If you haven't already done so, look around at your next triathlon event. Ignore the super expensive bikes and the race kits. Pay attention to the people. You will most likely see someone that resembles you in some way, whether it is race or gender. This is not the case for me. African American's make up 0.5% of the sport (according to a survey done by USA Triathlon), which means that I'm part of that teeny tiny percentage. While it may surprise most, this disparity does not surprise me in the least. Often times when I show up at a triathlon event I am the only African American there, and most likely the only African American woman. I assume it's like being the only man at a baby shower. Slightly awkward. I guess when you are not a minority it's easy to overlook such a glaring discrepancy. However, the more involved I get in the sport, the more I'd like to see that percentage grow.
You may wonder what factors preclude Black participation in the sport of triathlon. I actually wondered the same when I was a newbie. Some of the obvious include swimming, expense, hair, finance, and lack of role models. A common question I get asked is, "Aren't these the same barriers that exist for everyone?" No, not necessarily. Let's look at the facts. According to USA Swimming, an estimated 70% of African Americans cannot swim. African American children also drown at a rate nearly three times higher than white children. The reason for this is complex, and I am no expert, so I will try to keep it as simple as possible. It has been shown that children who can't swim also have parents who can't swim. This most likely goes back to segregation (until 1964) and being denied access to pools. Unfortunately having a fear of water and a persistent myth that "blacks can't swim" gets passed on to generation after generation.
In an attempt to not go down the rabbit hole of racial inequality, my focus is on the here and now. Let's look at another fact. When it comes to role models in the sport of triathlon and swimming they are far and few between. Currently we have only one African American pro triathlete (Max Fennell). Yes, that's right, only one. And it's 2017! It wasn't until the 2016 Olympics that an African American woman (Simone Manuel) won an individual gold medal in swimming. This is sad, but also exciting. All it takes is one person to make a difference. Look at Hank Aaron, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Tiger Woods, and Serena Williams. They changed the color of their respective sport and created interest where it may have previously not existed.
As in any sport you want to see a reflection, someone you can relate to, someone that looks like you. I have only been in this sport for a few years but it's obvious that there is very little marketing to African Americans. We are not on the cover of endurance magazines or in ads for tri-specific products. Until recently, there was very little discussion on minorities in triathlon. I had the pleasure of being on Dr. Sara Gross' panel on Expanding Diversity in Triathlon
at the recent Triathlon Business International Conference. Tony Brown (founder and president of the Black Triathletes Association
) and I both agreed that you can't do something you don't know about. And believe it or not, most African Americans don't know a thing about triathlons. If they do they equate it to the IRONMAN (in Kona).
I understand that the half and full IRONMAN distance races are the big money makers, but if we want to see this sport continue to grow then there needs to be investment and advertisement towards the shorter, more beginner friendly distances. In fact, if it wasn't for the Tidewater Sprint Triathlon
I most likely would have never discovered this truly amazing sport. As soon as I saw that the swim leg was only 600 meters I thought "that is doable!" Less than a year later I was racing the Olympic distance, and then you guessed it - 70.3s. It's the same when it comes to road racing. I have never been able to talk my African American friends into starting with a marathon, but it's not hard to talk them into a 5K. Before they know it they are signing up for a half marathon.
Last but not least, I'd like to piggyback off of what Mike Plant said in his excellently written post on Raising the Women's Game
. I think camaraderie and programs designed to assist women and minorities in their journey through this sport is key. Most recently I joined IRaceLikeAGirl
, an all women's triathlon team created by professional triathlete Angela Naeth to encourage women of all ages and abilities to participate in triathlons. The support we receive from each other, whether it is in our exclusive forum where we can openly discuss issues specific to women or through encouraging each other at upcoming races via our social media accounts, is priceless. The companies that support our efforts, such as Pearl Izumi providing team uniforms and the Boston Triathlon for offering race discount codes DOES make a difference. It keeps us involved in the sport!
Investment ... definitely investment at the local level through programs, athletes and coaches, along with advertisement, support, and camaraderie are just a few solutions for changing the color of triathlon.