When USAT conducted a survey of its members last year, only 1.41% of the athletes who responded identified as Black or African-American. Those numbers aren’t surprising. Look around the swim start, transition, or finish lines of any race, and there are one, maybe two, Black triathletes. To date, there is just one Black professional triathlete.
Here’s what may surprise you: It’s not just a byproduct of choice or personal preference.
Even when compared to our sibling sports, which are also overwhelming white and face their own challenges, triathlon lags behind. Simone Manuel and Cullen Jones are Olympic gold medalists and international swimming stars. One of cycling’s first celebrities was Major Taylor, a Black pro cyclist who won the world championship title back in 1899. The number of Black runners has boomed in the last decade—almost 20% of the athletes in the massive Atlanta Track Club are now African- American and the National Black Marathoners Association has grown to around 5,000 members. Black athletes are interested in swimming, biking, and running—so why aren’t they doing triathlon?
While many of us might think the primary issue is socioeconomic, here three Black female triathletes use their stories to explain why the real barriers go beyond stereotypes about poverty or disinterest. The real barriers have to do with a systemic lack of access, defined by a history of barring Black athletes that still affects them today—for instance, in the documented lack of lap pools and bike lanes in Black communities. It has to do with structural racism, including the constant hostile attitudes and dangers Black athletes face—Black cyclists being stopped by police at higher rates than white cyclists, in some towns at three times the rate. And it has to do with representation, meaning Black triathletes not seeing others like them and not being actively welcomed into the sport.
Heather, Shaunna, and Yvonne explain in their own words.
Arriving at a race, after having invested blood, sweat, and tears into your training, only to be mistaken for a volunteer or race worker is a jarring experience. Unfortunately, it’s one that many Black triathletes are all too familiar with and have encountered on more than one occasion.
Despite some efforts attempting to diversify the sport, triathlon in the U.S. still remains overwhelmingly white. Often it’s because misguided stereotypes associated with the Black community—poverty, disdain for swimming, health disparities—are juxtaposed against assumed requirements of triathlon—such as expense and personal discipline. There are also the unspoken elements of encountering racism while training: The dogs let loose on Black cyclists while completing long rides or the fear of running through neighborhoods and having the police called because you are a “suspicious character.”
If we know that triathlon remains largely white, then what can we learn about these barriers from current Black triathletes in our community?
The history of pool access
I learned how to swim at the geriatric age of 35. Literally, “geriatric” based on my age at pregnancy. After losing about 80 pounds, I discovered that I was pregnant with my second son three weeks later. I was thrilled about another child, but I had also been fighting the proverbial “Battle of the Bulge” my en- tire life, so keeping my weight gain as low as possible was a very real priority. I’d also set a distant goal to complete a sprint triathlon. I wasn’t quite sure how I would do both.
My doctor (who was a multiple-time Ironman finisher), said, “Shaunna, you’re about 30 weeks pregnant and eventually running is going to become uncomfortable for you. Why not take up some other lower impact sport, like swimming?” I Googled “adult beginner swim lessons,” signed myself up alongside my sons’ godmother, and we made complete fools of ourselves for weeks. I eventually swam 600m the morning before my youngest son was born.
According to USA Swimming, a little over 30% of African-Americans know how to swim—but they persist in the face of a daunting history. Swimming facilities were segregated in both the North and South as late as the 1950s and even after pools became desegregated, there continued to be hostile and active resistance to even allowing Black people to swim, much less encouraging them to do so. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson in her latest book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents reminds us that Black people in pools was a symbol of pollution. In the early 1950s, white people in Cincinnati threw nails and broken glass into the water to keep Black swimmers out. A decade later, a Black civil rights activist tried to integrate a public pool by swimming a lap. The pool was drained and then refilled with fresh water. White people simply would not immerse themselves in water that had touched Black skin.
Even today, I’ve had the experience of a white person assuming I would move from the lane I was occupying to swim in the lane with another Black person so I’d be more “comfortable.” Heather has watched three people choose to swim in one lane together instead of sharing with her. The barriers to Black participation are systemic and based in fact: Black people were not allowed to swim in public facilities during the Jim Crow era.
To this day, the stigma of integrated swimming remains. Only two historically Black colleges and universities (HCBUs) out of over 100 have swim teams; many don’t even have pools. There are also few public lap pools available even in the most affluent Black counties in the country—instead, splash pools abound. Yet there is a deep history of swimming proficiency in African culture. West Africans have long used variants of freestyle to incorporate swimming into many daily activities. Black people have a history of swimming, but both Black and white people may need a reminder. Black folks swim, and if they don’t now, then they certainly have the capability
to learn like I did.
Even today, I’ve had the experience of a white person assuming I would move from the lane I was occupying to swim in the lane with another Black person so I’d be more “comfortable.”
I am an African-American female Colonel in the United States Air Force and a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy. Being the only African-American, only woman, or both is nothing new to me. When I started triathlon, I had no expectations regarding the demographics, as I have learned to thrive in whatever atmosphere I enter. It was in this spirit that I ended up in the sport I’ve come to love.
