Why More Triathletes Should Take Their ‘Pro’ License

I was reading the newest issue of Inside Tri this weekend and they featured a section of pros spouting off anonymously. That included this quote, which I suspect is an attitude many people (women) have:

Say shit anonymously that you'd never cop to in real life, sure.
Say shit anonymously that you’d never cop to in real life, sure.

This is idiotic. The idea that you shouldn’t take your elite license, challenge yourself, move up in competition, because you don’t meet some other imaginary standard — besides the actual standard that has been set by USA Triathlon — and won’t be good enough and should be embarrassed is wrong-headed and is hurting the women’s side of the sport. When seven women show up for a race where the prize money goes ten deep, the problem clearly isn’t that there are too many professional women.

The elite license is an ELITE license, not a professional license and certainly not commentary on whether or not you make a living racing — or, really, racing and coaching and putting on clinics and shilling for sponsors and media appearances and writing and providing analysis — because few people do make a living that way. USA Triathlon is very clear and specific about this. It is an elite license. It is simply a categorization that says you hit the ceiling in terms of performance, and nothing else. (Really, triathlon would be better off if there were more categories, like in cycling, with mandatory upgrades and a clear process of development.)

Because let’s be very clear. If you keep winning your age group and overall amateur titles and qualify repeatedly for your elite license, you have hit the ceiling in age group competition. Contrary to what this anonymous person says, you should not be happy continuing to beat on people that you’ve already beaten on.

There are lots of individual reasons people might not take their elite license in triathlon — because they’re waiting until next year or they have some specific goal they want to achieve first or their sponsors asked them not to (though *COUGH* why there are such big sponsors in amateur competition is another quandary for another day) or they don’t want to focus on triathlon — so I’m not attempting to judge any of those individual reasons. But, the fact remains that far, far fewer women who have qualified again and again and again choose to get their elite license. Largely, this is because women are afraid they’ll be last or embarrassed or people will judge them or they won’t get to stand on a podium and be admired or they think they’re not real “professionals.” Most women read this anonymous quote and think, ‘Oh my god, that’s true. That would be so embarrassing.’ Most male triathletes I know read it and think, ‘Screw you. I’m going to do great.’

Before I took my elite license in 2010, I never lost my age group. (Actually, that’s not true. I lost it at Age Group Nationals where I had a terrible race and fell apart and had a mechanical and had to get an IV, etc, etc.) I set an age group course record at Pacific Grove, which was previously held by another woman who is now a successful pro. Clearly I was near the top of the overall amateur field, because you have to be in order to qualify for your elite license. (Contrary to what this anonymous person says you can’t get your elite license and race as a pro if you’re just competitive or top five in your age group.) But, I wasn’t the best, not even close. I hadn’t won Nationals overall or a super big race like Alcatraz and there were tons of women I had never beat.

But, when I looked at those women I found that they were all women who had qualified repeatedly and repeatedly to get their elite license and hadn’t done so. In terms of quality, they weren’t amateurs — no matter what their card said.

I opted instead of continuing to sandbag my age group, to get my elite license. And, I did not do well in the pro fields, finishing near the back or back of the middle almost always. There are lots of reasons in my own life for this. But, for the most part I actually was performing about the same or better, but there is such a gap between the top pro girls and the top amateur girls, that I kept being made to feel like I was a failure, even though I wasn’t.

By comparison, the equivalent people on the men’s side have lots of competition around them and it fosters the development of the up-and-comers. If there were more women, if more women didn’t listen to the haters, if more women who are at that top of the amateur field opted to become ‘pros,’ then it would be better for all of them/us. It would be better for the sport, both in terms of developing the lower-level pros and also in terms of encouraging those amateurs who now would have a shot at the podium once these un-beatable girls have moved on. It would be a better race and it would be more fun.

So, female triathletes, let me encourage you for a second:

Plenty of girls who were the same speed as me, a couple minutes faster or a couple minutes slower, have gone on to be very successful pros. You don’t know how it’s going to turn out until you try. (The first year as a pro, everyone will tell you, is almost always hard – especially for women. Because there are so few women, it can be pretty desolate out there racing. It can be very different and very challenging. You know what would fix that? More women going ‘pro.’ And, once you get through that, it gets better.) Nearly everyone who is good now was not at some point. Even this anonymous person who is saying they’d be embarrassed to finish so far back, probably finished pretty far back at the beginning of their career.

