By Vince Nairn
Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.
When she lined up for the start of Ironman France in 2008, Sami Winter noticed the difference.
As a veteran triathlete, Winter is used to being in the minority at those events. But the gap was more drastic that day six years ago than she could ever remember.
“200 women out of what, 2,000? That’s it,” Winter said.
Triathlon participation has long been dominated by men, and though the percentage gap has slowly decreased in the past decade, women still account for less than 40 percent of annual members of USA Triathlon. In North Carolina, women account for 38 percent of USAT members and about one-third of triathlon finishers.
And as the distances get longer, the participation tilts more toward men. Participation in the 79 iron and half-iron distance triathlons sponsored by Ironman in the past year averaged 76.9 percent men.
“The Ironman races are when it’s the most noticeable,” said Winter, who has completed nine Ironman triathlons. “I was at (Lake) Tahoe last year and they said it was the highest (percentage of women) they ever had. 26 percent.”
About 25 years ago, USA Triathlon membership was more than 80 percent men. Although the gap has closed considerably, chief operating officer Tim Yount is not sure it will ever be an even split.
“What we’re trying to do here is balance the scales as much as we can without discouraging men from participating,” Yount said.
“Will we ever get to 50/50? I don’t think we will. But the growth we’ve seen is remarkable. If you’d had asked me 10 years ago the kind of numbers we’d see with women, I’d say that was shocking.”
Mind the gap
Although women make up only about 35 percent of triathletes, the demographic is different for many running events.
According to RunningUSA, an organization that produces annual statistical reports, 61 percent of the 1.96 million Americans who ran a half marathon in 2013 were women. That’s up from 53 percent in 2006.
The numbers for masters swimmers are almost even, Men account for 54 percent of the country’s almost 50,000 members.
Cycling seems to be the sport women prefer the least. Of USA Cycling’s approxmiate 45,000 members, 86 percent are men. Locally, Cape Fear Cyclists has about 450 members, and president Richard Knight said 70 percent are men.
“Women are an important part of our cycling group,” Knight said. “They may not be in the majority, but we have women on our board of directors. We just haven’t seen a lot of interest from them.”
Winter helps run the local Pink Ladies Triathlon Club, a group that advocates for the empowerment of women through sport.
A reason women don’t enter the sport, she said, is a sense of guilt that accompanies putting themselves first. She noted biking is the most expensive and time-consuming aspect of triathlon training, and that could add to why more women don’t bike.
“I think they’re intimidated by the time they have to spend,” Winter said. “They think they can’t find it or do it. Women tend to be family raisers. I talk to a lot of women in that group and it’s interesting. A lot of those women feel their own personal satisfaction takes a backseat to family. They almost feel guilty taking time for themselves.”
Local triathlete Christine Hughes had a background in running before she started doing triathlons about four years ago. She said many of the triathletes she knows also started as runners and, for her, biking was the challenging part when she started doing all three.
“When I joined the (YMCA) Tri Club, I didn’t even have a bicycle,” Hughes said. “I had to get a bike, so that was really challenging because of the lack of equipment. Whereas swimming, it might be challenging to learn, but you just have to go jump in a pool.”
All about promotion
Leanne Vella has been doing triathlons for six years and is a member of the local YWCA Tri Club. As a physical education teacher, she said she’d like to see more women doing any sport, but it would be nice if more were triathletes.
“I think that would be fantastic,” Vella said. “What could make someone happier than doing three sports in one race? To do three, it’s so much fun.”
When Yount started working for USA Triathlon in 1989, he said its membership was about 85 percent men. So he views approaching a 60/40 split as a massive success for the organization. USAT sends out newsletters and features articles written by women as ways to improve engagement. Yount also cited the growth of triathlon clubs as helping promote women.
“One of the things that we’ve noticed from day one is that if we continue to support women in our sport we’re going to continue to see increases,” Yount said. “We have a women’s committee. It’s been tasked with looking at our existing 85+ programs and seeing what we can do within these programs to leverage greater participation by women.”
Women-only triathlons have aided that growth. Setup Events produces a women’s only triathlon in White Lake every year. After 143 participants in its first year (2007), the race has averaged 343 women for the past six years.
Iron Girl is an organization that produces 10 annual women’s-only runs and triathlons across the country. It started with two in 2004 and has since expanded its reach.
In January, the NCAA ruled to make women’s triathlon an emerging sport in Division I, meaning schools can begin fielding varsity teams. If 40 schools form teams, triathlon can become a scholarship sport.
Yount called the NCAA ruling’s impact on triathlon “considerable.” Giving young girls an avenue can go a long way in establishing a base that further closes the participation gap.
“We’ve been working on this project for five years,” Yount said. “It is our belief it will turn the tide on young ladies getting engaged on our sport. I believe that we’re going to see a gradual shift in the number of 8-, 9- and 10-year olds who now really believe they can be a collegiate triathlete.”