Defining Fairness: Inside One Triathlete’s Messy, Complicated Fight to Race
Now that women’s draft-legal triathlon is getting the official nod from the NCAA, it leaves collegiate paratriathletes to fend for themselves in a grey area somewhere between club and varsity.
When the phrase “college sports” is spoken, we often think of roaring stadiums filled to the brim for football games or the packed courts of March Madness. But college sports extend well beyond the goal line and into niche athletics such as mountain biking, fencing, and triathlon.
In 2014, USA Triathlon (USAT) got the go-ahead from the NCAA, the governing body of varsity collegiate sports, to begin the journey of recruiting at least 40 schools into Division I, II, and III women’s draft-legal triathlon programs in order to become a permanent varsity-level sport.
Previously, both draft-legal and non-drafting collegiate triathlon were club sports, meaning that they received no funding from the NCAA and very little, if any, from the universities hosting a club sports program. Club sports rely heavily on dues paid by club sports athletes, and those athletes generally must pay their own way when it comes to traveling for competitions and equipment. Since 2014, USAT has onboarded 40 schools to the NCAA draft-legal women’s triathlon program, providing funding, scholarships, and full-time coaching staff to each team.
But for 19-year-old Maggie Peters, a paratriathlete with a visual impairment from Fort Wayne, Indiana, competing in varsity triathlon for her school, Newberry College in South Carolina, has been an exhausting series of miscommunications, exclusions, and uncertainty about her future in collegiate triathlon.
Due to Peters’ visual impairment, she needs what is known as a guide when she trains and competes in triathlon. A guide is a person without a physical disability who matches or exceeds the fitness level of the athlete with a disability. The guide is tethered to the paratriathlete in the swim, leads a tandem bike with the paratriathlete, and is once again connected via bungee cord to the paratriathlete for the run.
The use of a guide isn’t limited to paratriathletes with a visual impairment; there are a variety of classifications used to categorize paratriathletes’ disabilities and determine if they are eligible to race with a guide or not. Peters is classified as “VI” athlete – a visually impaired athlete, and must always race with a guide.
Peters has frequently been denied the use of a guide (and therefore, denied being able to race) in her inaugural collegiate season, with officials stating that riding a tandem bike in a draft-legal race presents both an unfair advantage for Peters and creates an unsafe environment for all athletes on the bike. This leaves Peters with two options: not race at all, or return to the ranks of club triathlon which accommodates paratriathletes via club paratriathlon races.
What Peters wants most, though, is to race at the NCAA level for which she was recruited.
“I want to be a NCAA triathlete – that’s my goal,” Peters says. “I don’t care who I compete against, but I want to compete against the best in NCAA women’s triathlon – that’s what equality looks like to me.”
Mary Shepro, a lawyer and triathlete who has consulted with Peters, argues that if USAT and the NCAA are investing in draft-legal triathlon and all the perks that go with it – increased funding, scholarships, top-tier coaching, to name a few – then both governing bodies should be just as dedicated to creating NCAA paratriathlon teams.
“It comes down to this: Whose definition of ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ are we using in this situation?” Shepro says. “I’ve guided athletes before and can tell you that a guide is not an unfair advantage compared to able-bodied athletes when it comes to speed and power.”
Two-time Paralympic paratriathlon gold medalist Allysa Seely knows intimately the challenges that come with advocating for equal opportunities for athletes with disabilities.
“Athletes develop best when they’re happy, they’re healthy, they’re supported, and they’re able to chase their dreams,” Seely says. “Telling para-athletes that they can ‘race’ but it will be separate or entirely different from their teammates – that’s still exclusionary.”
Seely went on to say that she believes the correct solution is safely integrating paratriathletes who want to race in the NCAA, but she understands it is not a clear-cut path. The Paralympic gold medalist noted it can be frustrating to jump through hoops just to compete in your sport as a paratriathlete.
“These situations can feel like [people telling you], ‘You should race in this designation,’ and then saying, ‘Oh wait, actually, you can’t race with your team. You need to start in a separate wave,’” Seely says. “Knowing from my own journey, this is not an easy road to be on.”
RELATED: How to Make Triathlon More Accessible for Athletes With Disabilities
Is a Sighted Guide an Unfair Advantage?
Guides are leveraged in many sports, not just triathlon. Standalone open-water swim, road and track cycling, and track and field and road running all recommend guides for those whose disability classifications mean they would be unable to safely compete in their discipline without them.
This is called a “reasonable accommodation.” The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires reasonable accommodations, such as a guide or handcycle, to be allowed and provided to an athlete so long as the accommodation does not give the athlete an unfair advantage over others or create an unsafe environment for other athletes.
