A man was standing near a lake not long after sunrise, one hand on his baby’s stroller, the other hand holding onto a bicycle. There were many men like him nearby, handling bikes, backpacks, water bottles, clothes, helmets, shoes, dogs and children of all ages.
What had brought them all here, at the crack of dawn, on a surprisingly cool Saturday morning in August?
Their wives, girlfriends, sisters, daughters, mothers … even grandmothers. Or maybe a female pal/co-worker. They were here to hold onto stuff, to herd the kids, to observe and encourage. To do all those things that … well, let’s be realistic … women are used to doing.
And I thought, as I soaked in the scene around me, that it was something I never saw as a child, nor do I think there was even much of an opportunity for anyone my age to have seen it back then. Even though that was the 1970s, and really not so very long ago.
Where was I? At a women’s triathlon in the greater Kansas City area, at Smithfield Lake. Administered by a women’s sports advocacy group here called Win for KC, sanctioned by the U.S. Track and Field Association and sponsored by local businesses, this particular triathlon is both serious competition and celebration of throwing away “I don’t think I can.”
An aside: I’ve typically never been very keen on gender separation of activities. In part because of an inherent suspicion that “separate” usually isn’t “equal.” And in part because … well, to be blunt, growing up, I strongly didn’t want to be grouped only with other girls. Most of my preferred pals were boys, because I had far more in common with them in terms of interests (primarily sports, bicycles and horror movies.)
But my discomfort with the concept of women-only events is also because women have had to fight so hard to break down barriers to be allowed to do things and go places that had been male-only, and so it seems wrong to turn around and create things that are female-only.
However, when it comes to a group such as Win for KC and events like its triathlons and sports clinics for girls/women, the purpose, of course, is not to “exclude” males – in fact, they are heavily involved as volunteers and sponsors _ but to focus on the most effective ways to accomplish an under-served mission: to get females to play.
Something. Anything. As long as it involves physical exertion, and helps you feel better.
As children, provided we’re healthy, we all play. But as we grow into adults, women – much, much more so than men – fall out of the habit of playing, and even forget that they ever did play or know how. There are, of course, centuries of oppression, sexism and gender roles that contribute to this. But now, at least here in the United States, there are more opportunities than ever for women to do something that improves physical fitness, which always helps mentally and emotionally, too.
We are fortunate here in Kansas City to have one of the most vibrant women’s sports advocacy groups in the nation. WIN for KC is an arm of the Kansas City Sports Commission, which was pro-active in understanding the need for WIN.
Which goes back to the need to break down “I don’t think I can.”
Because that’s a crushing mindset for so many women. They don’t think they can run or walk or peddle or swim or row very far, if at all. Or they don’t think they can pick up an athletic skill, like properly swinging a tennis racket or golf club. Or even if they believe they can do something _or in fact know they can do it because when they were younger, they did _ they now don’t think they can find the time. The kids need lunches packed, the laundry needs to be done, there’s too much going on at work.
And, for some women, what deep down prevents them from trying an activity is an insidious fear that everyone can actually relate to but which we are all usually loathe to talk about. They are afraid of being ridiculed.
That’s why Kansas City’s women-only triathlon is so appealing to a lot of participants. First-timers are not only welcome, they are heavily encouraged.
“Although this is a real certified triathlon, it really offers a supportive environment to help beginners have the incentive to try,” said Win for KC executive director Patti Phillips.
There’s no “right” body type at this event, and, thus, there is every possible type. Nobody’s going to laugh at you. Nobody’s going to wonder what makes you think you can do this. Nobody’s going to say, “You’re too slow.” Nobody wants anything except to see you succeed, because everyone there believes you can.
“This is a really good (triathlon) to do,” said Hannah Lubis, a 17-year-old from the greater KC area whose time tied for third-best overall. “There’s lots of support. It’s very friendly.”
It was the second triathlon the teen-ager had done, the first being a few weeks earlier. After her competition Saturday morning, she looked so fresh that you suspected she could have gone out and done another triathlon that afternoon.
Most of the hundreds of competitors were older than her. Some were trying to go as fast as possible. Others were not concerned at all with their time; they just wanted to complete the race. If that meant needing to hold on to the buoys for a few seconds of rest during the chilly 500-meter swim, that was OK. If it meant needing to walk during the 3.1-mile run, do whatever you need. What mattered was starting and finishing.
Which is what Pam Johnston did. And the story of this Kansas City mother of five will explain the importance of this triathlon as well as anything. In November 2007, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and soon began the battle to save her life.
“I had to have a double mastectomy, and I went through five surgeries last year,” Johnston said. “And then this triathlon idea came up, and I was hesitant. I thought, ‘How in the world am I going to do something like that?’
“But the more I went along training for it, I realized all of us doing it are our own support system. I got into it to try to turn my health around, but it’s changed my life. It’s been great, a wonderful experience, really motivating _ so many different women with so many stories.”
Johnston is the youngest of five sisters, and they lost their mother to cancer four years ago. When Pam was diagnosed, the sisters rallied together – one from St. Louis, one from Springfield, Mo., and two from KC. They helped Pam and her husband, Jed, take care of the children, do errands, cook meals and get to doctors’ appointments.
And two of Pam’s sisters – Shelly Ricehouse and Cyndi Smith _ did the triathlon with her Saturday. They all crossed the finish line together.
“Before I got in the water, I was nauseated,” Pam said of her pre-swim nerves. “But once we started, I was OK. I’m blown away by it all – it really feels like an accomplishment.”
As for whether she’d do it again next year, she said, “Absolutely, I’m hooked! I’m going to look around for another one I can do before then, because I want to keep up my training.”
Johnston is 36, and is not one of those women who discovered her athletic side only recently. To the contrary, she “re-discovered” it.
“I was very athletic in high school, with basketball and softball,” she said. “I was really active. But I graduated, got married and had kids. And while I was still a little active, it was nothing compared to what I had done. This triathlon has brought back that whole flood of good memories, and what that feels like.”
Johnston said her husband had actually started on his own weight-loss program before she was diagnosed with cancer. The two of them are now both working at improving their health.
“He’s started this amazing turnaround,” Johnston said. “He’s a big country boy. He started eating right, walking more and now he’s lost over 50 pounds. And he is 100 percent supportive of me doing this. Anytime I want to get out to train, he says, ‘Go do it.’ ”
It was readily apparent at Saturday’s triathlon that many other men had said the same thing to their wives. Not everyone there had a partner, and, of course, some of the partners were other women. The support of male partners did stand out to me, though, because of what it says about positive growth in our culture.
As I said, when I was a child in the 1970s, the women’s liberation movement was in full force, and a great deal was changing. But I don’t think there would have been many scenes such as the one I saw Saturday, when so many men were matter-of-factly assuming care-taker duties so their wives could compete in an athletic event.
Perhaps a girl or boy who is Hannah Lubis’ age would take that for granted (which in itself is progress) … but someone my age doesn’t. And especially knowing in the world right this minute, there are millions of women who still live in servitude and subordination that is unfathomable in our culture.
Dad and kids watching Mom swim, bike and run her way to a medal and the cheers of on-lookers is not going to change the damage done because of sexism in other parts of the world … not perceptively, anyway. However, it provides a karmic counterbalance that at least made this part of the world a very neat place Saturday.