The help that comes with getting your elite license — some race fees here and there or a little prize money or a homestay at some races — can be enough to make a difference if you’re on the cusp. It can be enough to help develop someone into a great triathlete. And, also, it’s way better than paying for all that stuff.

Didn’t you, really, get into this sport to see what you could do? Wasn’t that the whole point in the first place? It wasn’t to qualify for such-and-such a race or have people think you’re hot shit or earn sponsorships or get to stand on the top of a podium. It was to see how well you could do. So? Do that. There’s no reason that changes just because of this line that is being drawn. Step over that line and keep going.

Look, I have come in D.F.L. in a pro race. Dead fucking last. It sucks. But, you know what would have been really embarrassing? Continuing to take age group prizes from some girl who deserves it more, who probably would never get the chance if I kept doing the same thing I always did just so I could feel good about myself. That would be embarrassing.

And, I’m not even saying so anonymously.

14 thoughts on “Why More Triathletes Should Take Their ‘Pro’ License

  1. This is excellent! And you’ve mostly already alluded to any additional points I’d. I especially agree that it’s sandbagging when you continually win age-group’s and don’t move up. Clearly the sport regulations haven’t caught up with both the popularity and the competitive prowess of amateur women athletes…you’ve piqued my interest, I don’t no anything about these rules and regs!

  2. Can you recommend some resources where potential pro women can learn about what it means to “go pro” and how to navigate the process? I bet there are some women who don’t go pro because they don’t entirely understand what it means, how to do it, or why they should do it. Or know any pros to ask such questions. Thank you for your post!

    1. Elite qualification information is here – http://www.usatriathlon.org/membership-services/elite-membership/qualification.aspx It’s pretty straight-forward: top five or top three amateur at qualifying races, which is generally any race with a pro prize purse of $20K+ or national champs, etc. Once you qualify and get the license, the process is very self-directed. There isn’t really anyone who oversees it or tells you what to do.

      In turns of resources and support? Man. That’s a good question. There isn’t much, which is probably part of the problem. There’s a USAT elite coordinator, who may answer questions, but that tends to be focused on if you’re aiming or prepping for Olympics. Outside of ITU and draft-legal, I think people mostly ask friends they know or know have gone through similar things or other competitors or people they look up to, etc. Triathlon isn’t that big, right? So, I think most people know the other people who are around the same speed as them or have gone ahead of them, so they ask for help and advice and suggestions. You can also email current pros and, generally, they’ll answer questions — because, again, it’s not that big a sport. And, I think most people build kind of a support network around themselves (friends, people who can help them navigate the way, coaches, PTs, mentors, etc).

      PROTA – the Pro Triathlete Association (http://www.protriathlon.org) – is also helpful once you’re in there. It’s supposed to be a sort of union/association for pro triathletes and it’s had mixed results in terms of representing pros’ interests on some wider international level, but in terms of offering support to each other, it’s pretty good. You can get on some email list serves through PROTA and if you send out a question, people usually respond with lots of ideas and stuff.

      Hope that helps?

  3. […] Side note: one of the most interesting points someone made was that under the ranking Kona qualification system for pros, Ironman has made it so that top age group athletes have no incentive to go pro — they won’t make it to Kona as a pro, but they can just keep going over and over and over as an age grouper — so Ironman’s kind of shooting themselves in the foot in the long run. And, anyway, we all know what my opinions are about people staying age group long after they shouldn’t anym… […]

  4. As a back of pack ‘elite’ – I definitely agree. There’s only a handful of triathletes who are truly ‘professional’ making decent money. Those folks at the pointy end of the sport complaining about bop pros is a distraction from the actual endemic problems triathlon is facing. If there’s one problem with triathlon – sidenote, there’s more than one – it’s not too many athletes carrying an elite card. There’s virtually no incentives to turn pro in triathlon as it stands now anyway. Spots to Kona/70.3 worlds are more coveted than cash prizes. Sponsorships are nearly as lucrative for ag athletes, and races with money are an endangered species. Increasing barriers to entry and discouraging folks from making the leap to the next level literally solves nothing.

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