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Women in Triathlon: Where Are We Now?

As triathlon approaches five years of working toward gender parity, how much has changed?

In 2015, hashtag activism came to triathlon in the form of #50womentokona, a movement that called for the Ironman World Championship to change its practice of unequal distribution of pro spots in the race: 50 spots were reserved for men on the Kona pier, while the women’s race was only 35 deep.

As the movement gained steam among pro and age-group athletes, 50 Women to Kona evolved beyond its origins. The unequal gender distribution of professional slots got people talking about gender disparity at all levels of triathlon; unlike running, where women have outnumbered men at U.S. road races for the past decade, triathlon participation demographics have always skewed heavily male.

The heightened awareness of this gender disparity led to a number of concerted efforts to grow women’s participation in triathlon. In the last five years, there have been a significant number of wins for women in multisport:

  • Money is now earmarked specifically for women in triathlon. Since its launch in 2015, Ironman’s Women for Tri program has distributed more than $300,000 in grants to triathlon clubs supporting female participation initiatives. 
  • More and better resources are available for women. The Outspoken: Women in Triathlon summit (of which Triathlete magazine has been a sponsor) has facilitated the development of programs and solutions for women at all levels of triathlon. “By bringing people together and tackling difficult questions head on, a number of women-led initiatives have launched, including funding programs for beginner women, online platforms connecting athletes to proper health care, social media campaigns and an industry-wide mentorship program,” says Sara Gross, Outspoken co-founder.
  • Research allows us to better understand the unique needs of women in the sport. “There is more research that is specific to women in endurance sports, which has brought a lot to the forefront that has invoked change,” says Dr. Stacy Sims, exercise physiologist & nutrition scientist, author of ROAR. “The understanding that women respond to training differently from men is increasing, and that’s a good thing.”
  • Coaches and athletes are able to find answers to their questions. In 2019, USA Triathlon launched a resource website for female triathletes, reflecting a newly-expanded body of information specific to women in endurance sports. 
  • Women’s triathlon is an NCAA emerging sport, and is tantalizingly close to securing the 40 schools required to become a varsity collegiate program in the year 2024. According to Jessica Welk, NCAA and Club Coordinator at USA Triathlon, 31 schools offer women’s triathlon as a varsity sport, representing all three NCAA Divisions.
  • Pro women are no longer an afterthought. In 2017, Ironman changed their 70.3 World Championship event to a two-day format in which men and women race on consecutive days. That was a huge step forward for pro women, says Rachel Joyce, pro triathlete & founder of women’s sport group REINAS: “For the professional women, it means their race is really showcased through live coverage and there is no danger of their race getting impacted by the pro mens’ race or male age groupers.”
  • Women are taking the reins. “The biggest win for women in triathlon in the last five years has been the emergence of women in key leadership roles within the triathlon industry,” says Rebecca Kimble, Ironman Women for Tri Specialist. “Notably, Marisol Casado’s leadership of the International Triathlon Union (ITU) [where she’s been president since 2008] and her work with the IOC Women in Sport Commission, and Jaqueline McCook, the second female President of the USA Triathlon Board of Directors.”

So are we closer to equality for men and women? Yes…and no.

The landscape of the sport certainly has changed in the last five years. But the numbers haven’t shifted quite as dramatically. The number of women who compete in triathlon has increased, but the rate of participation in triathlon events remains lower for females compared to males. 

  • USA Triathlon’s membership is currently at 39% women. The organization’s goal is to increase that number to 42% in 2020. 
  • The gender gap increases as athletes age. USA Triathlon data shows there was an equal distribution of male and female participants among 10 year-old triathletes in 2018; for 50 year-old athletes, men outnumber women at a ratio of 2:1; at 75, there are 11 male triathletes for every female triathlete. 
  • The longer the race, the fewer the women. Ironman touts an 18% increase in female participation in Ironman and 70.3 events since 2015, yet Ironman’s average global female participation rate is still quite low – women make up only 21% of the field. 

