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In or Out? Why Queer Triathletes Choose to Come Forward

As Pride Month draws to a close, we spoke to a number of LGBTQ+ athletes about their journey and why they feel it’s important to be public about something—their sexuality—many consider to be private.

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Siri Lindley, a former ITU world champion turned world championship-winning coach who is married to former pro Rebekah Keat, knows only too well what it feels like to have to hide your authentic self in order to advance in triathlon. Prior to her victory at the 2001 ITU World Championships when, by her own admission, she was “still trying to make it,” she signed a sponsorship deal which required her to “grow her hair long and get a boyfriend,” she said.

At the time I was so focused on achieving my goals and I needed the support….I was only just starting to feel comfortable with my sexuality. I signed the contract, left the room, stepped back into the closet and slammed the door shut,” she said. “I did what I thought was the right thing to help achieve my ultimate goal, but it felt terrible to abandon myself, it felt horrible to leave myself behind. The true power in that story is that I will never ever do that again.”

Triathlon coach and former professional triathlete Siri Lindley. Photo: VeloPress

There aren’t many LGBTQ+ pro athletes in triathlon, but the ones who are openly out have already helped increase visibility in a sport that is predominantly heteronormative. Why does that matter? Because they can serve as visible role models for other queer athletes and even non-athletes, and because the experience of being true to themselves can be empowering not just personally but also in their performance.

Ironman champion Cody Beals also had an internal tussle before finally coming out publicly. “I was initially hesitant to talk much about my sexuality. It didn’t seem relevant to my triathlon career and I didn’t want to capitalize on it,” he said. After all, many consider their sexuality to be a private topic—not one that’s relevant to swimming, biking, or running. Beals said he avoided interviews and sponsorship opportunities that he felt were centered on that aspect of who he is.

But then he started to notice that every time he opened up about his sexuality—such as posting a photo with his partner—he received an outpouring of support from queer folks and their allies. “Some of the most impactful messages came from the parents of LGBTQ+ youth. I eventually realized that my visibility as an out pro triathlete could help some people feel more welcome. Athletic communities are still intimidating spaces for many queer folks. If some openness on my part can help make sport more welcoming to the next LGBTQ+ athlete, then it’s not a big ask for me,” he said.

And it’s this mindset that Rach McBride also subscribes to. As the only gender non-binary pro in triathlon (gender non-binary is a term most commonly used to describe those who do not fall within traditional categories of male or female) and one who uses they/them pronouns, McBride has boldly stepped forward as someone willing to educate, inform, and improve visibility and awareness in a largely straight, binary environment. 

“As someone with a significant platform and the privilege and ability to be brave and take risks, I do feel a responsibility to raise visibility around sexuality and gender,” they said. “I have the privilege of standing on the shoulders of those who came before me—those who have already set grooves in the road to acceptance and inclusion. I recognize the power that visibility has to show the world, not only the diversity of human expression but also to provide a positive community for folks who may have similar experiences and identities as me.”

It is not an easy path, though, especially as an athlete racing professionally in a sport that has two categories when it comes to gender: in Ironman, as with almost all sports (although the recent Unbound Gravel event had a non-binary category), athletes either race as male or female. For McBride, who was born genetically female, they only realized there was an alternative in their late teens: “Identifying as she/her didn’t fit,” they said.

Rach McBride goes for a run. Photo credit: Rach McBride Photo: Courtesy of Rach McBride

“More powerful than we could ever imagine”

When eight-time world champion Daniela Ryf first publicly talked in April about falling in love with a woman, it was an empowering moment, not just for her, but for the wider queer community in endurance sports. 

Daniela is one of the biggest names in triathlon. She’s at the top of her game! Learning about her coming out brings mixed emotions. On a personal level I know how difficult it can be to be open and honest about who you love in a world that is still slow to accept any variance from heterosexuality. On a more macro level, though, big names like Daniela openly discussing these things provides so much for the LGBTQ+ community,” said Sean Maloney, an age-group triathlete and one of the leaders of the TriOut group, which started as a small group of LGBTQ+ triathletes within the DC Tri Club and has now grown to have almost 300 members. 

Aspiring triathletes can see they don’t have to choose between any one of their identities. They can show up on race day and to all the training sessions leading up to that day as a fully authentic member of many communities. That’s a beautiful thing!” 

