IRONMAN South Africa has highlighted the growing level and influence of female participation in triathlon and to celebrate some of the inspiring women who participate in triathlon events and commemorate Women’s Month in August.

Traditionally seen as a male-dominated sport, triathlon in South Africa has developed into a vibrant and diverse community. At the forefront of this development is the encouraging growth of female participation in the sport over the years.

Growing female participation

Since 2012, the number of women participating across South Africa’s three biggest triathlons, the IRONMAN African Championship, IRONMAN 70.3 South Africa and IRONMAN 70.3 Durban, grew by 33%.

In 2019, IRONMAN 70.3 Durban boasted the highest percentage of female participation across the Europe, Middle East & Africa region for IRONMAN 70.3 distance races, with females accounting for 30% of the field.

This bodes well for the future of the sport. It is also encouraging to see that female participation exceeds male entrants in the entry-level 5150 African Triathlon Series FUNTRI division. In 2019, 62% of the field in the 5150 Bela Bela FUNTRI Individuals race, and 52% at both the 5150 Ekurhuleni and 5150 Nelson Mandela Bay FUNTRI Individuals, were women.

Women of all ages entering

One of IRONMAN South Africa’s race directors, Michele Dalton (31), is encouraged by these numbers. “As a female race director, it’s great to see the increase of female participation in triathlon. I’m seeing women of all ages join the sport and it’s super encouraging.”

South African fans have been fortunate to see some ground-breaking professional female triathletes over the years, including World Champions, Chrissie Wellington, Daniela Ryf (IRONMAN) and Jodie Cunnama (IRONMAN 70.3) and, more recently, the excellent Lucy Charles.

Local triathletes are also making a big impact in the local triathlon community. Nelson Mandela Bay-based triathletes, Rebecca Gatang’i (34), Dr. Ane Ferreira (29), and Michelle Cronje (29) all share the same passion for endurance sports and empowering other women.

Local age groupers share their experiences

Rebecca Gatangi’i is a strategic project manager in the tourism sector and a regional ambassador for the IRONMAN Foundation’s Women for Tri initiative.

“I was introduced to triathlon by a friend who encouraged me to learn the skill of swimming and cycling, not just as a life skill to overcome my fears but also as a lifestyle choice. I eventually actively started participating in triathlon through my coach and club Blu Smooth and now Aspire. Triathlon gives me a sense of achievement, especially when I conquer what seems like a mountain. This sport challenges me beyond my wildest expectation and brings the best out of me, forcing me to realize my inner potential,” says Gatang’i.

Gatang’i believes the gradual increase in women participation is because of the deliberate efforts in place such as the Women for Tri global initiative, and local initiatives such as the Ketsh Up women’s group.

These initiatives actively encourage women to participate in triathlon by breaking barriers to entry into the sport, showcasing local heroines with whom they can relate, and inspire them while levelling the playing field by providing access to races through women entry slots.”

For medical practitioner, Dr. Ane Ferreira, it’s about the whole journey. “The friends you make along the way and the memories you share during long hard training sessions. People from all walks of life are brought together by their mutual love for this amazing sport. I also love race weekend and the excitement that goes with it, especially the thrill of crossing the finish line after months of hard work. Triathlon is a lifestyle, but it does not have to take over your life. Once you fall in love with the sport it becomes part of who you are and your lifestyle adjusts accordingly, but each person can decide how much of their time they want to invest into the sport to fulfil their set goals. For me, triathlon forms part of a balanced lifestyle,” adds Dr. Ferreira.

Associate attorney, Michelle Cronje adds her thoughts to the conversation, “I noticed a growth in both the interest of the sport and the participation of it by women over the last five years. I believe it is because for many years women were told we were not strong enough to compete in endurance events, but I think with the encouragement from fellow women and race organisers, more women are slowly finding the confidence to venture into endurance sports and at a younger age.”

Women embrace virtual racing

While some races have been put on hold for 2020, many have taken up the opportunity to participate in the IRONMAN Virtual Racing series this year, as it has allowed athletes to enjoy competitive racing from anywhere in the world. Participation trends mirror real-life racing with 36% of South Africa’s VR participants being female.