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.