Women’s History Month acknowledges the accomplishments and contributions of women to American history and culture. The celebration is complemented by International Women’s Day, which expands that recognition to a global scale.
Here at USA Triathlon, we’ve been using a special two-part article series to shine a spotlight on several highly accomplished women who have made their athletic mark in multisport, and continue to influence athlete and sport development through coaching and entrepreneurship. You can read Part 1, featuring Olympian Barb Lindquist and marathon champion/former pro triathlete Lisa Rainsberger, at this link.
This week’s article features Fleet Feet founder, sports entrepreneur and former pro triathlete Sally Edwards, as well as Olympic bronze medalist Susan Williams.
How did you start competing in multisport?SALLY: In 1976, there were very few opportunities for female athletes to compete. Title IX had not passed. I initially started running, and found out that I had some talent, because you don’t know if you don’t have much opportunity. I heard about a triathlon in a small town in California and I thought, “How fun!” And I did my first triathlon in 1978. There were maybe 100 of us.
At that time, the race format was run, bike, swim. At my second triathlon, when I finished running, I was in first place because I was a talented runner. But on the bike, all these great cyclists went flying by, because I didn’t know anything about cycling. During the swim, the water was 50 degrees. Wetsuits were not allowed in that era. Nobody thought of putting on a wetsuit, actually. And there was no triathlon apparel or triathlon equipment.
I got the bug and decided that my next triathlon, my third one, would be the IRONMAN in Hawaii. There were about 300 athletes total, and maybe 30 or 50 of them were women. So, in 1980 I did my first Ironman and finished second. I think I was the fourth or fifth woman ever to do an Ironman distance.
SUSAN: I got involved with the sport of triathlon after I finished graduate school. I had been swimming competitively since age 9 and I swam for University of Alabama. But when I moved to Colorado for graduate school, I discovered the sport of triathlon. I was already swimming, biking and running for fitness, so I thought I'd give it a try. The last four-plus years of my swim career I did not see any improvements, and that was really frustrating. Once I discovered this "new" sport, it was refreshing to work hard, then see that hard work pay off with improvements.
Did you experience any challenges as a female pro?SALLY: There was a lot of discrimination when the sport was new, and It was always kind of the same theme that happened across the board in women’s sports. There was little to no recognition; men were always featured in media and otherwise. There were expectations about physical appearance and dress. There was discrimination in prize money, with women (including me) sometimes receiving less than half of what their male counterparts would receive for the same performance. The rationale was, “Well, Sally, you finished first or fifth” (or wherever I was). “There were fewer of you in the race, so you should get less money.” And my answer to that, of course, is "I swam as far, I biked as far, I ran as far. I should get paid the same amount."
SUSAN: It was hard work, but a fantastic experience to be able to race against the best in the world. Thankfully, I had already established a career, so I was fortunate that I could race as a professional but not have to rely on prize money for my well-being. I honestly can't think of any specific challenges that came with being female. On the contrary, it was never hard to find guys to train with to keep me challenged.
I think the best thing about being a professional athlete is that I could go out for a ride or run on a beautiful Colorado day and say it was my job! The other great thing was the camaraderie among the women racers, particularly the Americans. We'd travel to races together, stay together, race hard against each other, but at the end of the day were genuinely happy for our teammates when they did well, regardless of our own results.
How did the sport change while you were competing?SALLY: We didn’t have rules for triathlon at that time. There were maybe 300 of us doing this in the whole world. We knew nothing. And there was no triathlon apparel or triathlon equipment. But I had an exercise background about training, about equipment, about nutrition; I had a master’s degree in exercise science. And I had been doing ultramarathons. I had won the Western States 100-mile endurance run at that point. So, I knew a lot about long-distance endurance in running, but not triathlon.
I’m a pioneer, so this goes back to the forming of our sport. And I wanted to figure it out, and make sense out of it. After doing the Ironman in Hawaii, I came back and wrote the first book ever written on triathlon. It was about training for an IRONMAN. In the book I made 10 predictions, and every single one of those 10 predictions came true. Everything from triathletes making money (we just got trophies back then, you know), to the prediction that there would be lines of apparel and equipment specific to triathlon, to triathlon becoming an Olympic sport. It’s in museums now, that book. It’s a pretty good book.
When we formed USA Triathlon, I worked with Jim Curl to write a rule book for the sport. The board passed our stipulation that to be sanctioned by USA Triathlon, men and women must have equal prize money. And I think that’s been really significant.
How have development opportunities changed for young female athletes?SUSAN: There are many more opportunities now for youth to get involved with the sport. I didn't know anything about triathlon until I was 24, but since I was busy with my swimming, that was probably OK. There are now youth and junior elite races and championships, camps and clinics, so talented youth have many opportunities to grow in the sport. I will say that I wish there were more youth triathlons in Colorado!
What helps women in multisport thrive?SALLY: My passion is to see both equality and equanimity in every crack and corner and room in our sport, from the governing bodies to the commercial operations, to the events. And actually, there are more women now who are running competitive races than men.