My good friend and tri-mentor Maggs Morris taught me the tricks of the trade. She made me feel valued and welcomed in the sport. When we raced in Hawaii, I was accustomed to being the only Black person racing on the island. It wasn’t until Maggs accidentally cheered for a woman who looked like me that I started to really pay attention to the color of the sport. We still laugh about that day, but it revealed that even my good friend did not expect to see anyone else of color at a triathlon. I competed in my first Ironman six years later and counted only four Black triathletes on the course. I became keenly aware of the lack of diversity in the sport and took on the challenge to change the face of the race.
My military career experiences have highlighted the fact that representation really does matter. Each time I saw someone who looked like me in leadership roles, it gave me both the confidence and self-esteem to be successful.
Triathlon gave me the opportunity to be that source of empowerment and motivation to other women and Black athletes. In 2015, I founded FastChix and created a safe space for all women of color to feel valued and important. Our first event together took place in 2018, when 40 women of color from across the country came together at the 2018 Rev3 Williamsburg festival. Participants and spectators found our energy and enthusiasm so infectious that they helped us celebrate our athletes by pointing out “brown” arms in the swim! The year prior we could count the number of Black triathletes on two hands. It’s also important to note that the race director for Rev3, Eric Opdyke, not only actively encouraged diversity but also asked for my input on how to make the race more inclusive.
With each woman we bring to the sport, FastChix are creating their own space within the race while breaking down barriers and defeating stereotypes. Today, FastChix boasts a membership of 1,000 phenomenal, diverse women whose sole purpose is to encourage each other both on and off the course while showing that representation matters in real life. It provides tangible evidence that you can do what you want, be who you want, and know that you belong.
If we want to break the barrier of whiteness, access and invitation is a great first step. Let’s put away the myths that the sport is too complicated, too expensive, and too time-consuming for Black folks.
Actively invite Black athletes
I was introduced to triathlon through a white Baptist preacher’s wife in Mississippi. We were the epitome of the odd couple: I was the mayor, first African-American and first woman to hold the seat. I was also recently divorced and publicly dealing with my own personal trauma. Jamie Nichols was the pastor’s wife at our local First Baptist Church and a private school teacher. We didn’t exactly run in the same circles but were both training for our first St. Jude marathon, so we ran together. One hot summer day, Jamie simply turned to me and said, “Heather, you swim right? We should do a triathlon!” Between huffs of breath I gave a slight side eye. “A triathlon? What in the world, Jamie? I don’t even have a bike!” She didn’t miss a beat. “You can get one from Walmart. We both know how to ride a bike. There’s a sprint triathlon in Jackson, Mississippi, and not a soul has signed up for the Athena division. You and I could go and take first and second place!” Immediately, she had my attention and a smile slowly crawled across my face. Besides the idea of a sly “coup” of a win (secretly I think we both wanted to show the skinny fast runners that we were just as badass), I was taken aback that she would ask me. She was right. I could swim and ride a bike. Surely if I could make it 26.2 miles I could at least try to make 3.1 miles after doing the other two sports. I began to see what she saw: Another woman who had the ability to join her in something fiercely challenging and barrier-breaking. She invited me, welcomed me, and had the unmitigated gall to believe that I would and could join her. She asked and I said yes.
Access and entry to the sport is not easy if you don’t associate or socialize with triathletes. This becomes even more difficult in the Black community. Let’s face it, we don’t see Ironman advertisements populating our social media timelines or in Black publications. Essence, Ebony, or Black Health magazines have yet to feature triathlon as a sport. Despite the fact that African-Americans have made record-breaking strides in almost every sport imaginable, triathlon remains an elusive engagement surrounded by mystery and intrigue. I don’t see Black triathletes on my box of Wheaties.
If we want to break the barrier of whiteness, access and invitation is a great first step. Let’s put away the myths that the sport is too complicated, too expensive, and too time-consuming for Black folks. Share the flyers about local events with your Black friends and neighbors. Pull together a relay team to introduce the mechanics of the sport to those uncomfortable with doing all three events. Be like Jamie and take a chance with that unseemingly awkward runner. Who knows, you might just podium in both triathlon and friendship. Jamie and I certainly did!
We should all make it our business to actively invite Black folks to participate.
Addressing the lack of blackness in triathlon is complex, yet it’s the complexity of the issue that makes triathlon the perfect place to effect change. Our sport is based on controlling what we can and preparing for the unknown. We can control and expand who we introduce to the sport. We can change the face of what we think of when we think of the sport. We can do our homework to know the full truth of the Black experience in order to dismantle the historic barriers that have kept Black people from participating. Exclusion is everyone’s responsibility to eradicate.
Heather McTeer Toney was the first African-American, first female, and youngest Mayor of Greenville, Mississippi and later served under President Obama as a Regional Administrator for the EPA. Dr. Gold is a higher education administrator, ordained minister, Assistant Provost for Diversity & Inclusion, and a U.S. Masters Certified Swim Coach. Colonel Spencer has served in the U.S. Air Force for 25 years and is an eight-time Ironman finisher, Boston Marathon qualifier, and a member of the 2020 USA long-course team.