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Women For Tri: An Update

Woman for tri athlets and coach, text "Women for Tri"

By, Julia Polloreno

More than halfway through our inaugural year, we’ve set a solid foundation and are gaining serious momentum in pursuit our end goal: closing the gender gap in triathlon.

Back in May, about halfway through the Women For Tri Founding Advisory Board’s first term, we all gathered at Ironman Texas for a meeting and to bring some visibility to the new Ironman/Life Time initiative through an expo presence. We talked to a lot of triathletes and non-triathletes about our efforts to draw more women into the sport and even sold a decent number of T-shirts (with a dollar match by Ironman and Life Time) to support our broader fundraising efforts (more on that later).

I had an interaction at the expo that, to me, succinctly answers the question of what we’re trying to achieve with Women For Tri. A couple passing by our booth stopped to see what we were “selling.” The husband was racing, and his wife was there for Sherpa duty. I asked her if she was also a triathlete, and she said she wasn’t, and that she was there in support of her husband. Another board member asked her if she’d ever considered doing a triathlon. Her husband lit up. “I’d love for you to do this, too!” he said. It wasn’t that she was waiting for permission or encouragement from her partner to do a triathlon; you could tell she had just never really contemplated that potential for herself. And if she had, she clearly didn’t know where to even begin. This is the precise purpose of Women For Tri: to start a conversation with more women to plant that seed of possibility. Step two is to equip them with the information and motivation to begin the journey.

The Women For Tri Facebook group, now 7,700 members strong and growing at a rapid clip, is one of the best resources for female triathletes today. It’s a community of aspiring and existing triathletes who are tenacious and passionate in pursuing their training and racing goals, but also incredibly supportive and encouraging of other athletes. I think this grassroots community building is one of the biggest coups of our group of 12, led in this effort by board members Moira Horan and Meredith Atwood.

Moira is also one of three board members who have committed to a personal fundraising goal of $25,000 for Women For Tri programs to grow female participation in triathlon. In support of our ambitious fundraising goals, Ironman gave our group three entries to the Ironman World Championship to generate a minimum of $75,000 for specific W4T initiatives such as scholarships and tri club grants. Given that a Kona slot is a hard-earned, extremely limited commodity, there’s been some criticism around this move. I get it. But I also understand that the broader motives, time investment and personal commitment by these board members to advance this cause are truly significant and selfless. Racing in Kona is a privilege that is also an incredibly powerful platform for raising awareness and resources for an important effort to elevate the profile of the sport by making it a lot more inclusive of women.

The ongoing, day-to-day work of our group is done through sub-committees, and the Research and Development committee recently conducted national research to validate claims of the biggest barriers preventing women from participating in triathlon. If you look at female participation trends in endurance events, 61 percent of people who did a half-marathon last year were women, whereas only 34 percent of people who raced a 70.3 were women. For Ironman, the gender skew is 73 percent male. The gender gap closes a bit in the shorter distances, but overall, men are turning out in much greater numbers. We’re working to better understand the dynamics at play behind this trend.

Our recent survey and focus groups involved nearly 3,500 women, ranging from those who have never done a triathlon, to gym goers, to runners. Informed by this data, we can confidently articulate the most targeted, effective strategy for crafting the most compelling messages to other women.

The results from the survey and focus groups drove our first marketing effort. The #Whywetri campaign encourages women to focus on what triathlon adds to their life versus the barriers it may present. We know that the swim and time management challenges are two major obstacles, so education to reduce the intimidation factor is a big focus.

We also launched an Ambassador Program and have outlined specific steps any woman can take to help encourage more women to get into the sport. Those who pledge to complete a Top 5 list are recognized as 2015 Women For Tri Ambassadors.

There have been other efforts in which our board has served as a sounding board for Ironman, including the recent decision to split the male and female pro fields for select Ironman and 70.3 races next year. Paula Newby-Fraser, the triathlon great who now works for Ironman, sought our feedback on this move to create a fairer race for the female pros. While pro athlete input to Ironman was the main driver of this change (a pilot program for 2016), the Women For Tri board was supportive of this effort to improve the race experience for pro women. Additionally, we’ve had discussions about the disparity in Kona slots for pro men and women, but ultimately the issue and final decision-making authority rests with Ironman, and we remain immersed in work that allows us to act swiftly and decisively to advance our founding mission of bringing more women into the sport at the base level. In all of our efforts, the collective approach is brand agnostic; we didn’t sign up to play into anyone’s marketing agenda—we’re in this with the sincere desire to show other women the life-changing rewards of this lifestyle because we’re all passionate triathletes who live and breathe it.

Other things in the W4T pipeline: development of a website that will serve as the central hub for female triathletes of all levels; continued fundraising through merchandise sales; creation of scholarship and tri club grant programs to be launched in the fall; and a Bring a Friend challenge, wherein an individual recruits another woman to do a triathlon to share the transformative potential unique to our sport.

The Women For Tri Facebook forum is a great place to join the conversation. Introduce yourself, ask questions, share your own insights and celebrate the small, everyday wins that get us closer to our goals and make this not just a sport but a way of life.


Author Julia Polloreno is Editor-in-Chief of Triathlete magazine, Polloreno oversees the monthly magazine’s content and production. A Stanford University graduate with an award-winning track record in publishing, Polloreno is a two-time Ironman finisher and has been a competitive triathlete for more than a decade.