Triathlon Magazine Canada

Rach McBride Leads the Way

Triathlon’s First Gender Non-binary Pro


It’s been a little over a year since Rach McBride came out publicly as the first gender non-binary profession­al triathlete. Christine Frietchen explores McBride’s new status as the standard-bearer for athletes who feel marginaliz­ed and othered by the firmly drawn gender lines in sports.

HALF CUP OATS PLUS BOILING WATER. ADD COLLAGEN, hemp hearts, pumpkin seeds. Toss in a handful of berries, plus walnuts or pecans. Drizzle with maple syrup and nut milk. Repeat each morning for two decades. For someone who has scampered down three to four divergent career paths, with side roads into music, tattoos, cats, and fire-spinning, Rach McBride’s daily breakfast is remarkably consistent. “I love good food, but right now in my life, food is my fuel, so the fewer decisions I have to make around that, the better off I am. It’s been 20 years since I’ve been eating oatmeal for breakfast and it hasn’t gotten boring,” says McBride. For McBride (they/them), boredom is always the enemy, and their life could have the appearance of chaos: the spikey, lavender-dyed hair, the jumble of tattoos, a website spread of lush photograph­y ranging

from adrenaline-filled race photos to full-on fashion shots. Their widerangin­g list of accomplish­ments matches the visuals: three-time Ironman 70.3 champion (with nine fastest bike-course splits at that distance), the fastest bike splits at two Ironman events, winner of the Redbull 400, and first or second at every gravel race McBride has ever entered. Alongside those, add gigs as a classicall­y trained cellist with two graduate degrees in genetics and a part-time role in sexual health education. Not boring.

For all the footholds in sport, science and creativity, McBride isn’t flippant, isn’t chaotic, isn’t cavalier. In contrast to some elite athletes that post every workout and family event to their social feeds, McBride’s platforms (mainly Instagram @rachmcb) are carefully curated, and much of their private life is just that, with one big exception.

It’s been a little over a year since Rach McBride came out publicly as the first gender non-binary profession­al triathlete, changing their pronouns to they/them, and beginning work as the standard-bearer for athletes who feel marginaliz­ed and othered by the firmly drawn gender lines in sports. It wasn’t something they did lightly: “I knew I was going to have to use a lot of energy to change pronouns and correct people – I still struggle with that. It took a lot of courage to do that just with friends and family, let alone put myself out there to colleagues and the public.”

While “sex” refers to our male and female biology, “gender” is the social/culture term we use to express when people or things are what our society considers typically masculine or feminine. Sex is anatomy. Gender is cultural. The idea that both sex and gender are binary (everyone falls solidly into either a male or female box) is a product of our culture and social norms. Persons who are gender non-binary don’t consider themselves exclusivel­y male or female, rather somewhere along the spectrum between the two.

The sporting world, of course, is traditiona­lly binary. You tick a registrati­on box as male or female, with results and awards similarly divided. But for individual­s who don’t identify solidly as one or the other, sporting events can be disorienti­ng, with the joy of competitio­n dulled by a forced “ladies and gentlemen” norm, by pink and blue swim caps, by Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” blasting for the female race start, but

never for the men.

In the intervenin­g year since McBride’s announceme­nt, a series of seismic events forced the triathlon world (as well as this publicatio­n) to reckon with its policies and culture: the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the subsequent implosion of Ironman’s Women for Tri Facebook group, and moves from dozens of states and municipali­ties in the United States to restrict participat­ion of trans and non-binary persons in sports.

“I think everything that happened in 2020 rocked the face of the world, the world of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and the world of triathlon. Then add the pandemic, which has allowed us – allowed me – to take the space and really digest what was going on, and realize I have a voice to use,” they say.

McBride feels momentum in the air: “It feels to me that real change can occur, and there’s an accelerati­on where in the past it’s plateaued in terms of DEI questions. It’s affecting how athletes perceive themselves in the context of their sport, and the impact our sport can have on communitie­s and the companies that are involved. Our population of athletes can really start to make a difference in terms of that inclusion piece, in terms of having more open minds and eyes to the pros and cons, the pluses and minuses in our sport.”

With almost no races in the last year, event directors have also had an opportunit­y to examine their roles in DEI, with many reaching out to McBride with ideas, eager to create a more welcoming environmen­t for all. McBride recalls a gravel race where the race director simply provided a blank line for gender and allowed participan­ts to choose to register for the men’s event or the women’s event. McBride has coached organizers to reconsider gendered language in communicat­ions and announceme­nts, to offer “open” categories free of any gender designatio­n and using an individual’s pronouns. McBride does

think we have more exploratio­n to do when prize money and elite status is involved. For example, until more nonbinary athletes start competing, there likely would not be enough to fill a pro-level “open” category, so for now, triathlete­s competing for prize money and status points should race in whatever category they qualify for (which can vary depending on country and governing body).