SUSAN: I have been fortunate to work with an all-women tri team in the Denver area, and am so inspired by this group of gals. Some have never even run a 5k, been in a pool or owned a bike. Yet there they are, joining the team and giving it a go. Some are cancer survivors, some have other health issues. Yet they are taking charge of their lives to be healthier and more active. It is incredible to see some of the improvements and accomplishments that these ladies achieve! I think it is the community that helps them thrive—the support from their teammates and coaches, feeling "safe" to go out and do things they would never have even imagined. In general, women tend to be more supportive of one another.
Why are you still involved in multisport today?
SUSAN: I will always have a place in my heart for triathlon. It has given me so many opportunities to meet great friends, see the world and keep my training and exercise balanced. It has been a joy for me to use my knowledge and experience to help others reach their own goals; I started coaching in the late 90s and continue coaching to this day. I also hope to be involved with the NCAA Triathlon movement. As a collegiate athlete, I see more high school triathletes having more opportunities to compete in college. And the sport itself continues to grow.
SALLY: Regarding multisport as a lifestyle, I really think it enables you to be fit for your whole lifetime, given you don’t have some sort of catastrophic accident or have a knee replaced (like I did a few years ago). You can just train around whatever that injury is. I fell in love with multisport training. I can’t run like I used to, ever again. So now I inline skate, I cross-country ski. I do a lot of sledding when I can because I like to hike uphill and then go fast downhill. I do a little bit of yoga and stretching and strength training. Because I’m a cardio junkie.
What advice do you have for women who want to enter the sports business and be in leadership?
SALLY: You have to cut your teeth getting experience in business and understanding how it works. And then I really encourage women to be entrepreneurs and find their own niches. And as you find it, don’t play the game. Be better than everyone else. Deliver more than what is expected. Figure out how to go around the obstacles. It’s advice I give all the time, because often at that point, people will quit or go somewhere else. Find out what the organization needs and how can you meet those needs. And if you can help them figure out what they need, that’s even better.
What would you say are key changes that have improved multisport involvement for women? What could still be improved?SUSAN: I think the all-women races have had a huge impact on the involvement of women in multisport events: Danskin, Tri for the Cure and TriBella, to name some that were or still are here in Colorado. At these races, I think women can feel less intimidated and afraid to be out there no matter their shape, size or ability. And quite often, once these gals get out for run race, they are hooked and ready to try another one! I don't know how many all-women multisport teams there are in the country, but these are great ways to get more women involved—particularly ones that aren't competitive but want to make a healthy lifestyle change through exercise and fitness. If course, there is always room for the competitive gals as well!
SALLY: There was a kind of secondary-class treatment of women in sports business. I co-founded Fleet Feet Sports (the largest chain of running-shoe stores in America), as well as several other businesses. I’ve been called a “little girl” more times than I want to remember, and the attitudes always came down to power, business and money. There have been few women in leadership in the sports industry. But I think it’s slowly changing. Would you say women in triathlon have a 50/50 deal today? Since it’s been established as an Olympic sport, things have been much improved. That is true. But slowly is not really what I love.
SALLY EDWARDS, MA, MBA is the CEO and founder of HeartZones, Inc., and one of America’s leading experts in business, exercise science, and lifestyle living. She is a professional athlete, 16-time IRONMAN finisher, member of the Triathlon Hall of Fame, ultra-marathoner, and winner of the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run.
Sally’s passion is to get America healthy and moving. A serial entrepreneur, Sally has founded a half-dozen businesses, including America’s largest chain of retail sports shops, FLEET FEET Sports. She also is a motivational speaker and bestselling author who has written 24 books and 500 articles on health and fitness, including the popular books Be a Better Runner and ZONING, Fitness in a Blink. Sally is an example of what she teaches – living an active healthy lifestyle in Sacramento, California, with her partner, Estelle Gray, and her three dogs – Humor, Lucy, and Jerry.
SUSAN WILLIAMS became the first U.S. triathlete to win an Olympic medal by taking the bronze in 2004. She had been working toward becoming an astronaut, but her success at triathlon convinced her to give the Olympics a try; she had earned a B.S. in aerospace engineering from the University of Alabama in 1992, and a master’s in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado in 1994. By 1996, Susan was the fastest U.S. amateur, winning the 25-29 age group at the ITU World Championship in Cleveland, Ohio. Susan was aiming to qualify for the 2000 Olympic team when she found out she was pregnant. Four years later her daughter, Sydney, joined her on the medal stand in Athens.
Susan started Commitment to Excellence Triathlon Coaching in 2004 and created Elite Multisport Coaching in 2009, which now runs an Age Group Triathlon Team with over 50 members. Susan also gives motivational talks and triathlon clinics and seminars all over the country. She continues to race triathlons but has added XTERRA to the mix. Susan won the Leadville 100 mountain bike race in 2008.