He added that some LGBTQ+ people are taught from an early age that they’re less than or less capable than their peers. “So when top athletes like Cody Beals, Daniela Ryf, and Chris Mosier are open about who they are, then they are helping to tell anyone who is doubting their own ability or their own place in the multisport community that they can and do belong.”

Lindley agreed, and said when she first learned of Ryf’s story she felt the openness would help empower Ryf as a person and as an athlete. 

“My belief is that when we live authentically we are more powerful than we could ever imagine in everything from our careers, to our relationships, and just our lives in general,” she said. “She [Ryf] will empower many other athletes to accept and love themselves for whoever they are and whomever they love.”

McBride said they “completely agree with this feeling of empowerment,” adding: “Whether it was my own coming out or seeing other top athletes and public figures coming out, each time there is a sigh of relief. A weight that lifts. Another kind of arm to link up with to create community.”

Even non-LGBTQ+ athletes can understand the feeling of finding someone else who shares their secrets, their hopes and dreams, their ups and downs. “Everyone has had that experience of finding out your friend also likes playing hide and seek, or your classmate is also afraid of scary movies, or this person you just met also went through a messy divorce,” McBride said. “You aren’t alone. That’s what it feels like every time someone raises their hand and says ‘this is also me!’”

Sean Maloney removes his wetsuit as he exits the swim. Photo: Courtesy of Sean Maloney

A great equalizer?

And while that might come at some cost to privacy of personal life, McBride believes it is a “price” worth paying. They said: “Certain aspects about our lives may be deemed “personal,” but I think there is a difference when oppression, assumptions, and intolerance come into play.” Your identity, then, isn’t simply a personal issue, but one that affects how you’re treated and what access you get in the sport. McBride is confronted with this at every race: “As someone who identifies as non-binary stepping up to a binary start line—where people assume my gender, use incorrect language for me, and create a feeling that I really don’t belong here—there is a very apparent intersection between my “personal” identity and sport. There is an undeniable intersectionality between sex, gender, race, class, ability, and sport because we see blatant inequities in access and opportunities.”

The fact the inequities are there cannot be denied, and while triathlon is still some distance away from being a diverse sport, many in the LGBTQ+ community have found the sport to be welcoming as they work out their own identity. Of course, the larger question remains—not just in sports, but society as a whole—as to whether we will ever reach a time where heteronormativity isn’t assumed, coming out is no longer necessary, and there is no longer a burden or expectation to come out placed upon those who identify as LGBTQ+, whether in the public eye or not.

As Beals said: “Being a pro triathlete who happens to be gay has mostly been a non-issue for me. In general, I love how our sport transcends our backgrounds, beliefs, identities, and ideologies. Other athletes tend to care more about my fitness, my gear, or my performances than who I kiss at the finish line. We’re all completing the same course and crossing the same finish line. It is a great equalizer.”

Those are words Maloney repeated, adding: “All that matters is whether or not you have put in the training and, when the moment comes, can you persevere through hardship? In this way, I have always felt safe as a gay man in the tri world. I’ve never felt judged or limited to express myself.”

He talked with pride of a good friend who qualified for Kona a few years ago and ran across the finish line with a rainbow Pride flag. “While seemingly a small act, what this gesture did is demonstrate to the world’s most elite triathletes that we belong on that very same stage as they do,” he said. “We may not always understand or appreciate our differences, but there will always be common ground that we can celebrate.”  

For many, staying in the closet when you can choose to step out is a time that requires huge bravery, courage, support, and belief, but ultimately is a great moment to step forward, “to live authentically” as Lindley said. “I believe that my being gay is a great thing, it’s my super power. It means I can be me—I see the support, acceptance, and love. I think it is incredibly empowering, not just for the person themselves, but for all those around them.”

Of course, it is not always easy or even possible to come out, but that’s why McBride believes queer visibility in endurance sports is imperative for those who can step forward—and it is something to keep striving for. “As an individual sport, we are often left on our own to train and race. We don’t have the luxury of having an incredibly strong and supportive team environment that other sports, like soccer or basketball, might have. This makes creating our own communities even more important. 

“It takes a whole lot of courage to step into a space alone where you may be the only one with your identity. Not everyone has enough courage, and that’s OK. What can help is knowing there are already others out there like you.”