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Triathlon is a welcoming sport, but it is still largely a white, able-bodied, affluent, and heteronormative sport. Although equity can sometimes seem like a finish line that is a long way off, the hard work of the people outlined in this five-part mini-series helps show that there is already a sea change in the endurance world when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Over the past five weeks with this diversity mini-series, we’ve been highlighting some of these people and the valuable work they are undertaking. We’ve heard from Shannon Woods from Brooks Running, Lisa Bourne, Senior Director of Diversity, Inclusion & Social Impact at Zwift, as well as Toks Ahmed-Salawudeen and Michael Chapman, co-founders at SOUL CAP, and Dr. Christal Morris, Senior Vice President and Global Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Peloton.
This week, we hear from CJ Riggins, CEO at Rsport, the active apparel company that designs and creates sportswear for bodies of all variations.
Where are you from, and what was your relationship with sports as a younger person, and as an adult?
I loved any form of kickball and gymnastics coming up through elementary school and played basketball from middle school until 11th grade. I loved the camaraderie and energy, but I didn’t love the uniforms: ill-fitting, thick polyester double-knit. In college, I started running 5K distances to stay healthy, but I wasn’t very consistent.
After I had my second child, I was trying to get back in shape, and a friend invited me to do a Danskin Sprint Triathlon. I was a runner and biker, but it had been a long time since I’d been swimming for anything other than enjoyment. That triathlon was the start of my fascination with athletes of all body types. With my background in design, it was such a great opportunity to see a ton of athletes in all their varying glory.
When did you start working on inclusive performance athletic apparel, and how did your career path lead you to Rsport?
I moved from ready-to-wear design to outdoor apparel when I started working for Salomon. I loved the performance quality of the product that enhanced users’ experiences, but we didn’t actually allow “more to explore” their athletic passions because we omitted them by not building to their size. Later, working for Pearl Izumi, I started to ask, “Have you noticed that a lot of riders are actually larger? Runners, too. There are 2X and 3X athletes out there hoofing it, and they really don’t have anything great to wear.”
I was also an adjunct professor at Colorado State University in Design and Merchandising, and worked with their Human Performance Group to learn from skeletal and vascular experts about how compression impacts performance. They told me: “In theory, compression can improve venous return, but if you’re highly trained, you probably won’t see a huge benefit. The group who can benefit most is the weekend warrior or the athlete who is trying to get out there more.” Most companies direct their high-end products at elite athletes, but I wanted to switch the game and give entry-level folks everything. So that’s how we launched RSport. We put all our understanding of how to build a product better for performance into a singular product so everybody, along the whole range of athletic performance, can benefit.
What is your mission at Rsport? How is the company working to improve inclusivity in triathlon?
We asked Athena athletes what their biggest challenges were when they’re racing. Sometimes it’s about the actual race—performance or nutrition—but sometimes, unfortunately, a lot of their time was spent worrying about jerking their tops down or elastic creeping to the smallest point on the body. Whatever size you are, we want you to be able to ignore your kit.
If athletes feel blocked from joining or enjoying competition, it’s a slap in the face. Everyone should feel valued and included. Whatever women need, we’ve got them covered: We have crossover waistbands, snaps, and elastic drawstrings for a perfect fit, welded seams to prevent chafing, opaque fabrics with a special vacuum printing process so the material isn’t see-through when it’s stretched in wider spots, deep pockets to carry a phone or whatever nutrition you need, and permanent wicking yarns to maintain a cooling effect no matter how many times you wash our products. We’ve even got what we call a “modesty liner” in our shorts so women can feel comfortable stopping for coffee or running errands after a workout.
Also, at Roar Sport (Rsport’s parent company), we consult to help companies who want to get into plus and Athena apparel. People ask why I would help other companies, and I do it because the industry needs to serve these athletes faster. We’ve helped REI, Specialized, and a number of others to improve their processes and learn about this consumer and how she shops. Not all “plus-size” women fit exactly the same, and there should be a variety of brands to service multiple fits.
What is the biggest challenge you’re facing?
I wish Google and SEO would stop only recognizing the term “plus-size.” I loathe that term and would love to switch it to Athena for everything. I’m hoping that, with the addition of Lululemon and Athleta, the SEO is changing. They are more focused on athleisure than performance athletics, but they’re helping. Pearl Izumi has stepped up too. They’re up to a 3X now, and they’ve got a good team there. Every little bit helps to include Athena women in everyday conversations.
The same problem applies in separating departments in stores. If I’m shopping with a friend, why do I have to go to a plus-size section? We don’t choose our friends based on their size, and we want to shop together. Why do I have to be over here while my friend is over there in another department?
Why is this work important to you?
Some people think that if we’re larger, we must be suffering, but that’s not always the case. We run the gamut. You have uber-athletes and those who are not as fit, but they’re all competing. We want to offer all of them the same stuff so they can improve, keep their status quo, or choose to step away if they want. But no one should ever have to step away because we don’t have apparel for them. We are all welcome at the table. We want Athena athletes to feel strong and determined. We want to give them that extra oomph so they can get out the door, enjoy their race or training, keep their head up, and enjoy the view.