Long Read: Triathlon’s Diversity Challenge – Cherie Gruenfeld inducted into USA Triathlon Hall of Fame
In our May, 2019 issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada we looked at the issues around diversity in triathlon. As part of that feature, we spoke with Cherie Gruenfeld, a 13-time Kona age group champion and also the founder of a program called Exceeding Expectations. Today we learned that Gruenfeld will be inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame, which gives us a wonderful excuse to publish the story that highlights just some of her amazing contributions to the sport.
Triathlon’s Diversity Dilemma
By Kevin Mackinnon
Phillip McCatty was convinced triathlon would be a piece of cake. Competitive in jujitsu, he often cross-trained his girlfriend at the time. She dared him to do a triathlon.
“A bunch of skinny guys running around in spandex,” he thought to himself. “How hard can it be?”
There was one tiny problem. The Jamaican-born McCatty didn’t know how to swim.
“I didn’t learn to swim until I was an adult,” he says.
Despite the challenges, McCatty got through that first tri, convinced himself that he could do better, and became a full-blown triathlete. To the point where the 35-year-old represented Jamaica at last year’s Commonwealth Games in Australia.
McCatty moved to Hamilton, Ont. when he was 18 to attend McMaster University. He’s been here ever since and learned to swim here in Canada. Surprisingly enough, that’s not unusual for someone from Jamaica – despite the fact that they live on an an island, a large majority of Jamaicans can’t swim.
“In Jamaica there’s really limited access to pools,” McCatty says. “In Hamilton there are so many pools, so many opportunities.”
McCatty grew up “playing ball in the street.” He wasn’t heading to the local pool to work on his next Red Cross swimming level.
Since that first triathlon McCatty has steadily developed as an elite athlete, competing at ITU events in the Caribbean and, eventually, at the Commonwealths last year.
If you ask him if there were a lot of people who looked like him competing in the triathlon at the games, he’ll just laugh.
“There weren’t too many,” he says. “But there were more than I see at triathlon races around here. There were a couple of guys from the Solomon Islands, maybe a guy from Belize.”
While he might be somewhat unique as he enters transition areas for his races, McCatty never felt anything but welcomed at triathlon races and events he’s attended.
“Not even close,” he says. “If anything, the opposite. I wear my Jamaica suit, I have a bike painted with Jamaica colours – people come over and talk to me. People just love when I show up. Even when I just started, I felt very welcome. People were always so encouraging.”
When it comes to triathlon, one of the biggest “barriers to entry” is swimming. McCatty is hardly unique as a non-swimmer arriving in Canada. According to a study done by the Canadian Lifesaving society, “new Canadians are over four times more likely to be unable to swim than those born in Canada.”
The Lifesaving Society doesn’t have any numbers around racial diversity, but there have been some studies done in the United States that offer some frightening numbers when it comes to swimming. According to research done by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis in 2010, “70 percent of African-American children, [and] nearly 60 percent of Hispanic/Latino children … had little to no swimming ability.” Part of that is attributed to segregation and discrimination – swimming became much more popular in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, a time when segregation was very much alive and well, prohibiting African Americans from municipal pools. The USA Swimming Foundation’s research showed that “if a parent does not know how to swim, there is only a 13 percent chance that a child in that household will learn how to swim.”
And swimming isn’t the only barrier. Just ask Cherie Gruenfeld, who is probably best known as a 13-time Ironman world champion who has held pretty much every age group record in Kona at one time or another from 55 to 59 upwards. As amazing an athlete as she is, Gruenfeld runs a program in San Bernadino, Calif. that has literally been changing lives for almost 20 years. It’s called Exceeding Expectations.
The program got started in 2001 after Gruenfeld had done a talk at a local school about setting goals and achieving them. She showed the kids a video of her setting a record in Kona. After the talk she mentioned to the teacher that there was a small triathlon coming up in a few months and wondered if any of the kids might be interested in taking part.
She had no idea what she was getting into. When she learned that none of the kids she’d been speaking to had bikes, she organized to get bikes, found people to do the swim and the run, and brought 12 of the kids to the race to participate as part of a relay.
Shortly after that the group was coming back from another event and Gruenfeld got talking to the kids about what they would do after they graduated from high school.
“Why are you talking to us about stuff like that,” one of the kids said to her. “That’s for other kids, not us.”
Gruenfeld was shocked to find out that none of the kids she was working with had any family members who had ever graduated from high school, let alone gone to university. She realized that the goal of the program had to change – getting kids to participate in a triathlon shouldn’t be the goal. Convincing them that they could get an education needed to be the real objective.
