Women in Triathlon1

By Sally Edwards2
November 1, 2011


From triathlon’s beginnings, women have been in for the duration—the long haul and even the hard crawl. Triathlon stands out in the history of sports, since from its inception female triathletes have been accepted as bona fide competitors, not as a side-show to the main event.  Compare this with track, where women were barred from competing in anything longer than 200 meters until the 1960 Olympic Games, because the International Olympic Commission decreed that greater distances were too strenuous for the female constitution. The women’s 3,000-meter run wasn’t even added to the Olympics until 1984, the same year the women’s marathon was first included as an Olympic sport.  Finally, triathlon is an Olympic event, and women’s triathlon was the opening event for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

Women’s commitment to the sport has been at every level, from the first-timer doing a sprint, to the elite athletes, to women who have helped develop the sport as race directors, or like me, through involvement with its governing body, USAT.  Here is a timeline of some highlights of women’s participation in the sport..


1974: First modern-day triathlon took place in Mission Bay, CA with women competitors.

1979: In the second year of the Ironman competition Lyn Lemaire places fifth and becomes the first Ironwoman.

1980: Valerie Silk becomes race director of the Ironman and remains as either race director or chairman until 1989, when the event was moved from Waikiki to the lava fields of Kona, Big Island of HI.

1982: Julie Moss, suffering from severe dehydration and exhaustion, crumples to the ground fifteen yards from the finish line and is passed by Kathleen McCartney.  Moss crawls across the finish line in an inspirational moment for everyone.  Sally Edwards finishes third.

         The first computerized timing program, which produces split times (including transition times), was developed by Bonne Miller (Joseph).

         First European triathlon: The Nice Triathlon included women

         A women-only triathlon was first held at Marine World Africa USA, sponsored by Bonnie Bell, the skin   care and cosmetics company.

1988: Paula Newby-Fraser sets current Ironman course record with a 8:55:28, taking 11th place overall.

1990: Danskin, women’s dance wear company, introduces new lines of women’s athletic apparel and launches a three-city nation-wide women only triathlon Series.

1999: Lyn Brooks completes her 20th and final consecutive Ironman Word Championship. 

2000: Triathlon Becomes an Olympic Sport and the women’s event opens the Olympics.

2004: American Susan Williams wins the bronze in the women’s event in Athens—the first American triathlete to medal.

2008: American Laura Bennett places 4th in the women’s event in Beijing.

2009: TrekTM Women Triathlon Series begins, led by Series Director Maggie Sullivan with Sally Edwards as the Spokeswoman.

2011:  Chrissie Wellington broke the current Ironman record for women with a 8:55:08.

Though this timeline shows that triathlon has a short history, it is full of colorful tales that capture the imagination and the spirit of sport.  Women have played other roles in triathlon than that of athlete, having been central in the leadership of the sport from its beginnings.

Julie Moss brought a new level of attention to the sport by showing you don’t need to win a race to be remembered and respected.  In that race, she collapsed, pulled herself up, stumbled again and eventually crawled to the finish line even as Kathleen McCartney passed her.  She showed human spirit and dedication in the face of ultimate challenge.  Moss’s bravery drew people to the sport for many reasons, but one prominent reason is that triathlon can be about reaching your personal best and not annihilating the field. ABC television captured the moment, and televised it across the world as one of the most heroic finishes ever in the history of sports.  Many current Ironpeople have said that watching Julie crawl those last yards so inspired them that they decided to take up the sport. In 1987 the scene was replayed as Jan Ripple crawled across the finish line, suffering in the same way - an amazing moment of combined abasement and victory was again presented to the world.

According to European multi-triathlon champion Sarah Springman, a professional triathlete with a doctoral degree in engineering, now a professor in Switzerland, “Triathlon arrived in Europe in 1982 with the first Nice Triathlon.”   Sally Edwards won $3,000 for first place, and John Howard (a well known cyclist) won $7,000.

In 1984, Springman and her all-female team were competing in the London-to-Paris Triathlon (which consisted of a swim across the English Channel, individual 30-mile cycling time trials, a 50-mile team time trial to Paris, and a marathon run by a relay team of four).  Finishing in tenth place out of sixteen mostly male teams, Ironwoman Springman says the outcome “rearranged some male egos and impressions of triathlon women.”

When Paula Newby-Fraser broke the course record with a 9:01 in 1988, few ignored the fact that no man had broken 9:01 before 1983.  Her 1988 Ironman finish (11th overall) has been called the "greatest performance in endurance sports history".

In triathlon amateurs perhaps feel a stronger link to, and gain inspiration from elite athletes because an Olympic athlete and an age grouper can do the same sport on the same course, and in many races, compete in the same race.

Elite women in this country have been tough competitors and provide inspiration for those women seeking to bring their involvement in this sport to the next level.  The United States won its first and only Olympic triathlon medal in 2004, when Susan Williams placed third in the women’s event in Athens.  Another particularly inspiring athlete is Olympian Laura Bennett, who achieved fourth place in the 2008 Beijing Olympics at the age of 33. Her victory is particularly inspiring after having narrowly missing out of the Olympics two times, having been the second alternate in Sydney in 2000 and the first alternate in Athens in 2004.   Her continued commitment to the sport is truly inspirational to all women.

As the sport has developed, women are becoming involved in triathlon in ever-increasing numbers.  Currently, 37 percent of USAT is female and that number is growing.  In addition, one- third of these women are in the 35-50 age group.  Furthermore, the most recent figures for the Ford Ironman Championship in Kona indicate that in 2008, 27 percent of the competitors were women.  Though we may not see as many images of women in the media, this does not necessarily reflect the participation numbers in events.

There are other signs of improvement:  The Women’s Sports Foundation shows that before Title IX, one in 25 women played sports.  Now, that number is 1 in 3.  Yet the media still cling to the need for women to fit a mold. When reporters interview a female professional triathlete, they often highlight her marital status or how many children she has alongside her race results, the underlying implication being that even though she is an athlete, she is still fulfilling primary roles of wife and mother.  Not as often do I read of a male triathlete as “husband and father of three.”

Note: Comments and suggestions are encouraged and should be addressed to

Sally Edwards
The Sally Edwards Company
2636 Fulton Av. Suite 100
Sacramento, CA 95821


Revised: November 22, 2011

1.   Excerpts from “Women As Triathletes: The History” by Sally Edwards, published in 1990 and last updated in 2010

2.  Sally Edward is one of America 's leading experts in business, exercise science, and lifestyle living. She created the Heart Zones Training proprietary and branded training system. She is the National Spokeswoman for the Danskin and the Trek Women's Triathlon Series. Sally has completed over 150 all-women's triathlons (volunteering to  finish most as the "final finisher" so that no other woman has to finish last), 16 Ironman distance and numerous other distance triathlons and running events during the past 31 years.