PUSHING FOR EQUAL OPPORTUNITY IN TRIATHLON
Sara Gross retired from triathlon in 2016, but she’s still very much involved in the sport. The two-time Ironman champion is one of the driving forces behind the 50WomentoKona movement, co-founder and president of TriEqual and owner of Live Feisty, a media company that wants to share stories and inspire female triathletes.
First things first: Triathlon is a pretty inclusive sport compared to more traditional sports. Women start in the same races, cover the same distances and the first woman earns the same prize money as the first man.
“All true,” says Gross, who lives with her husband and daughter, Rosalee, in Victoria. “Compared to cycling, triathlon is not that bad. But just because it’s not that bad, doesn’t mean it can’t be better.”
Gross was a pro athlete from 2003 until 2016. Her wins at Ironman Brazil and Mont-Tremblant in 2014 are the highlights of her career. The 42-year-old was born in Sarnia, Ont., and competed for Great Britain and Canada. She did her first triathlon in Scotland, where she attended the University of Edinburgh and earned her PhD in ancient history and religion with her dissertation focusing on women’s history.
“A lot of things I am doing now are where my two worlds collide: women’s history and triathlon,” she says.
She started to advocate for women in triathlon in 2014. The fact that Ironman was not providing equal opportunities for female pros in Kona triggered her advocacy.
“After automatic qualifiers, Ironman offers 50 slots to the
pro men and 35 to the women,” she explains. “The new qualifying system for 2019 is an improvement, but it still isn’t equitable. The main reason Ironman doesn’t offer slots equally is that there are fewer pro women than men. But the number of female pro’s that exist has nothing to do with the quality of the top fifty women. Opportunities should be offered equally and should be performance-based, not dependant on participation numbers. That simply doesn’t make sense for a world championship.”
Leading female professional athletes brought the issue up with Ironman in 2014, but nothing changed.
“We started by talking to the people in charge,” she says. “I exchanged a number of emails with people from Ironman, but our requests were shut down. Then we started a big media push in 2015 on International Women’s Day. We talked to the media about these issues and the fact that women should have equal opportunities. We made some good gains, even outside of triathlon. I was interviewed by Forbes and we were in Sports Illustrated. But Ironman still didn’t want to change the rule. And now it’s 2018 and sadly the situation is still the same.”
Gross realized that she couldn’t keep trying to change Ironman’s approach, so she focused on things she can control. She co-founded TriEqual, a group of men and women dedicated to fairness, development and equality in the sport of triathlon and has since been helping create initiatives to bring more women to the sport.
“I want to create pathways for women to rise through the ranks of the sport. Not only for athletes who want to turn pro, but also for women who want to move up the coaching ranks or into leadership positions in the
industry. Those things are also important to me and I think that is really missing. We need more female athletes, but we also need more women in leadership.”
The participation of women in triathlon is on the rise, but the majority of competitors are still male.
“There are several reasons why there are fewer women. You have to start with the historical context of women in sport in general. Women weren’t allowed to run a marathon until the sixties, so there is a lot of catching up to do,” Gross says. “I also think that triathlon can be intimidating for many people. Triathlon has this image of being for the super fit, something that CEOs do on the weekend. I don’t think we have to be that. You can complete a triathlon with a little bit of training every day. The trend is to go longer and longer, but that is such a big commitment, especially for women who have children. I would rather focus on shorter distances, like a sprint – or an Olympic – distance because the training doesn’t require six-hour bike rides on the weekend. Your long ride will be two hours, you can leave early in the morning and spend the rest of your day with your family. It requires a mentality change: if you’re doing shorter distances, you’re not less of an athlete.”
Once the women and minority groups are in the sport, the next challenge is to keep them there.
“For example, when universities first started pushing for diversity,
The Outspoken Summit for Women in Triathlon will take place from November 30 to December 2 in Tempe, Ariz.
multiple institutions managed to attract more African American students. But, once those students got to campus, if no efforts were made to make them feel welcome, they left. Even without huge displays of overt racism, people from minority groups can feel unwelcome. After that, the same institutions asked, ‘How can we change our culture to be more inclusive?’ There are a lot of initiatives aimed at removing barriers to entry, but once we have new people, what do we have to do to get them stay in the sport. Those are the questions that I try to answer.”
She hosts and writes articles and stories, interviews people for her podcasts Ironwomen and If We Riding and is organizing – together with business partner Lisa Ingarfield and presented by Triathlete Magazine – Outspoken, Women in Triathlon Summit.
“When I started my media company, I had a mentor through the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs that I worked with for a year. It was so helpful. We need something similar in triathlon, for people who want to work in the industry, entrepreneurs, coaches and women who want to become pro athletes. There is a massive opportunity for people to step into these roles. I hope that this will come out of this summit. When everyone is together, we can talk about what we want, how we can do it and eventually create those opportunities,” she says.
Marcia Jansen is a freelance journalist and triathlete from Victoria.
Gross at Ironman Texas OPPOSITE Gross at Ironman 70.3 Muskoka 2013 BELOW outspokensummit.com