The year 2020 has been a watershed year in America’s racial reckoning. With the Black Lives Matter movement gaining steam during a tumultuous year, it’s the first time since the 1960s that the country has mobilized a civil rights movement to come to terms with a level of systemic racism that has bubbled for decades.
It’s against that backdrop in 2021 that GRIT USA triathlon team out of the Washington, D.C. area came to the fore. Led by head coach Marcus Fitts, his triathlon team is a multi-racial group that not only serves as a welcoming beacon for people of color to participate in multisport, but one that also serves to educate, inspire and instigate change in mindsets.
This year, Marcus decided to seek out tri talent in the black community, in a sport that’s seldom considered by kids. Generally, black grade school and high school kids take up the basic school offerings—track and field, football, basketball. Fitts wants to change that mindset
It’s a wide, wide conversation,” Fitts says. “There have been a lot of systemic factors that create oppression in certain communities of color that have kept them out of pools, for example—we see documents of this, and as a result, many of our parents or grandparents never learned how to swim. At its foundation, we want kids of color to learn to swim….and bike, and run.”
So began Fitts’ focus to change preconceived notions, and open the eyes of the kids in his area about what’s possible.
“For a lot of kids, triathlon seems unattainable, a crazy challenge,” Fitts said. “We wanted to showcase the sport through this program to show that anyone can do it with the right training and tools. With USA Triathlon pushing the NCAA to make triathlon a sport, we can focus on incentivizing triathlon beyond health and wellness, that it can be a pathway to education, to jobs like bike shop education, that it can extend beyond sport for the sake of sport. We want to give some of these kids an opportunity they’d never otherwise consider.”
Fitts has done fantastic work bringing people of color into his team. And creating a welcoming environment in a sport that is so young, the overarching sentiment is that triathlon is truly open to all races and sexes. But more than bringing existing triathletes from his community into his fold—he wanted to seek out and pull in young athletes to become triathletes.
Last fall, he announced the creation of a GRIT USA High School Development Program for athletes in the D.C., Prince Georges and Montgomery County, Maryland areas, relying on donations and fundraising to support the equipment needs to bring in two athletes for this first-year initiative. Any athletes identified as prospects would be assigned a mentor, and provided equipment, training and race entries to three area sprint races—all backed by USA Triathlon’s SafeSport program. Fitts put out a call to local high schools through coaches, athletic directors and media outlets… and was thrilled to hear back from and onboard two athletes: Kimani, a high school junior, and Kayla, a senior.
“I got an email last summer, and it sat at the back of my mind,” Kimani said. “What I found interesting was it was three different things. I’d run track, but I thought the other sports could benefit me, so I thought, it’s worth a shot, looked interesting…why not?”
Kayla too comes from a sports background, running track and playing soccer in her senior season. But it was knowing that one of her coaches had done an Ironman that piqued her interest. “It was my cousin that asked me if it was something I’d want to do,” she said, “but my coach did an Ironman, and I started telling him I was gonna beat his time one day.”
Suddenly, the GRIT USA High School Development Program became a reality. This month, it all begins for Kimani and Kayla, as they train, learn how to swim laps in a pool, how to move through transition from swim to bike and bike to run, how to pace properly… and how to finish strong. They’re learning, ground up from a group of triathletes, how to become a triathlete.
“This is all new them—neither of them really know what to expect,” Fitts said. “Which is great!"
Indeed, like every first time triathlete, there’s a bit of nerves; there’s the swim, pacing, transition, the seemingly daunting distance of it all… it’s enough to make anyone’s head spin. “I’m looking forward to getting out of the house and meeting new people and having this new experience,“ Kayla says, “but if there was one challenge for me, it would be the swimming; I’ve only ever swam in a pool!”
For both Kayla and Kimani, there is zero apprehension about entering a sport that has been predominantly white since its inception—it’s part and parcel with their lives.
“I’m in advanced placement classes at school, and I’m used to being the only person in class who looks like me,” Kayla says. “But I’m one of four black athletes on the soccer team.” Either way, I’m used to it.”
Kimani was equally ambivalent—which is a good thing, in his eyes. “I’m not gonna lie, it never came up in my mind,” he said. “But It’s cool that I get to be a part of a thing that we hope can break down some stereotypes.”
While the pandemic is seeing light at the end of the tunnel thanks to vaccinations, true group workouts are sporadic. While McNamara and Fitts brought their charges together for their first clinic on how to set up their transition area, and to move through T1 and T2 with smooth speed, most training has been at home, with simple base-building—local runs and bike rides, with a pair of Quintana Roo SRfive framesets being built up with parts supplied by Shimano as Kayla and Kimani’s training and racing machines.
“We’re appreciative of what Quintana Roo is doing to help get this thing going,” Fitts said. “As a team, we voted on a color for their bikes, and chose blue with white lettering. They’re beautiful!”
Fitts assigned GRIT USA team member Colin Ball to be mentor for the duo, helping steward their training and field any technical questions— how to pace properly, manage the fears of open water swimming eat for performance and how to negative split the run. A triathlete since 2014, Ball is ready to pass along her experience to make Kayla and Kimani’s transition int the sport seamless.
“We had our kickoff meeting a few months ago, and I got a chance to connect with Kayla and Kimani on a personal level,” Ball says. “They seem very motivated and they’re already athletic and have the stamina. I really think I have the perspective of having learned all this, just like them just a few years ago. They’ll learn along the way, how to do laps in the pool, how to feel comfortable in open water, how to pace, to move through transition, all the little things. I’m really anxious to get started with them.”
Can triathlon be that thing that sustains them after a year or two of the sport? That’s the goal— a sport that continues after high school and college. “Kimani mentioned to me that he wanted to do something to stay active if he wasn’t able to do it in college,” Fitts said. “And for Kayla, she’s just a natural athlete and is curious about, without anyone to lean on to learn. We’re happy to be that resource.”
For Fitts, he’s excited to see how the months progress with his two centerpiece athletes. “The only way to move the needle is to get our younger kids, regardless race or sex, involved. It’s a story that’s not yet been told, and we’re glad to get it going. It’s where we start.”
How will it all go? Every month up through this summer, we’ll be updating you with blog entries about Kimani and Kayla’s progress from triathlon newcomers to full-fledged race-tested triathletes. Stay tuned!
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