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How Shannon Woods is Changing the Face of Endurance Sport

Triathlon has a diversity problem—but there are many people working hard within the endurance industry to improve this. In this five-part mini-series, we’ll be talking with some of them.

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. Over the course of the next five weeks, we’ll be highlighting some of these people and the valuable work they are doing already in the sport, industry, and at companies like Zwift, SOUL CAP, and Peloton. Each of them are making access easier for every kind of body to feel at ease and at home in training and competition, with multiple points of entry. 

The triathlon community is renowned for kindness and generosity, welcoming start lines and celebratory last-place finishes. Many athletes will share nutrition, water, repair kits, or sacrifice their own time to help a competitor complete a race. But that doesn’t mean everyone can or will join in.

Triathlon has a diversity problem. Diversity means all bodies, of course—all colors, sizes, and abilities. So what kinds of bodies get to compete in triathlon? Who gets to feel safe running in broad daylight or taking time off at work? In a perfect world, the answer would be “everyone,” but the reality is much different. In May 2021, Sika Henry became the first U.S. Black female professional triathlete—ever. If you Google “black professional triathlete,” you get Max Fennell in bold font at the top of the search page. Until Henry earned her elite license earlier this year, there was one, just Fennell. According to a 2016 USA Triathlon Membership Survey, 84% of participants identified as white, 5% Hispanic/Latino, 3% Asian, and just 1% Black. Not everyone feels welcome, and not everyone has equal access.

As a coach and trainer who has worked in the field with all different kinds of bodies, I’ve seen the impact of narrowly designed gear, limited access to training, and work and family schedules that prevent participation in endurance sports. But I am a white woman writing this story, so I went to the source to hear, in their own words, from the people and companies leading the way toward diversity, equity, and inclusion in triathlon. We begin here with Shannon Woods from Brooks Running, which is working to have every level of its organization be 30% BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) and 50% women by 2025. 

RELATED: Why Aren’t There More Black Triathletes?

Shannon Woods – Senior Manager of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion at Brooks Running

Where are you from, and what was your relationship with sports as a younger person and as an adult?

I was a competitive gymnast from the age of 5 to 15, and I did track and field in middle school. My mom was a runner when I was growing up, and I did a few races with her. That’s how I got started. I run almost every day now with my dog, and I’ve run five or six half-marathons, but haven’t run a full one yet.

When I started working at Brooks 10 years ago, I really got into it and began setting goals for myself. It’s not a sport where I experience getting into the zone. It’s always a challenge, and that’s part of the reason I like it so much. I like accomplishing something I didn’t think I could do and thinking, “OK, what can I do next?” I also use running as a form of physical training so I can do other things I love, like skiing and backpacking. It’s a big part of my life.

When did you start working on DEI, and how did your career path lead you to Brooks?

I grew up going through the public school system, and when I got into college, I started taking African American and Native American history and multicultural studies. I experienced an a-ha moment, realizing how much I didn’t learn in school. When my kids were little, I put them in schools that had a social justice focus and taught history from different perspectives. I served on the Board of Trustees and led a committee focused on DEI to increase diversity of faculty and staff, student enrollment, and curriculum.

I also got a degree in fashion design, which I love. It’s at the core of who I am. I was designing on the apparel team at Brooks when the company started a journey to create gender balance within the organization and signed the Outdoor Industry Women’s Coalition CEO Pledge to promote women in leadership. Brooks was being very transparent about what the demographics looked like for gender at all levels of the organization. I started asking about other types of diversity and was asked to lead our Diversity Working Group. We wrote a strategic plan back in 2017 and have been working on initiatives since then. I was able to move into my current position and changed careers officially in 2020.

What is your mission at Brooks? How is the company working to improve DEI in running?

Brooks is a founding member of the Running Industry Diversity Coalition (RIDC), and I was privileged to get a seat on that Board during its inception. It was formed by Chris Lampen-Crowell (owner of Gazelle Sports), Allison Desir (founder of Harlem Run and Run 4 All Women), and others. Along with Jim Weber at Brooks, they started ideating on a coalition focused specifically on dismantling systemic racism in the running industry. We launched in October 2020 as an official coalition that brings together brands, retailers, events, run clubs, and individual runners. The board is currently made up of majority women and people of color. We’re working on education initiatives and a major research project to collect demographic data about the industry. Membership and education sessions are free for anyone who wants to participate.

Brooks also has its own strategic plan to incorporate DEI into three areas where we feel like we can have the most impact: workplace, runners, and community.

In the workplace, I’m passionate about making sure everybody has equal opportunity to work at their full potential in their careers. For our runners, I work closely with marketing around representation and inclusion. We want consumers to see themselves in our marketing and everything we do. It’s also important to look at who’s doing the storytelling. We’re not just runners and models. We’re also photographers, videographers, stylists, engineers, and leaders. And RIDC fits nicely with engaging the community. We also have a board seat on Running USA Sport and Fitness Industry Association and advocate for DEI there.

What is the biggest challenge you’re facing?

I think that our biggest challenge is ourselves. We have an amazing organization and culture with very smart people, and we’ve been able to face and overcome a lot of challenges. We just have to decide, “Yes, we’re going to do something,” and go for it. We’ve set some aggressive goals for racial and gender diversity, and we’re still figuring out how to get there. By 2025, we are determined to be 30% BIPOC and 50% women at every level of our organization. I think we can do it. It’s exciting.

Why is this work so important to you personally?

It’s been a passion of mine almost my whole life. I’ve been an advocate and an activist. I’m mixed: African American and white. My father served in the Army in World War II when the military was still segregated, and he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. My parents were married about five years after interracial marriage was legalized, so I grew up with an awareness of inequalities in the world, how people were treated, and how things were changing. Also, I have three boys and was an ambitious young mother, not wanting them to experience some of the things that me or my parents have experienced. I want them to have all the opportunities in the world. That’s what drives me in this work.

RELATED: How to Ensure Triathlon’s Diversity Efforts Will Actually Work