For example, Keri Serota, founder of Dare2Tri, an organization that pairs triathlon guides with paratriathletes, noted that there are situations in which a guide dog is not considered a reasonable accommodation for an athlete with a disability who wishes to compete in a triathlon or marathon.
“I’ve had scenarios at running events where we’ve stipulated that guide dogs were not considered a reasonable accommodation,” Serota says. “This is because a dog can’t safely guide or communicate with a para-athlete through the dynamic environment of a run race.” In these cases, a human guide was considered a reasonable accommodation instead.
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While some may argue that a guide in a paratriathlon can result in an unfair advantage on the bike with speed and power output, some paratriathletes disagree, including Peters.
“For any advantage others may think I could gain on the bike with a guide, there are other disadvantages that I face in the race that negate any tandem bike advantages, at least in my mind,” Peters says. “For example, it takes me a bit longer to move from swim to bike and bike to run because I need to navigate the transition area with my guide.”
Seely agrees: “In my mind, there will almost never be a reasonable accommodation for a paratriathlete that provides an unfair advantage because we have to work so hard to level the playing field with athletes without a disability.”
Safety is a massive factor in any sport, but especially in triathlon. Not only are there plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong in an open body of water, but riding in a draft pack at 20-plus miles per hour means every move is high-stakes.
Paratriathlon is non-drafting, even in the Paralympics. However, this does not mean that it is impossible for an athlete with a visual impairment and a sighted guide to participate in a draft-legal triathlon. In fact, there were draft-legal paratriathlon competitions for athletes with visual impairments years ago.
There is evidence pointing to the idea that riding a tandem bike provides an advantage to the stoker (rear position on the bike) from the captain (front position on the bike). One study showed that “cycling on a tandem resulted in lower physiological stress than when cycling at the same velocity on a single bicycle.” That same study found that tandem cyclists were able to ride 4.8-8.0kph faster on a tandem than on a single bike in similar conditions. This is because, according to the study, “stokers can add to power output on a tandem without adding significantly to wind resistance.”
The International Paralympic Committee has stated that they, too, understand the correlation between faster speeds and the way a guide and paratriathlete work together: “In some sports, the overall performance of an athlete will depend…on the individual contribution of the guide…This ideally needs to be controlled when establishing the relationship between impairment and performance during [disability] classification research,” the International Paralympic Committee declared, going on to note that an athlete’s overall performance in a competition will be the result of not just the athlete’s abilities, but the contribution of their guide, as well.
RELATED: A Sight for Fast Legs: Inside the World of Athlete Guiding
Peters’ Side of the Story
Peters, who had been a competitive swimmer and runner all her life, did her first triathlon in seventh grade through Dare2Tri – the same organization Serota founded. Her immediate success at and love of the sport prompted USAT Paratriathlon National Team Coach Chris Palmquist to help Peters through her recruitment process with Newberry College.
Although Peters was recruited to race NCAA draft-legal women’s triathlon, her experience has been one of frequent exclusion from draft-legal races.
“Peters has been told that using a tandem with a guide in a draft pack is dangerous or that a guide is an advantage and therefore she is not allowed to race in many NCAA women’s triathlon races,” Shepro says. “Show me the evidence on either. I have yet to see it.”
Peters is a dominant athlete – frequently placing in the top half of able-bodied competitors when she is, on the off-chance, allowed to leverage a guide and race a NCAA draft-legal triathlon. And even when she does get to compete with a guide in the draft-legal race, she has had experiences where she was not allowed to score any points for her team (team triathlon is ranked based on individual points and added up to total a team score).
When we first spoke with Peters in mid-October of 2022, Peters had just been told that with two days to go before the NCAA triathlon regional championships, she would either have to race in the club (not varsity) paratriathlon wave or not race at all; she would not be allowed to race with a guide in the draft-legal format. Earlier in the month, Peters was told she would be allowed to race regionals with a guide—to suddenly be excluded was a crushing blow, she says.
USAT has a different stance and argues that paratriathletes of all ages have “never had more opportunity within the sport than they do today,” says Parker Spencer, High Performance Development Senior Manager at USAT. Spencer noted that USA paratriathletes competing at the elite level within the USA will receive the same prize purse and bonuses as their able-bodied counterparts. This is a huge step in the right direction as most countries deprioritize para-athletes of all sports and leave them little funding or money for performance incentives.
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Spencer also noted, though, that the “appropriate pipeline” for Peters to participate in, according to USAT, is collegiate club paratriathlon.
