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Orca Community Blog

Women and triathlon

Orca

March 8, 2021

AN ERA OF WOMEN'S SPORT

SARA GROSS - Ironman champion, PhD in Women's History.

WOMEN IN SPORT 

In recent years there’s been a kind of… awakening for women in triathlon. As women, we realize that equal access to races and equal prize money is amazing, but definitely not enough for us to be fully included.

Enter the new era -  an era in which everything from clothing to bikes to training plans and yes, wetsuits, are designed specifically with women in mind.

A few months ago, we chatted with pro triathletes Katrina Matthews, Chelsea Sodaro, and Emma Pallant, who talked openly about the current and shifting environment for women in triathlon and sports more broadly.

WOMEN IN TRIATHLON: WHERE ARE WE NOW?

Triathlon has often been lauded as one of the most gender-balanced sports. We’ve had equal prize money at most races since the 1980s and that fact alone set the tone for decades of success for professional women. 

Katrina Matthews appreciated that "this (equal prize money) offered equal opportunities from the beginning, instead of having to fight for it as it happens in other sports." 

Chelsea Sodaro agrees: “I think our sport does a very good job celebrating the successes of the (women) athletes, and the media also recognizes our achievements.”

The equality of prize purses at the elite level has set the tone for an environment of inclusion that is almost second-to-none in the sporting world. And as Emma Pallant notes: "Today we [women] have almost a third of the participation ... And at the shorter distances, that ratio goes up.”

And yet, there is still a lot of work to be done if we want to see women enjoy full equity in the sport of Triathlon on every level, from participation to industry, to coaching and leadership. 

“This is a great time for women in triathlon. The numbers are rising at an amateur level, but there is still some disparity, not because of lack of interest or skill but because of barriers to access.” says Sodaro.

Some of the barriers Sodaro mentions are difficult to understand because they are baked into our cultural experiences. These barriers include internalized notions about what it means to be a woman in an arena that is essentially designed by and for men. This is highlighted by the fact that most sports science research and product development is done with young male athletes in mind. In this environment, it is often difficult to pinpoint exactly how or why women feel excluded, so we end up feeling a kind of general malaise, a hard-to-define-sense that the races we do and the kits we wear aren’t really designed for us. 

For Matthews, it is clear. In general, she says, "products are designed primarily for men, and 'adapted’ for women. If in brands we see women working on these products, together with men, aligned with the idea that there are two differentiated products, we can definitely speak of a change in how they fit us, in comfort, in performance, and aesthetics.”

 

TRIATHLON GEAR DESIGNED FOR WOMEN

Times are changing and companies are waking up to the idea that there is an opportunity to serve women better. 

“It is interesting to see how the brands we work with ask us for our input, for example in how the wetsuit fits us,” explains Sodaro. "I think that this interest in our bodies and what we experience is going to be very important to enhance comfort when women swim, run, or pedal.” 

And there is perhaps no sport in which fit and comfort are more important than in swimming:

“I know how I feel when I put on a wetsuit that fits me perfectly. I feel prepared to face any competition, any race, and I believe that anyone who is part of this sport deserves that same feeling: the confidence of wearing something that makes you feel great”, says Sodaro. The U.S. triathlete adds that “when you swim you shouldn't think about what you are wearing, you shouldn't worry about it moving, hindering you or absorbing extra water. It is a unique category that requires good design to do it well and adapt to all body types out there."

For Emma Pallant “swimming is perhaps where people are most aware of what they are wearing, so finding the right fit is key. In wetsuits, women need a more flexible shoulder, perhaps with buoyancy panels under the arms to make that grip a little stronger. And in the hip we want freedom”. And with that freedom, says Matthews, "we should have less buoyancy than men because we really don't need it as much in that area."

For Sodaro “the fit on our hips and upper body is unique compared to men. This is something that you have to think about in the design of a product because if that is off it reduces the effectiveness of the wetsuit. So having the measurements of all those different body types is very important to find more options for female athletes."

 

THE ERA OF WOMEN'S SPORTS BEGINS

At the end of our conversation, Sodaro said boldly: “We are coming into an era of women's sports, where women can celebrate being strong, powerful, and successful. There are great opportunities for products to recognize this fact and empower us. I think it's a great time to be an athlete. I hope brands see it too.” 

We see it. We embrace it. And we welcome a new era.