And there still isn’t an equal distribution of male and female slots at the Ironman World Championship race in Kona. Just as this disparity kicked off the initial push to increase women’s participation in triathlon in 2015, it currently underscores how far the sport still has to go.

“I think that there should be an equal number of pro men and women racing in Kona, but I’ve decided until there’s a change in personnel that probably isn’t going to happen,” says Joyce. “The new Kona qualification process means Ironman can say the opportunity is there, but I still think the current system smacks of the attitude that the professional women haven’t earned equal numbers yet.

“It is imperative that our sport embraces gender parity at the Ironman World Championship,” says Gross. “There is no other sport in the world that limits the number of women participating at the Championship level based on an equation loosely related to proportionality. That equation just reinforces the notion that women don’t deserve equal representation and fails to take into account the various historic, systemic and cultural structures that keep women and girls out of sport. The world is recognizing this and Ironman must eventually move the dial as well.”

The Future is Female

In only five years, a lot has been accomplished. But those working for gender parity in triathlon say there’s still a lot to be done. 

“The main roadblocks to achieving these goals [of equality] are the perceived barriers that are typical of most athletic programs, namely time, finances, accessibility, and personal confidence,” says Kimble. Initial efforts identified these barriers and developed general solutions; now, the focus becomes on created a more targeted approach.

“The main challenge now is to recognize that women are not a monolithic group, so the pathways to increasing our involvement in the sport will be as diverse as we are,” says Gross. “A white woman from middle-class America will have different barriers than a woman of color or a woman from a working class home or a paratriathlete. Everyone is different, and creating pathways for everyone is a sizeable challenge.

Several approaches will be employed to tackle this challenge:

  • More research to reflect the diversity of women in endurance sport.We still have poor scientific designs, and many researchers keep generalizing with the archaic idea that men and women are the same,” says Sims. “We need to improve the research and have more research on women at various stages of the lifespan. For example, the masters female athlete population; most of the research in that age bracket is all about obesity and disease prevention.”
  • More representation of women in media. “Telling their stories, celebrating their accomplishments, and creating relatable role models is the single most powerful vehicle for us to showcase how sport can create an inclusive environment for all,” says Kimble. Joyce agrees, adding that recent experience as a commentator for triathlon broadcasts has made her more aware of how the sport can improve on the language used surrounding women: “Women are still referred to as ‘girls,” and we label professional women as ‘wives and mothers.’ How women’s performance is presented is sometimes different to how men’s performance is described.” 
  • Creating more opportunity for women to race at the collegiate level. Though there is strong representation across all three NCAA Divisions, USA Triathlon’s biggest priorities on the women’s collegiate triathlon front for 2020 are recruiting DI programs from “Power Five” conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC), and recruiting additional HBCU [Historically Black Colleges & Universities] varsity programs to increase diversity in the sport. “The ‘big fish’ conferences are more difficult to recruit for a number of reasons, and the process is typically longer than with smaller schools and DII/DIII institutions,” says Welk. “We feel strongly that once we reach 40 institutions, there will be a snowball effect and the number of programs will continue to grow.” 
  • Foster a more inclusive environment. Says Gross: “The future is colorful. The future is diverse. The future is accepting and inclusive. And the first step is to check ourselves, to look inside and say, ‘How can I adjust my thinking? How can I make small shifts that will change my attitude about who is a triathlete and who is not?’”

The spirit of #50womentokona, then and now, is not entitlement, but opportunity – a belief that a rising tide lifts all boats. If the past five years have proven anything, it’s that opportunity breeds growth; slowly but surely, the sport is evolving to one where gender parity and inclusivity is the norm, not the exception. 

“In 2015, I felt like there was an ‘aha’ moment when the lack of participation by women was seen as an opportunity rather than the status quo of ‘that’s just how it is,’” says Joyce. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, but at least people are thinking about how we address the disparity, and what barriers to entry there are for women specifically.”