Sigma Tri: The Sisterhood of Women Who Tri

In Women Who Tri, Alicia DiFabio explores the triathlon phenomenon that gripped her town and swept the nation. She explores the surge of women into endurance sports while telling her own personal story and profiling the inspiring women who have overcome challenges to find their inner athlete. Please enjoy this excerpt from Women Who Tri!

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

—AFRICAN PROVERB

My little town was morphing into a triathlon mecca, and I had a bird’s-eye view into the lives, hearts, and souls of these impassioned tri­athletes. Though I resisted the gravitational pull of the tri-club in 2010, by the winter of 2011 I was hard-pressed to conjure an excuse not to at least attend their second annual Kick Off Meeting. Half the women in my town were going to be there, the night promised to be a good time, and alcohol was being served. How could I resist?

Sure, my reasons were predominantly social, but I had been researching triathlon with a passion that surprised even me, and I felt determined to understand this phenomenon more intimately. What better way to expe­rience the seduction, inspiration, appeal, and transformative power of tri­athlon than to be right at the beginning of a new season, smack dab in the center of it all?

When I arrived at the Mullica Hill Women’s Tri Club’s second annual Kick Off Meeting, I was surprised to see the line stretching down a long hallway and spilling out the front door. Once inside, roughly 300 women mingled, hugged, laughed, and snaked through the endless raffle tables, dropping their tickets like a trail of breadcrumbs. I seeded myself among them in the hopes of hearing their siren song. I went into the night as a sort of data collector, an observer, a fly on the wall (a fly with a glass of wine, of course. All good field research should involve wine).

After securing the all-important wine along with a fistful of raffle tick­ets, I worked my way toward the expansive maze of raffle tables, wav­ing to familiar faces along the way. I skipped the table filled with the free race entries because, seriously, how is winning an entry into an Olympic-distance triathlon or a 10-mile race really winning? What I decided I really wanted was the premier raffle item propped up high above the crowds: A beautiful carbon road bike valued at over $2,000, donated by a local cycling shop. I was gunning for that bike. To clarify, I wasn’t wanting this bike to take it cycling around town in spandex. I simply did not own a bike and liked the idea of scoring an expensive one for free. It also occurred to me that if I won that bike, maybe it was a sign that I should more seriously con­sider doing a triathlon. Of course, the converse would also be true if I did not win the bike. And I could definitely live with that.

I dropped my entire wad of tickets into the bike’s raffle bag, already fat and overflowing with thousands of chances. Then I turned and followed the crowd to the neat rows of folding chairs in the main room.

“Alicia!” A petite brunette with a familiar face waved as we worked our way through the crowd. I recognized her as an old acquaintance, Jamie, whom I hadn’t seen in years. We had belonged to the same group of stay-at-home moms years before, spending many mornings pushing our little ones on swings while squeezing in some adult conversation.

“Are you in the club? Have you done a triathlon yet?” she asked. I was always getting asked that. People assumed I was an obsessed TriathaMom because I was friends with so many of them. I laughed and answered, “Nope and nope!” Then I added politely, “Or, at least not yet. Maybe I’ll get talked into it tonight,” doubting the words even as they passed my lips. “How about you?”

Jamie said she had wanted to do a triathlon last year, but that it had not been possible, whereupon she nonchalantly explained how she was diag­nosed with breast cancer and the surgery derailed her training.

And here I was afraid of swimming in the scary lake water?

“Wow,” I gasped, stunned. She was probably in her mid-thirties, with two girls around the ages of my own kids. I couldn’t wrap my head around it, but Jamie seemed nonplussed. “Maybe this will be my year,” she said, shrugging casually.

“I know it will be,” I replied as a moving wall of people parted us.

We shouted goodbyes across a sea of bobbing heads, and I went to find a seat for the presentation. Suddenly, inside, I was totally rooting for that girl. Yeah, she’s gonna do it. I really hope she does that triathlon. She’s got this. . . . You go, Jamie, you go! In mere seconds, I progressed from thinking tri­athlon was so time-consuming and a bit ridiculous to wanting Jamie to totally rock it because that would mean something big. And wanting it for her made me get a little bit jazzed about it in general.

I found an empty folding chair next to one of my newer Mullica Hill friends, a skeptical, slightly belligerent, non-triathlete like me.

“So, are you going to actually do this?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. We had shared our mutual confusion about the whole craze months ago. It had been a bonding moment for two gals on the outskirts of the in-crowd. Nei­ther of us had caught tri-fever, nor were we planning on it.

“Hell, no!” I laughed, quickly over my momentary lapse of triathlon excitement. “I’m just here for the raffle and the wine.”

“Yeah, me too,” she laughed in return. We quietly joked about how this presentation would do nothing to penetrate our armor of resistance. We’d be the last two mavericks standing in all of Mullica Hill, the lone survi­vors of a triathlon pandemic! You would never see us getting into that cold lake or spending the equivalent of a week’s vacation on some Tour de France–quality bike just to ride around town as if our 40-year-old asses were going to the Olympics or something.

As we chuckled, happy throngs of women settled around us, and the educational portion of the evening commenced.

All right, ladies, I thought to myself. Make me want to do this. Bring your A game.