“NCAA triathlon exists as an Olympic pipeline, not as a Paralympic pipeline,” Spencer says. “It’s not that we are trying to keep Peters from NCAA triathlon, it’s that it’s more appropriate for her to compete in paratriathlon club events, which are designed to be the Paralympic, non-draft pipeline.”
Regardless of USAT’s stance, it does leave Peters in a frustrating gray area when it comes to competing for Newberry College. Peters hasn’t decided yet if she wants to try for the Paralympics, so pipelines aren’t yet important to her.
Some say relegating all paratriathletes to the club scene whether, or not the paratriathlete is recruited to compete at the varsity level or not, is not enough. “Club sports are not an equal alternative [to NCAA-funded sports],” Shepro says. “Club sports generally do not have a full-time coach, access to the same resources [like physical therapists and nutritionists], or the same level of scholarship funding as NCAA sports.”
According to the NCAA, approximately $600 million is dedicated to Division I sports each year, with $150 million of that supporting a variety of athletic championships. Club sports, on the other hand, are often funded by the dues paid by team members and may receive a small stipend from the school. There is no question that club sports do not have the same luster of NCAA athletics.
Peters did not race in the regional NCAA triathlon championship. She opted to support her teammates instead of racing in the club paratriathlon race.
“[My situation] is complicated for sure and has many variables; there are strict rules about equipment and who is allowed on the race course,” Peters says. “What I find odd, though, is that I was initially told I could race, and then at the last minute, told that would not be allowed. I hope to eventually figure out a way where I can race draft-legal collegiate triathlon.”
Other Sports Tell a Different – More Inclusive – Story
While not every club sport has a varsity equivalent and vice versa, sports that are parallel with triathlon – track and field and swimming, primarily – operate under a much more inclusive umbrella.
Hunter Woodhall is a former Division I track and field athlete who raced for the University of Arkansas. Woodhall has no legs.
Instead, Woodhall leverages two below-the-knee prosthetics to help him walk – and run. A study by the University of Colorado found that athletes who use running blades have no competitive advantage. This disputes the previous school of thought, which was that running blades offered more propulsion and energy return with each step. The NCAA has listened to the updated science and currently allows track and field athletes with prosthetic blades to be recruited for and compete at the varsity collegiate level.
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NCAA swimming operates with similar guidelines. Brickelle Bro was born without calves or her feet. She grew up swimming competitively and was recruited by Stanford University to swim for them (when many schools would not recruit her due to her disability), which she did from 2015 to 2016.
During her time with Stanford, Bro set the S8 (a term classifying Bro’s disability) Paralympic American record in 1650-yard freestyle at the Pac-12 championships, and she also competed in the 200 freestyle and 500 freestyle – racing alongside other swimmers without a physical disability.
An Uncertain Future for Para-athletes
When two-time Paralympic paratriathlon gold medalist Allysa Seely raced at the collegiate level in the early 2010s, collegiate paratriathlon was not yet its own sport.
“NCAA triathlon did not exist when I raced in college ten-plus years ago,” Seely says. “My only option was to race club, and not only to race club, but to race it alongside every other athlete there; there was no paratriathlon option.”
Seely has continued to blaze the trail for other paratriathletes in her disability advocacy work and by pushing her limits as an elite paratriathlete. But all is not easy for Seely, who still must often work doubly hard to make her voice heard and respected. She understands intimately the challenges Peters is experiencing.
“You have to be very brave to be the first [to achieve something],” Seely says. “People do not like when others point out flaws in a system and people do not like when others challenge the status quo.”
There is no single answer for the obstacles plaguing Peters’ collegiate triathlon career and the careers of athletes with disabilities who want to compete at the NCAA level.
“What I’d like is maybe a document that outlines [the rules for a paratriathlete competing at the NCAA level],” Peters says. “[Paratriathletes] need some sort of rulebook for how to proceed [at the NCAA level].”
The fight for equal footing for athletes with disabilities within the NCAA is not new. The former chief marketing officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee argued in 2021 that the NCAA needs to rethink its approach to equal opportunity and reasonable accommodation for athletes with disabilities, stating:
“Much like with Title IX, NCAA institutions… must accommodate the desires of Americans with hearing, visual or mobility impairments. This means, with certain exceptions…the institutions bear noteworthy obligations to facilitate ‘equal opportunity.’”
Peters’ exploration into what is legally “safe” and “fair” for a paratriathlete who wants to race in the NCAA has the potential to bring change to “reasonable accommodation” rules for NCAA triathlon.
Regardless of the outcome of Peters’ fight, she has brought up critical conversations about what constitutes inclusivity for an athlete with a disability who wants to compete at the NCAA level.
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