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Opinion: The Last Pro Female Finisher At Kona

Kathryn Bertine, who has finished as the final female pro finisher in Kona, shares her opinion on the pro slot gender disparity.

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Kathryn Bertine, who has finished as the final female pro finisher in Kona, shares her opinion on the pro slot gender disparity at the Ironman World Championship.

In 2006, I was the last female professional finisher at Kona. After trying to qualify for years, I finally made it. My stomach, however, didn’t. It was one of those days most of us experience at some point in our endurance sport careers, when our digestive system refuses to give a hooey about our dreams. Despite the internal combustion, I kept going. I walked about 20 of the 26 miles in the marathon. I finished in 13 hours and it-really-doesn’t-matter minutes. I picked up the night shift. I was the last female pro to cross the line. No one really knew I was there. By that point, I’m not even sure I knew where I was. Alas. I didn’t know it then, but victory was quietly brewing.

There’s a debate now about the 15 spots it would take to make the women’s pro field equal to the men’s at Ironman World Championships in Kona. Right now, the men have 50 spots. The women have 35. While it seems a complete no-brainer to add 15 spots for equality, it isn’t being done. The request is being met with resistance. One of the measures of resistance is this: The last 15 women at Kona don’t matter. They are the back of the field. They don’t add much to the sport, they are not seen as contenders.

Also this “argument:” Triathlon should focus less on the last 15 pros, and instead try to grow the sport at the grassroots level.

Hogwash on both counts. There is nothing but value in those 15 spots to Kona. From a physiological sense of value, today’s good athletes are tomorrow’s great athletes. In sports, it has been proven time and again that the last can become first when given a chance to excel. Not just on the proverbial playing fields, but in all aspects of life. Should we do away with baseball’s minor league professional divisions and hockey’s professional farm teams? If they aren’t winning the pennant or the Stanley Cup, why should we bother, right? Wrong. If we don’t value potential, we don’t have much of a future. In any arena. Most professional sports see value in the pros who are coming up the ranks. The last 15 female pros in triathlon should be valued as the up-and-coming rank, but as it stands now they are deemed invaluable and not equal to total number of pros of the men’s division. And that is not just wrong, but grossly inaccurate as to their future capabilities.

In 2012, pro triathlete Sara Gross was in the last 15 finishers at Kona. In 2014, she won two Ironman titles and is leading the charge for 50 Women to Kona. In 2010, Hillary Biscay was in the last 15. In 2013, she stood on the overall podium at Ultraman world championships… overall, as in 3nd place among the men and the women combined. In 2009, Leanda Cave finished 20th at Kona. In 2012, Leanda won Kona. To say there is no value at the back of the pack is not only ridiculous but completely false. Not only do these women excel on race day, but they all give back to their sport and encourage others to get involved in triathlon. Therein lies the intangible value these women bring, which gives way to a financially lucrative value for the entire sport. When equality is secured, the return on investment will happen. And it won’t take long.

We live in a world that caters to instantaneous success, a world that values overnight champions and athletic phenoms who break into a sport and dominate from day one. These are marvels, but not the norm. The beauty of endurance sports is the endurance itself… what it takes to complete a journey in sport is equally as valuable as the end result of a champions’ podium. It is the woman who claws her way from 36th place this year to her podium finish five years from now that we should all get a chance to see, follow and celebrate over the years. It’s the Karen Smyers and Mirinda Carfraes and Sara Grosses and Chrissie Wellingtons who have very different stories but are of equal value to the history and future of triathlon, and of sport itself. We should take great pride in letting the world see what those “last 15” athletes can do, not immediately, but over time. In this modern day of instant everything, let us value the journeys that take a little more time. That’s where the good stuff happens. That is where the value lives. That’s when the sport grows.

If Andrew Messick, CEO of Ironman, is indeed concerned about the grassroots development of the sport, then the added 15 spots of equality will help triathlon flourish. When a sport does right by its participants, when a leader sees the value of equality and swiftly implements its structure, more people will want to take part. Not just women, but men, too. Those women in the “last 15” are not just professional triathletes. (I see doctors, architects, teachers and a whole bunch of full-time moms on the results list of the current pro field). These athletes are members of our community who will grow the sport of triathlon by setting an example of what we all can do while we chase our dreams. Imagine if, instead of fighting for equality, these women could spend the time celebrating and publicizing the advancements of triathlon as a leader in sports equity. (Women, you need to do this. Men, you too. Be vocal proponents of growing the sport as often as possible between your intervals, fartleks and Strava records. If we want to receive, we must also give.) That said, I believe Andrew Messick is one short, quick vote away from being a hero. Come on, buddy! Make it happen.

Remember that weird nobody who finished last in Kona in 2006? Well, she’s still weird, but she’s no longer last. Sometimes winning has nothing to do with the actual race.

Being a professional triathlete and a Kona finisher was part of my journey in sports, and a very important one to me. Triathlon taught me that men and women should be seen equally in sport. When I switched over to road cycling in 2007, it puzzled me why cycling wasn’t valued in gender equity. That day in Kona taught me to carry on, to persevere, to fight for something, to finish what I start… even if it takes 13 hours or longer. So I took those lessons and I fought for equality in cycling. My competitors and I fought for a Tour de France. We got one started. We continue to fight now for more race days, equal payouts and base salaries just like the men. And it’s working. The world is finally seeing our value as a gender. Though our fight has been anything but instantaneous, we’ve made tremendous progress in the past year. Being a pro triathlete was integral to my journey, and so was that day in Kona. Sometimes being last makes a difference. Sometimes it is the view from that back that lets us see further up the road. When it comes to things that truly matter, there is no overnight success. But approving 15 more spots for women at Kona? That can and should be done overnight.

I was last at Kona, and it helped me change (a small aspect of) the world. I want 15 more professional women have equal opportunity to be first, middle or last because—whether on race day or in future endeavors—the win will come for all of us.

RELATED: Why Equal Representation Of Pro Women In Kona Is The Right Step