The four founders of the MHWTC took their places at the front of the room, where a makeshift stage was outfitted with a microphone and large screen. Colleen, Lydia, Michelle, and Maureen were local celebrities at this point. The statuesque Colleen, with her mane of auburn hair and athletic build, was the grand matriarch of the triathlon club. This 40-something, working mother of two tween girls was a force of nature. She possessed boundless energy, tons of drive, an unrivaled attention to detail, and the ability to multitask beyond that of a normal human being. If Wonder Woman lived in Suburbia, she would come in the form of Colleen.

The most impressive thing about Colleen was that she knew almost everyone by name. Not only that, she remembered their likes, dislikes, and fears and the details of their personal story. She was a mama bird who con­sidered every little chickadee in the club an extension of her family.

As Colleen gave her opening remarks and an overview of the club, the energy in the room became palpable. She had us at hello. She knew how to sell triathlon. She knew all the ways you would talk yourself out of it, every excuse you would make. She knew you didn’t believe in yourself, but she believed in you already. Honestly, truly, wholeheartedly believed. You didn’t just hear it; you felt it.

Standing next to Colleen was Lydia, whose passion for triathlon equaled her passion for supporting charitable causes. Lydia headed the club’s char­ity branch and was committed to using the club as a vehicle to promote change in the community and beyond. Though Lydia didn’t consider her­self an athlete growing up, this 30-something working mother had quickly amassed a record of several triathlons and road races. It wasn’t a hobby; it was a lifestyle. She was all in—mind, body, and soul. Alongside Lydia was Michelle, an avid runner, part-time graduate stu­dent, and 40-something mother of two. Michelle was that friendly face in the crowd, that warm, encouraging, nurturing spirit who would do any­thing for you. Although a quiet “behind-the-scenes” person, she was a true force as the race director of the MHWTC’s new sprint triathlon, the Queen of the Hill.

Finally, there was Maureen. A working mother of two teens in her late 40s, Maureen had a dry, quick wit and a wonderfully self-deprecating sense of humor. She talked about her messy house and finishing races dead last. She had the audience cracking up during her speech and made triathlon less intimidating . . . at least momentarily. Maureen was in great shape, but she confessed her nickname was “Slo Mo.” When it came to racing, she was all about the fun and the friendships. She kept it real. “If I can do it, you can do it,” she encouraged. Since most of us probably related to Maureen the most, we hung on her every word.

Each of the founders discussed a different aspect of the tri-club, includ­ing the sport of triathlon, the training programs, the club benefits, and the charitable initiatives. In doing so, they painted a vivid and welcoming pic­ture. It was a picture of you (yes, you, the one who doesn’t believe you can do it) running across that finish line with fists raised in the air and eyes glassy with tears of joy. Together, they were funny, realistic, nonjudgmen­tal, convincing, supportive, and encouraging. Something special happened when those women stood together in front of the room and let their pas­sion shine. It may sound cheesy, but I must confess—it was magical. Infec­tious. Empowering. Their energy was so positive and their stories were so relatable that by the end of the night I think that most women there believed they could truly complete a triathlon.

For a fleeting moment, even me.

. . . 

I arrived home from the Kick Off Meeting after 11:00 p.m., tiptoeing into each of my girls’ bedrooms to kiss their sleeping faces. Then I crept quietly into my own bedroom, where my husband was only partially awake.

“How was your first cult meeting?” he mumbled. Truth be told, I was feeling a little overwhelmed, a little inspired, but mostly tired. I had gone into the evening expecting to observe how others were moved into action. I certainly wasn’t expecting to feel motivated myself. After all, I detested all forms of exercise, and triathlon was just exercise cubed.

“It’s not a cult,” I corrected indignantly, insulted by his insinuation that I would be so easily brainwashed. “It’s a sorority.” I slipped off my impractical shoes and peeled off my too-tight jeans in exchange for comfy sweatpants.

“What’s the difference?” he yawned.

“Cults marginalize you and don’t serve alcohol. Sororities make you popular and get you drunk.”

“So are you drunk enough to tri?” he chuckled.

“I don’t think there is enough alcohol in the world for that,” I replied wryly as I slipped into bed. Yet my words didn’t seem to hold the same conviction. There was some deeper meaning than just the act of swim­ming, biking, and running. There was something about this club that went beyond a mere “sorority.” While I wasn’t coming down with tri-fever, I was certainly feeling something. Maybe it was a sneeze coming on. Maybe a tickle in my throat. I suppose repeated exposure to the triathlon pan­demic was chiseling away at my wall of resistance. Or, perhaps a part of me knew that to truly understand this triathlon craze from the inside out, I was going to have to walk a mile in their shoes. Or, rather, run, bike, and swim about 13 miles in their shoes. And tonight those girls in pink had done a pretty good job convincing me that this would not only be achievable but also fun. Sure I was still dubious, but I couldn’t deny that some kind of tri­athlon black magic had oozed into the cracks of my protective armor.

That same black magic hexed a lot more women than just me, because that year the MHWTC added 140 brand-new members to the original crew. By the end of the 2011 season, the club had grown to 260 women . . . and I was one of them.

Also from Women Who Tri: The Power of Triathlon Clubs

In Women Who Tri, Alicia DiFabio explores the triathlon phenomenon that gripped her town and swept the nation. She explores the surge of women into endurance sports while telling her own personal story and profiling the inspiring women who have overcome challenges to find their inner athlete.

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