I sat on the pier waiting for the Ironman World Championships to start.  The professional men took off and then the professional women lined up waiting for their cannon.  A woman that came to Kona to watch a mutual friend race turned to me and asked, “Why are there less women than men out there?”  I told her because the men’s field has 50 participants while the women have 35.  Mind you, this woman is not involved with triathlon at all.  As a spectator this is the first and probably last she’ll watch.  She looked at me completely perplexed and asked, “Why?”  I explained the rationale behind it; there are less professional women than men, thus a smaller championship field.  She continued to stare at me perplexed and said, “That makes absolutely no sense.  What year do we live in?”

So of course I had already thought about the equal slots to Kona.  But I come from a background where you don’t make a lot of fuss, you respect decisions made and you do what you’re told without complaining.  Bottom-line, you respect authority.  And so I became complacent and really didn’t do much more than read a few tweets and retweet every now and then.  While in Kona something changed.  Hearing a complete bystander question me for a decision on unequal sized fields started the wheels turning.  Is this something I really believe in?  Is this something to just sit back and idly watch happen?  While my background is to respect authority, it’s also to have the courage to speak up when you don’t believe in a decision.  And you can do that while still respecting authority.  This is not an attack; it’s an obligation to ask the tough questions on an obviously very sensitive subject.

I like numbers.  I like math and engineering.  I like being able to show people “evidence” with cold hard numerical data.  I majored in Operations Research focusing in the math department.  I took my commission from West Point and chose the Engineer Corps.  Initially the justification that the women’s field was smaller than the men’s based on the percentage of women and men was enough for me.  I mean, this is based on numbers and facts so it was good enough.  But I also know that you can make any argument using numbers.  Here is something to think about.  The distribution of points awarded at Kona are the same for men and women.  Let’s just say for argument’s sake that finishing in the top 15 are the only “worthwhile” points to give you the jumpstart needed to qualify for the following year in Kona.  Those racing at Kona and finishing in the top 15 already have an advantage over those who are not racing.  With the distribution of points exactly the same between men and women, that means 15 out of 35 women, or 43% of the field have the opportunity to take advantage of that jumpstart.  Meanwhile 15 out of 50 men, or 30% of the men’s field have the same opportunity.  Immediately I have to wonder if that doesn’t limit “new blood” to race Kona when off the bat nearly half the women’s field is already a step ahead because they are on the previous year’s start line?  How does this promote opportunity and growth?  Further, larger field sizes change race dynamics.  How does this effect placing and how do we quantify this number?  I don’t know!  Are the scenarios that arise from making a unilateral decision for a smaller women’s field based on populace being completely thought out? 

A few years ago I didn’t even try to qualify for Kona.  I saw that there were only 35 slots and with the current qualification guidelines, specifically with the race at Kona itself, I wrote myself off immediately.  If we are determining our championship field size based on population of men vs. women, again, can we quantify how many women aren’t even trying from the beginning due to a smaller size field?  Yes, this is a confusing question!  Think of it this way—which came first, the chicken or the egg?  I don’t think we do know and this would be incredibly difficult to quantify.  But I do know if you want growth, if you want to see more women racing in Ironman, particularly in the women’s Professional field then you have to provide opportunity.  As cliché as it sounds, if you build it, they will come. 

I mentioned that I like numbers, I like data.  I thought back on my own history in sports.  I went to college at West Point and while I was there our school was less than 15% women.  I ran track and cross country for 4 years.  I was the cross country team captain and qualified for Division 1 NCAA in the 10,000.  I look back and our men’s and women’s team were completely equitable.   Now I might be the only woman in my platoon back in my company, but when it came to sports across the board it was equal.  It never even dawned on me until now that had our teams been operating under the same guidelines as Ironman, I wouldn’t have these opportunities.  For the first time I realized that our leaders were progressive in their thinking and I applaud them and thank them!  These leaders ensured equality for women, the clear minority, and I feel such gratitude for their decisions.  I recognize these decisions were made because they were the right thing to do.  We can throw around numbers and data to prove our case.  But at the end of the day is this a math equation?  It’s about equality.  It’s the message you send.  That starts from the top and trickles down.  This is not a men versus women issue.  It’s an obligation to stand up and say the current system limits growth and opportunity for women.  And is that fair? I am so thankful I had advocates for equality in my younger years.  And now I will pay it back and continue to advocate for equality…almost 20 years later.
With my squad after infantry week during Camp Buckner, affectionately known to cadets as “BuckNam.” There were 2 women in my squad.  I’m top row, 3rd from left…or the girl with the bright blonde hair 🙂

Firstie (Senior) year, our women’s varsity cross country team.  The gal on the far right is an Olympian and the gal next to her qualified twice for the Olympic Trials in the marathon.
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Kelly Williamson · October 27, 2014 at 9:18 am

Great read Jess. And having finished 19th, you're completely right on the points and 'worthiness' of placings… I agree with your argument and I'd further it by saying that it would almost make sense to limit both fields to 40, OR increase $$ payout to top 15 or 20… seeing that with 50 m/w on the start line and a measly 20% getting paid at a World Championship event, that just seems messed up… anyhoo.. thank you for voicing! 🙂

KP · October 27, 2014 at 8:46 pm

Well done, Jessica!

Betsy Evans · October 27, 2014 at 8:56 pm

Great blog Jess! It's amazing how much opportunity that West Point gave us that we took for granted as how the outside world was. The inequality in tennis continues to exist at the professional level but it is because the standards are different. In the triathlon the distance is the same so the opportunity should be the same as well.

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