women come from?’ It’s so surreal,” Sampson says, remembering all the years of feeling like the only one.

It’s not just tri teams and races that are drawing these women to tri. Individuals like Sampson and Henry are making a difference simply by telling their own stories. Back when she first started competing, Sampson maintained a small personal blog that was making a big impact on one of her readers, a woman named Megan White. “She read me because even though I was slow, fat, always finishing last, I was really loving triathlon, and she followed me for 10 years and told me she thought if I could do it, she could do it.” White went on to create the All Women’s Tri Team.

“Triathlon empowers people in other areas of their lives,” White says, underlining the reason behind her passion for the sport and encouraging other women to participate. When she began racing triathlons eight years ago, she showed up at races and couldn’t find any other black athletes, but she knew there had to be more. As she trained and posted pictures on Facebook of her swims, runs, bikes and races, she realized she was inspiring friends, and friends of friends—the interest was there.

So White, along with training partner Lisa Laws, began by mentoring 14 women as they trained for their first sprint pool triathlon on Long Island, and in 2012 All Women’s Tri Team was officially born. Then the team, which picked up several sponsors including Long Island bike shops, Sunrise Tri and Base Performance, began holding informational sessions at SUNY Downstate for interested would-be triathletes. In 2016, the team received grants from Women For Tri and the Ironman Foundation, another program established in 2003 to give back to the Ironman community.

Photo: James Farrell

Now every year between 12 and 20 women join the now 43-member team through word of mouth, mostly those looking to break into the sport and complete a first sprint. “Triathlon changes your whole lifestyle,” Laws says, “but it also changes your life. These women are going to walk into work with their backs a little straighter.” She explained that most of the team members are adult-onset athletes inspired to change their lives and lose weight, and that the team helps connect the athletes with the resources they need. “The team, and the group, is an equalizer—for new athletes who not only are women, and women of color, but women who live in an urban environment and need places to train that are accessible.” Women like Diahann McFarlane.

More than training information or tips, the encouragement and support of All Women’s Tri Team was a welcome change for the Teaneck, N.J., resident who recalled a hostile and snobby atmosphere at her first duathlon in Central Park: “There I was on my hybrid bike, trying to be friendly and no one would even say hi to me. With this team we try to have fun and not take it so seriously.” McFarlane, 52, says she’s seeing progress in diversity in the sport. “I’m hopeful and I think the community is becoming more and more welcoming. We are showing you don’t have to be pencil thin. We come in all shapes and sizes.” McFarlane is training for her first 70.3 in Atlantic City, and her goal is to finish healthy, as she battles a recent MS diagnosis. She believes the full impact of what All Women’s Tri Team and others like it are accomplishing will bear fruit in years to come, as her children and others in her local community and beyond get more exposure to the sport. “It won’t be so foreign to them.”

*Still, female pros do not have an equal number of slots as male pros at the Ironman World Championship–pro men currently get 50 slots, pro women 35. That fact has fueled more grassroots efforts aimed, at least partially, at changing that policy, including TriEqual and 50 Women to Kona.