It’s hardly been an easy journey. Gruenfeld recounts one story of one of the races she took the kids to early in the program in Arizona. The group was camping at the race site. The day before the race the swim was open to competitors – she sent five of the kids down to check out the swim course. A few minutes later they were back.
“Why aren’t you swimming?” she asked.
“They won’t let us into the water,” one of them said.
“Why not?” Gruenfeld asked.
“Because we’re Mexicans,” was the reply.
Gruenfeld marched the group back to the lake and managed to convince the volunteer that the children were, in fact, registered in the race, but the story serves as a dramatic example of just how rare it was to see Hispanic athletes compete at events.
Fast forward to 2019 and numerous Exceeding Expectations athletes have gone on to college, and some of those college graduates are back with the program as coaches and mentors.
So, fifteen or so years after Gruenfeld had to explain to that volunteer that those “Mexican” kids were competing in the race, we are seeing positive change when it comes to diversity in triathlon, but not dramatic changes. Triathlon might be booming in South American and Asian countries right now, but here in North America athletes like Phillip McCatty and Tenchi So, the gentleman whose email prompted this story, can’t help but notice that racial minorities like themselves are dramatically under-represented in the sport. Here in Canada there don’t seem to be any statistics available around racial diversity, but according to stats available from USA Triathlon, less than one percent of American triathletes are African American.
OK, so there’s the swimming dilemma. There are socio-economic issues. What can we do to start fixing these problems? Last year USA Triathlon awarded a grant to Hampton College, a black university, to start up a women’s triathlon program. It has also awarded grants to all-black triathlon clubs in the country, too.
Triathlon Canada doesn’t have similar programs, but when I reached out to them to find out, they suggested that I talk with Simon Whitfield about his “Triathlon Together” program.
No, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist hasn’t become Triathlon Canada’s director of diversity, but in the same way that Gruenfeld’s Exceeding Expectations program has the additional benefit of enhancing racial diversity in addition to its main goal, Whitfield’s program offers the same potential here in Canada.
“We like to say triathlon is accessible, but it’s not,” Whitfield says. “It’s a very expensive sport. It’s got a lot of barriers to entry. It’s a big-time commitment. It’s a logistics nightmare for race directors and participants – you have to bring a bike down to an event and its intimidating.”
His answer to that problem? TriathlonTogether, with a simple mission statement: “Welcome to TriathlonTogether, where you participate as a ‘duo’ or as a ‘squad.’ Arrive ‘solo’ we’ll find you a crew. Team up with friends, or show up to meet people, just take part, or race, teams finish together. Duo or Squad – TriathlonTogether.”
Whitfield came up with the concept when he was asked about competing in an Ironman. His stock answer was simple: “I’d do one if I could do it with a group of people.”
Last year Whitfield did his first race since the 2012 Olympic triathlon in London, where a crash coming out of T1 put him out of the race. He competed in the sprint event at the Toronto Tri Festival alongside some of his old training buddies – Stefan Timms, Joe Rizzi and Mike Greenberg. When he was asked to be an ambassador for next year’s ITU World Championships in Edmonton, Whitfield said that he wanted to be involved simply as an “ornament” – he wanted his involvement to be more substantive.
Voila. Welcome to TriathlonTogether. The inaugural race took place in February at the Repsol sports centre in Calgary, consisting of a 150-m swim, a 3 km stationary bike and a 1 km run. This summer both the Edmonton WTS and Toronto Triathlon Festival will host TriathlonTogether waves.
So what do we do? When it comes to diversity in triathlon, the issues are both numerous and complicated. You’ve read 1,500 words so far and do you think I’ve even tapped the cultural, economic and historical issues that make entry to triathlon a challenge? Yeah, me neither. It makes no sense that I can quote to a percentage of Afro-American triathletes registered in USA Triathlon, but I can’t tell you how many of Canada’s Indigenous population participate, or what we’re doing to make the sport more accessible for them.
Triathlon’s diversity issues will hopefully become less of a factor as more of the world embraces the sport. Ironman will host a race in Goa, India this October. Ironman hosts a number of races in China now and lists Asia as the company’s largest region of growth. Challenge Family has also been rapidly expanding in Asia. The Toughman series now hosts more races in South America than they do in the United States.
Triathlon Magazine Canada can do its bit, too, by following Tenchi So’s direction and featuring more visible minorities in our coverage. As asserted, this magazine does not “represent the diversity that Canada proudly promotes as a country.” While one might argue that the sport doesn’t represent that diversity, either, that doesn’t help the problem.
We’ll endeavour to make this our start.