The multisport community is known for supporting and encouraging one another, regardless of experience or background. At the same time, there’s always room to grow—including in the area of promoting diversity in our sport.
Throughout the month of February, the United States acknowledges African-American achievements and contributions to the culture. To join this celebration of racial diversity and open a conversation on the subject, USA Triathlon interviewed several athlete-leaders who are making an impact in the multisport community. This two-part article series highlights their experiences and perspectives as African Americans participating in multisport.
This week’s article features six-time Team USA World Age Group triathlete Alma Darensburg, International Association of Black Triathletes CEO Tekemia Dorsey, and USA Triathlon certified coach Tony Rich.
How did you get involved in multisport?
ALMA: I got into the sport through a friend. She was studying for her Masters in kinesiology, writing a paper on triathlons. We were her guinea pigs. She wrote out a program, and we trained for a triathlon and did it.
Now I’ve been to six Worlds. I’ve always been athletic, but I never thought I could be that good. It’s the Olympics for me. It’s an opportunity to do something I love. It’s the chance to compete, to prove myself, to get better. As you get older you ask, what do I want to do for myself? I had kids. My training was at the crack of dawn. It was a lifestyle, and it made me a better mother, a better friend, a better person. I’m not a girly-girl type, so it was perfect for me. And we made it a family thing. We saw beautiful parts of the country. I made some amazing friends through triathlon.
TONY: I’ve been athletic my entire life. I played football, basketball, and track and field since I was a kid, and remained active through college. In the late 90s and early 2000s I started going to local run groups. In 2003, I ran the marathon for the first time. Then I learned about IRONMAN triathlons, and immediately knew I wanted to be a part of the lifestyle. I learned how to swim and then jumped right into what many people thought was the hardest Half IRONMAN in the country at the time (Oceanside 70.3). It destroyed me, but I finished it and I loved it. I became an endurance enthusiast, doing hundreds of short- and long-course events over 16 years. I started a multisport training company, EventHorizon endurance sport, in 2011. I work with a team of coaches to help bring people of all abilities into the sport.
TEKEMIA: I’ve been in sports for 25 years. I played softball in high school and at the collegiate level. I picked up running in college, and I developed this love for running. Along the way, I played pro women’s football (NWFL). Then I picked up cycling and raced duathlons. I had heard about tris, but I hadn’t done one and I didn’t know how to swim. I started swim lessons, and nine months later, I did IRONMAN Maryland. I raced Eagleman to train. I’ve since completed more than 300 endurance races. I’ve coached every sport except lacrosse. Now I’m growing youth multisport in the urban community. The more I can see urban kids training and parents supportive, willing to break out of the normal mode, that gives me motivation.
What did you observe about African-American presence in the sport when you first started racing?
TEKEMIA: I come from a more diverse cultural background. When I played pro women’s football, the teams were racially mixed, so it wasn’t so much of a shock to me that black people weren’t racing triathlons. But then my three kids started attending my races, seeing that culture, and then competing. They were probably the majority of the black kids there, and their awareness started to kick in. They said, “Mom, I don’t see anyone like me out there.” My eyes started to open up to their standpoint. I started zeroing in on what the adults were saying: “There’s not a lot of us out there.”
Then the passion came to really want to grow the sport in urban community. That’s why we started the Junior Multisport Club—because they were lonely. They had each other, but that was about it! They didn’t see anyone else who looked like them.
ALMA: I never really noticed the level of black participation until someone pointed it out. In Texas [where I live], there aren’t many African Americans participating in the sport, so I thought it was a Texas thing. At the elite level, I thought it was just a matter of income. I never thought of it as being racial. I thought of it as financial. There’s the initial investment in equipment, then maintenance. If you want to get better, there’s even more. And race fees are very expensive.
What factors impact African-American participation in multisport?
TONY: One of the biggest deterrents to bringing most potential new athletes into triathlon is swimming proficiency. This is especially the case in black communities. Seventy-eight percent of African-American adults report no or low swimming proficiency. That’s a staggering number. The percent of black children who cannot swim sits somewhere around 65 percent, according to the School of Health Studies at The University of Memphis. (1)(2)
Why these statistics are what they are is a bit complex. But you can’t have a serious discussion about racial diversity in triathlon without talking about improving swimming proficiency and participation, ideally at young ages. I learned how to swim as an adult, became a certified water safety instructor, a waterfront lifeguard, a Master swimmer and now an active Master swim coach with Boston University Masters. I’ve helped teach hundreds of African Americans to swim and swim better. After explaining my history and progression with swimming, people are able to see that if I can do it, they can do the same.