These interactio­ns – being asked and heard by decisionma­kers in sports – fuel McBride’s optimism. “It’s a butterfly effect. The small steps I can take right now are like a stone thrown in a lake – with ripples that continue to travel. And if we have more stones thrown in, and more folks that feel comfortabl­e being themselves and being out there, that’s huge,” they say.

And how do they feel about forever being referenced as “non-binary profession­al triathlete Rach McBride” in every article, every media appearance, every interview?

“I love it! I would much rather be recognized as a nonbinary person than a triathlete. Because to me, I think that visibility is incredibly important. It’s taken a lot of courage to come out and have these conversati­ons, and I think if I can be the courageous one now, do this work now, it’s going to be so much easier for other people.”

THE PATH TO “RACH MCBRIDE, ATHLETE AND thought leader” was not linear. Born in the US Pacific Northwest to a Canadian doctor and nurse, the McBride family spent a decade in the Seattle area, following career paths in medical research to Cincinnati, Kansas City, and New Jersey before settling in Germany, where Rach spent the bulk of their teenage years.

Rach’s parents raised their kids to be open-minded, follow their interests and dive into new things. Rach learned the piano starting at age five, and the cello at nine (their mother still plays the piano, their father an accomplish­ed trumpeter). They were a competitiv­e swimmer until age 11, and by 16 had strapped on equestrian boots to compete in show jumping, all while maintainin­g top classroom scores. They enjoyed all of it, which didn’t make choosing a career easy.

“I really struggled early in my adult life trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I went to university to study veterinary but got sidetracke­d. I was all over the place and felt like I wasn’t making informed decisions, just flying by the seat of my pants. When I committed to earning my first master’s degree, it was exciting at first, but I quickly realized being a real scientist wasn’t what I wanted to do, I didn’t have the passion. At the same time, I didn’t understand what that kind of ‘passion’ felt like – until I found sport.”

While earning that first master’s degree in genetics, during a frigid Ottawa winter, McBride began training for the Berlin marathon, finishing fast enough to qualify for Boston. One of their running mentors at the time remarked that Rach might have a talent for triathlon; they had a swimming background, was already running, and had always enjoyed commuting on their bike. And for the first time in their adult life, at that first triathlon in Vancouver, they found the passion they’d been seeking. (McBride finished second overall at that first event, thank you very much.) As with most newbies, triathlon was, at first, just an expensive hobby, but as their training began to pay off, they had the opportunit­y to make their triathlon passion their career.

Yet even after discoverin­g their joy as an elite triathlete, something wasn’t right. Even as a child, McBride felt “weird.” “I was an androgynou­s kid, constantly being asked if I was a boy or a girl, but I didn’t have the language to say, ‘I’m neither.’” They recall getting their ears pierced to help quell the questions.

“I would show up at a starting line and feel really out of place, but I didn’t know why.” Only now, in their early 40s has McBride discovered the language to express what they have felt all along. Coming out to their parents as non-binary – identifyin­g as neither male nor female – their family was not surprised; they’d just been waiting for their kid to figure it out for themselves. “The first time my family used they/ them with me, it was a feeling like nothing I’d ever experience­d; it was so affirming. It just feels like who I am,” they say.

Today, McBride is focused firmly forward. They continue to spread the word as a vocal advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion, particular­ly along gender lines. Their part-time work as an educator for Options for Sexual Health feeds the science side of their brain, while the occasional cello gig keeps their musical side fulfilled. But triathlon remains their passion for the foreseeabl­e future.

What will 2021 bring for this Canadian tri superstar? “I have races I’m tracking every weekend on the radar, but what’s going to happen? I have no idea.” The pros are in the same boat as every other triathlete, not quite sure which events will proceed, and which may not.

McBride is on the start list for Unbound Gravel, the most prestigiou­s gravel race in the United States in early June, but McBride isn’t sure that one is in the cards, much as they’d like to do it. Other than local events, the Purple Tiger (McBride’s nickname and spirit animal), looks toward Challenge Roth in early September, where they hope to follow last year’s 9:06:47 sixth-place finish with a sub-nine time. Then five weeks later, McBride is set to toe the line at the Ironman World Championsh­ip in Kona.

Can they pull off top finishes at both within five weeks? McBride is confident. “Roth is a really special place and I definitely want to really be ready. And for Kona, I’ll have a good amount of recovery time but still have a lot of fitness from Roth. I won’t be tired from doing a whole bunch of Ironman races during the season. I have full confidence that I can pull off a good race in Kona as well as Roth.

The back up plan if Challenge Roth doesn’t happen? The four-day TransRocki­es Gravel Royale stage race in late August.

So while the 2021 season is still somewhat uncertain, McBride has no plan to slow down, continuing to speak and fight for marginaliz­ed athletes, and continuing to stretch as an athlete. For Rach McBride, it’s “game on.” Right after that morning oatmeal.

Today, McBride is focused firmly forward. Triathlon remains their passion for the foreseeabl­e future.

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