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CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Speed Project relay as the inaugural GRIT USA event and identified GRIT USA as an offshoot of District Triathlon Club. The relay was, in fact, completed by members of District Triathlon Club and the two groups are no longer affiliated.
Last spring, a small team of triathletes from District Triathlon Club in Washington, D.C. traveled to Los Angeles to take part in The Speed Project, an unsanctioned relay from the Santa Monica Pier to the iconic “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign 340 miles away in Nevada. There aren’t too many rules for the unsanctioned race—the starting gun fires at 5 a.m. on a Friday morning, and teams of six run day and night through desolate desert terrain, trying to be the first to cross the finish line. There’s no official website, little media coverage, no timing or official results—just runners, their crew, and a whole lot of endorphins.
The event left the club’s founder, Marcus Fitts, inspired to take on new challenges and break the mold of endurance sports. GRIT USA was born, and with it, a new model for triathlon teams and clubs.
Fitts is no stranger to breaking the mold—in 2015, he started the District Triathlon Club, a nonprofit organization working to increase participation of people of color in multisport. After The Speed Project, Fitts saw an opportunity to branch out and create a new triathlon team—one that would not only elevate the triathletes themselves, but those around them. The mission of GRIT is threefold: to advance people to new limits, to inspire communities, and to enact sociocultural change.
Fitts and the other members of that relay team are no longer affiliated with the District Triathlon Club, and GRIT USA is a separate entity and club.
It’s the latter elements of GRIT’s mission that make it stand out from many other triathlon clubs. Triathlon is overwhelmingly white; USA Triathlon’s last demographic survey, published in 2016, showed only one half of one percent of its members were black. In recent years, efforts to increase diversity have focused on specific elements of recruitment, such as community education, marketing, and collegiate triathlon programs at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In creating a team operated by black coaches and race directors, Fitts was guided by a big-picture approach:
“I wanted to create a group that engaged organizational culture and considered the entire ecosystem of touchpoints,” Fitts said. “Pool access, USA Triathlon resources, relays, connections, gear and apparel that fits—the ultimate goal was to make a connection where there was a great difference.”
The design of GRIT was informed in part by a larger underground movement called Bridge the Gap, a community of individuals inspired by a common philosophy of using the pavements of their urban wildlife as a playground. In many ways, the #bridgethegap approach is a stark departure from the regimented, individual, and sometimes intimidating approach of so many endurance athletes. Workouts are communal events, often with a fun and irreverent hook: “There are no limits in place in terms of what types of endurance events we focus on,” explained GRIT member Colin Ball. “Instead, there is space for any and every idea to be thrown out there. If a member finds an interesting event they want to participate in or try out—they can present it and lead it.”
Another important element borrowed from #bridgethegap is the unspoken, yet clearly understood rule that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. “There are crews from all over the world, and we’re all inspired by each other,” Fitts said. “When we connect, it’s a time to share joy, overcome pain, and grow into an inseparable alliance of athletes.”
Fitts applies this philosophy to GRIT; for its first year right now, the team is capped at 15 members to create what he calls a “harmoniously unified group.” This allows Fitts and other coaches to cater to the individual needs of the athletes, be it training concerns, access to pools or gear, or social support.
“We respect, challenge, and motivate each other,” Fitts said. “Teammates trust each other to be open, honest, and comfortable, knowing they have a support system to hold them accountable.”
On this foundation of sweat and support, GRIT is building a strong model for diversity and inclusion in endurance sports. “Although this team was created for the purpose of introducing and encouraging this sport to minorities, this team is diverse,” said team member Gaftie Marlow. “We have members from all shades, ethnic groups, socioeconomic backgrounds, and personal identities. I feel that makes our team stronger, as these aspects become real topics for inclusion and understanding each other as teammates and as people. We all become stronger athletically and mentally.”
Faren Campbell, fellow GRIT member, agrees: “The message of being a true athlete at heart, wanting to improve for yourself, and being an inspiration for others drew me in. This is an all-inclusive team of every athletic ability and background. Seeing how everyone works together has pushed me to train harder. We lean on one another in the hardest of times and cheer for each other as we achieve our goals.”
“Representation is important, and we aim to ensure that people from every demographic feel included in this sport,” Fitts said. “Creating inclusive spaces is critical, especially right now. There truly isn’t a blueprint for this. What I recommend for any team is to understand that there is a difference between diversity and inclusion. Both are equally important for your membership and aid in creating a welcoming team environment.”