TEKEMIA: Triathlons aren’t new, but they’re new to urban communities because the communities lack awareness. Families don’t know the sport exists. Urban coaches don’t know it exists. All they know are these basic sports. And it’s not just the local coaches. It’s the school boards, parks and rec departments, just everybody. They have no idea. It has made it very tough to try to grow the sport. I’ve had to educate people in key positions throughout the city in very influential positions. Watching a video is not the same as seeing it live. And if you don’t have people around you who create the culture, it’s out of sight, out of mind.
ALMA: Not all colleges offer scholarships. How much backing do they get from the athletic departments? Funding often goes to the major sports. Triathlon has a limited budget, and the initial cost can be expensive. It doesn’t have the glamour and the financial outcome that many African Americans strive for. ESPN 30 for 30 television segments have showed that in low-income families, kids get into the [NFL] draft early for money and don’t finish college because of financial reasons. It’s what they need to do to support their families. They’re banking on their future.
What do you envision for minority participation in multisport in the future?
TEKEMIA: The pillars of my passion for the urban community are awareness, education, increased participation, and growth in the sport beyond the sport itself. In the urban community, you have to take a holistic approach. So we’re not just making triathletes, getting black kids to swim, bike and run. We’re also encouraging kids who have experienced the sport to pursue job potential in the sport, and we’re putting them on a path to help them get there. We focus on the internships, the collegiate opportunities, the careers. We open their eyes to a whole new untapped arena. I’d like to see these kids working in leadership roles in the multisport industry someday.
TONY: From my personal perspective, I think it would be great to see a more diverse cross section of multisport athletes. And it starts early. We need to encourage minority adults and youths to take part in swimming proficiency programs. In time we’ll continue to erase stereotypes and swim proficiency rates will rise. Once this happens, I suspect we’ll see a natural increase in minority participation as the group takes part in the growing trend of people seeing multisport as their primary means of getting and staying fit. While it can get competitive, one of the best attributes we've seen of the multisport community is everyone supports, encourages and inspires each other. Nothing unites communities like athletics and sports. The fact that we can be different yet train and race together without caring what color one’s skin is sets a great example and an inspiring message to the world. We all have a common humanity and we are all essentially just one race: the human race.
ALMA: I would like to see more black participation on a youth level. Hardly any high school kids participate. High school sports are so narrow-minded. I coach a lot a lot of swimmers, but the coaches don’t let kids do dual sports. They don’t want the kids out of the water to cross train. Many coaches aren’t coaches; they’re teachers. They don’t understand the benefit of cross training. There’s no opportunity to expand, to experience and see what else is out there. More so in predominantly black communities. They stick with sports that are more likely to get them a scholarship.
What could be done to help that vision become a reality?
ALMA: It’s going to take educating people on it. Most people don’t even know what a triathlon is. We’re not getting the publicity we deserve. If you’re a triathlete, you probably won’t be on Dancing with the Stars. There will always be those limelight sports that are going to take away from multisport. Most people will watch gymnastics over triathlon. For the African-American community, I don’t think this dynamic will change until someone breaks through, like the Simone Biles of triathlon—a star to take us there.
TONY: I applaud USA Triathlon for playing a big part in the effort to increase participation with their IRONMAN partnership and Time to Tri initiative. Anyone, including minorities, can tap into a myriad of resources to help get into the sport and some of them are for free.
TEKEMIA: It’s going to take time, cultivating, nurturing. Multisport in the urban community is still in the first trimester in the mom’s womb. The first year we went to Youth and Junior Nationals, it was pure white—and that’s OK! There’s been progress, but participation is still less black than other ethnicities. I’ve seen more efforts to reach out to African-American organizations, acknowledging their efforts and causes, reaching out for insight, collaboration. Partnership, sponsorship, making training resources more available to urban coaches and race directors—these are the kinds of practical things that will help urban outreach become more successful. The HBCU initiative is a great example, a great step in the right direction. Actions speak louder than words, and these are positive actions.
How do you recommend discussing racial diversity?
