Triathlon — it’s a swim, a bike and a run all done in succession. To a grown woman like myself, it sounded incredibly daunting. Maybe even impossible given my fitness level at the time. Triathlon seemed like something only a lifelong elite athlete would do, not a middle-aged mother of four who hadn’t run a single step since age 12, been on a bike since age 21, and could only keep afloat using side stroke and doggy paddle (neither of which could get me very far). But, when triathlon mania overtook the women in my small town, I found myself swept up in the excitement. Next thing I knew, I was doing what I once believed was impossible. I was crossing the finish line of my first triathlon… and it was as transformative and empowering as I had been told.
I went into triathlon thinking it was a way to improve my long-ignored fitness, which it did. I wasn’t expecting the new friendships I made, the positive impact it had on my daughters who watched my journey and the significant increase in my confidence. I carry that confidence with me daily. It serves as a touchstone when life throws me challenges. Doing my first triathlon back in 2014 showed me I could not only survive difficult things, but thrive in surmounting them. The tools required to successfully navigate the hills and valleys in our life’s journey are parallel to racing in a triathlon: preparation, mental toughness, perseverance, courage, a dash of an adventurous spirit and a tribe of women to help you press on even when you want to quit.
Imagine that feeling of strength and confidence I described and now imagine providing an opportunity for a young girl to have that same feeling; a young girl poised on the edge of those challenging tween and teen years, ready to navigate a myriad of inescapable sociocultural pressures. Body image, insecurity, dating and peer pressures, social media drama and bullying can all chip away at a girl’s developing self-esteem.
Sports, whether competitive and organized or fun and recreational, have been long identified as a buffer. Girls who are involved in sports not only reduce their risk of obesity and a laundry list of medical problems, but also are less likely to get involved with drugs and struggle with mental health issues. However, there is one problem — many girls either don’t have the opportunity, time, confidence or resources to join an organized team. Perhaps they feel insecure with their athletic ability, or it could be lack of accessibility, opportunity, mentorship, or financial resources. The irony is that the girls who face the most barriers to sport participation are often the girls who would benefit the most. That’s why Girls in the Game is so important and is making such a positive impact in the lives of at-risk girls.
I discovered the Girls in the Game Youth Triathlon Team during my research for a book I was writing about women in triathlon. I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the volunteer triathlon coaches, Miranda Hauser, to learn more about this incredible program. I was so impressed and inspired by this program, that I featured the Girls in the Game Youth Triathlon Team in Chapter 17 of my book (which was published with VeloPress and released April 2017).
The Girls in the Game Youth Triathlon Team is a 10-week training program offered over the summer, designed for girls between the ages of 7 and 14. The program is free, participation is voluntary, and because of the limited number of spots, there is a wait list every year. The girls meet for two hours of coached sessions once a week, spending time building confidence and conditioning their bodies in each discipline. Though the girls come from different schools in the area, they develop that “team bond” through training. The program culminates in all the girls participating in a local race together. “They all cross the finish line,” Miranda tells me. “We promote that you cheer on your team. The older girls who finish earlier will run back and run with the younger ones.”
The American Heart Association recommends children, starting at the age of two, get a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity each day, but sadly the average girl falls short of this standard. The benefits of exercise in youth is quite profound. Physical activity is directly correlated with overall health and fitness, ability to manage stress, mental health and even improved cognitive performance. Training for a triathlon most certainly yields these benefits.
But, there are other collateral benefits unique to the sport of triathlon. Those benefits include self-esteem, confidence and “belongingness.” Why is triathlon so transformative and empowering? Well, because it’s hard — a girl might not know how to swim, or might be wobbly on a bike or believe she “can’t” run. Even someone relatively confident in all three activities can be intimidated by doing all three in a row!
But, the greater the challenge, the greater the reward. Triathlon is also one of those sports that is focused on personal best rather than “winning.” The competition is within, not outside of, ourselves. When a sport becomes about self-improvement over external competition it appeals to those with more “non-competitive” personalities. Triathlon, at a recreational level, truly is about running your own race. Finishing is winning. Finally, while triathlon is an individual sport, when girls train together, it gives them all the positive benefits of being on a team — support, mentorship, camaraderie, belonging and friendship.
When the girls on the Girls in the Game Triathlon Team finish the program, and finish the race, they have accomplished more than learning how to swim, bike, and run. They have learned what it means to support each other. They understand the depth of their own strength when they push back against the desire to quit and keep going through the fear and the doubt or the physical discomfort. They walk away with the confidence and increased self-esteem that comes from doing what was once thought impossible.
Completing a triathlon may not solve every problem, eliminate life stressors, or create an unencumbered path to immediate success. But it’s a tool, a growth experience not everyone can have. It’s one positive experience that unfolds a larger transformation. A girl who runs across that finish line, no matter how fast or how slow, steps directly into her power. And an empowered girl grows into an empowered woman. She becomes a positive force in the community as a future leader, role model, possibly a mother, educator, or activist. When a girl tris, it changes something inside of her which cannot be contained. When a girl tris, and her confidence soars, it ripples out into the world. When a girl tris, we collectively, as a community of women, succeed.
Alicia DiFabio, Psy. D. is a writer with a doctorate in Clinical Psychology, the mother of four girls, a recreational triathlete, and a board member of the nation’s largest all-female triathlon club. She is the author of Women Who Tri: A Reluctant Journey Into the Heart of America’s Newest Obsession.