TEKEMIA: In the past there’s been no discussion on diversity in the multisport arena. Sometimes you’ve got to address the elephant in the room with the alligator. Diversity and race and ethnicity are hard to address. But in a multisport arena, people want it addressed. You can’t go around it. You can’t go over it. You can’t go under it. You have to meet it where it is and be honest. What’s happening now with these new initiatives and other efforts is huge. It’s the beginning of a conversation, and it’s giving us a voice.
TONY: On a personal level, I would advise athletes to focus the discussions around what we can all do to encourage increased participation in minority groups. As a USA Triathlon coach, I'd encourage other coaches to focus on diversity through innovative implementation of their programs that they design with their coaching teams.
What would you like the USA Triathlon audience to understand about Black History Month?
TONY: Black History Month celebrates great achievements in history. Within multisport we do have many black age group triathletes who have made their own history, and we have the first black male professional triathlete making history as well. There is still history to be made.
TEKEMIA: Black History Month is 28 days. Integrating black people in the sport is 365. It takes the whole year to educate, increase awareness, hold clinics and become partners to get urban kids involved and get them to stay. A lot of urban families are living day to day, and don’t know where money is coming from. There’s high unemployment, high crime, high death rates, high dropout rates, high academic woes. It’s not an excuse. It’s just a reality. But we are able to accomplish a lot on a little. We can look back and say that we’ve had an impact.
ALMA: To me, it’s never been about the color. I don’t think the color of your skin should matter. It’s more about the camaraderie and the people who make it such a great sport. It takes a special person to be a triathlete, and everyone’s there to cross the finish line. White or black, everybody has been so welcoming, encouraging, motivating, no matter what race or creed. The triathlon community has lifted up African Americans, given them opportunity to race and make them so welcome, make them not feel any different. I never thought about it because I always felt so accepted in the community. I never would have survived racing all this time if there hadn’t been so many wonderful people. Put the triathlon community on the pedestal they should be on. Make them understand how great they are. Because they really are.
ALMA C. DARENSBURG has been a multisport athlete for over 20 years. She has been on eight USA Triathlon National Teams, participating in varying distances and events. Her best finish was ninth place at the ITU World Olympic Championships 2005 in Honolulu. She credits her longevity to the sport to the support she receives from her family. Her daughter, T.J., is working on her Master’s degree in the United Kingdom and playing soccer. Her son, Logan, is a sophomore at Mississippi State and is one of the mascots. Alma’s husband, Randall Jackson, is a Delivery Executive for SAP. Alma lives in Grapevine, Texas, and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach for The Coppell YMCA. She also teaches specialty group exercise classes with TRX, Aquaboards, and athletic fitness. Alma works with athletes of varying ages, abilities, and sports.
Facebook: Alma Darensburg
DR. TEKEMIA DORSEY is the CEO/Owner of International Association of Black Triathletes / IABT Multisport Racing, Inc.; Head Coach of IABT's Junior Multisport Club; and Founder of the IABT Youth & Junior TRI-Conference(R)/EXPO Event. Dorsey is a Certified USAT Race Director, Level 1 Coach, Youth and Junior Coach, and Youth and Junior ELITE Coach with more than 25 years of coaching/athletic background. Dorsey and The International Association of Black Triathletes are the 2017 "DUAL AWARD WINNERS" of the Volunteer of the Year Award presented by Garmin. This was the first time this award has been awarded to two entities in a single year. Dr. Dorsey is also the lead author of the bestselling book "A Beginner's Guide for Triathletes; Jump Start Your Journey." Dorsey is also the author of the newly-released book "Why Black Youth Should and Urban Communities Should TRI? A Pipeline of Missed Opportunities (School, College, Career)." Both books can be found on Amazon.com. Dorsey remains a champion of getting more black youth and youth from urban communities acclimated in the multisport industry. Learn more at www.iabtjuniormultisportclub.org or www.iabtyouthnjuniortriconference.org.
TONY RICH iTony is a USAT Triathlon Level II Certified Coach, a USA Cycling Level 3 Certified Coach, and a USMS Certified Master Swim coach. He is also certified with the American Red Cross as a Water Safety Instructor (WSI) and Waterfront Lifeguard. Tony works with several local facilities. He is a practicing Masters swim coach and instructor for the
and the where he also serves as coach for the city's only known multi-session indoor triathlon training class. Tony has personally coached athletes and groups of all abilities to a broad spectrum of event finishes from short and long course events, century rides, marathons, USAT and Ironman National and World Championships. He’s helped several athletes attain personal records, transformations and podium finishes.Instagram: @eventhorizon.tv