This story originally appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of USA Triathlon Magazine.
The low point for Sarah True came last summer. A year removed from being forced to bow out early in the race at the 2016 Rio Games, True fell into a dark, deep, depressive state.
True is no stranger to depression — the two-time Olympic triathlete had been battling the disease since she was a teenager. But this was a hole more cavernous, more dark and more hopeless than she had ever fallen into.
She felt she was a failure. As an athlete. And as a wife, convinced she failed her husband Ben True, who missed qualification for the 2016 Olympic team. Triathlon wasn’t fun anymore. Life outside sport had no joy. Her training suffered. She couldn’t sleep. Suicidal thoughts ran through her mind.
“Maybe I’ll just swerve into oncoming traffic,” she thought during training rides near her home in Hanover, New Hampshire. One head-on collision with a truck could just end it all.
“Everything was a struggle. I was in a really, really dark place and I felt like it just wasn’t going to get better,” said True, 36.
You can’t “out tough” depression
A professional athlete, an Olympian, a competitor in IRONMAN, one of the most physically and mentally grueling endurance tests humans have created, and here is True contemplating her worth in this world.
But depression knows no boundaries.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in any given year, an estimated 16.2 million adults in the U.S. experience a major depressive episode. And an estimated 40 million adults live with anxiety disorders.
The incidence of those conditions, often linked, in the endurance sports population is probably similar, as a 2017 review of research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found no difference in depressive symptoms between what the researchers called “high-performance athletes” and nonathletes. Age-groupers or Olympic-caliber, all levels of athletes are affected. Michael Phelps, who has won more Olympic medals than anyone on this planet, has publicly spoken about his depression and thoughts of suicide.
The last time an American won the Ironman World Championship, My Big Fat Greek Wedding was showing in movie theaters. Kelly Clarkson had just won the first-ever season of American Idol, and the world was gearing up for the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, UT. That was the year that American Tim DeBoom won in Kona with a time of 8:29:56. DeBoom’s time would be considered slow by today’s pro standards, set by a wave of Australian and German athletes who have inched ever closer to the sub-8 mark, leaving Americans in their dust. In the women’s race, the drought has lasted even longer, as an American hasn’t won since 1996.
Could 2018 be the year the USA takes back the Kona crown? This year’s American athletes provide some of the best odds for a Kona win since…well, Kelly Clarkson won American Idol. The top bets for an American victory in Kona:
The 2016 third-place finisher is hungrier than ever for the win. Her 9:02:29 finish in Kona last year was less than a minute behind third-place finisher Sarah Crowley, and the experience fueled her all-in mentality for 2018. Her wire-to-wire win at Ironman Lake Placid in July, where she clocked a 9:18:49, shows she’s in top form and ready to rumble.
With 11 appearances on the Kona start line, Corbin has more experience at this race than anyone else in the pro ranks, male or female. Within those years are three top-ten finishes and countless lessons on mastering the Kona game. She’s the fastest American female in history, holding an Ironman record of 8:42:42. Her recent “back-to-basics” approach to training has focused on consistency, recovery, and balance. She went ahead and nabbed her Kona 2019 spot with a win at Ironman Wisconsin in September. Will the decision to race such a late 140.6 help or hurt her Kona chances? We’ll find out!
In only her first pro race at the Ironman World Championships, McCauley finished 10th place in 9:21:08. She backed up that breakthrough race with a third-place finish at Ironman New Zealand in March, and has been laser-focused on Kona since, taking the lessons she learned in her rookie year to improve for her second go-around. She looked sharp at Ironman 70.3 Santa Rosa, where she finished fourth in a strong field that included three-time Ironman world champion Mirinda Carfrae.
Piampiano hasn’t finished off the podium in 2018—in five 70.3 and full starts this year, she’s taken five top-three finishes, including a win at 70.3 Lima and second place at Ironman Brazil. Can she keep the trend rolling in Kona? It’s certainly feasible—a look at her performance since turning pro in 2012 has shown a strictly upward trajectory, and Piampiano shows no signs of letting up.
The two-time Olympian made the jump to racing Ironman this year, and what a jump it was: True nailed her first-ever attempt at the distance, taking second place at the Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt with a time of 9:05:19. The first-place finisher? Defending Ironman world champion Daniela Ryf. True, who will be making her Kona debut this year, is a dark horse, but her history at both short-course and the 70.3 distance shows she’s got the chops to take on big names and high stakes.
Hoffman is the closest America has come to the top step of the podium in recent years, taking second place in 2014. Though he’s had some stellar races since, including a sub 8-hour performance at Ironman South Africa in 2017, this year has been a bit of a mixed bag. A bike crash during the Cape Epic mountain bike race derailed his plans to defend his title at Ironman South Africa; Hoffman struggled from the start of the race and finished in a personal worst time of 12:06:48. He finished second at both 70.3 Boulder and 70.3 Santa Cruz.
With his third-place finish at Kona in 2015, O’Donnell is most recent American male to podium. His 8:00:54 performance at this year’s Ironman Asia-Pacific Championship was good enough for fourth place in a strong field that included many Kona qualifiers for this year. His superpower in Kona seems to be heat management—where others wilt on the bike and run, O’Donnell thrives.
At 41 years old, Potts is the elder statesman of the race, but he can still mix it up with the young guns. Potts was the top American finisher at last year’s World Championship, clocking an 8:14:13 (including a blistering 2:50:27 marathon) to take seventh place. He’s come close to the top spot before, finishing fourth in 2014 and 2015, and is known for tweaking his routine to accommodate what he learns each time he races Kona. Will 2018 be the year he finally cracks the code?
I am sure many of you have become aware of the resurgence of the hashtag #MeToo trending on social media in the wake of the numerous sexual harassment and assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein. My feed was full of #MeToo hashtags–hundreds of people sharing, maybe for the first time, that they too have been a victim of sexual assault and harassment. And then there are all those individuals who don’t feel safe coming forward, or perhaps are not ready to share their victimization with the world. The number of hashtags in your social media feeds is just a small percentage of the number of those affected by sexual harassment and assault. Just this Sunday night, Anthony Rapp came forward to BuzzFeed about a sexual assault he experienced when 14 perpetrated by a 24 year old Kevin Spacey. Given the ubiquity of sexual assault accusations emerging in Hollywood of late, it is easy to think this is a behavior isolated to the rich and famous. But it isn’t. It is pervasive across all facets of our society.
So what does this have to do with triathlon? Well, actually, a lot. Why? Because sexual abuse is particularly pervasive in sport. Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a retired Olympic swimmer and advocate for women and girls in sport, wrote for ESPN that the #MeToo campaign “has once again brought to light the constant objectification of women in sports. Coaches and reporters tweeted about being groped or flashed, and athletes tweeted repeatedly about the entitlement of their male peer athletes and, in particular, about powerful, sexually demanding coaches.” This reality is just as true in triathlon as it is in gymnastics, swimming, running, sailing, or cycling.
We know women triathletes still receive smaller prize purses than men in many races, we also know women triathletes don’t receive the same coverage as their male counterparts. And while it is easy to dismiss these two examples as not relevant to sexual abuse, it is important to understand these behaviors exist on a continuum and in a system that values men, and men in sport, over women. Women athletes are often objectified by commentators and the media–their weight or attractiveness discussed and dissected while their athletic accomplishments are left to the side. Lizzie Armistead, a British cyclist, and former world race champion, spoke about the harassment she experienced as a cyclist in her book. Guardian columnist Barbara Allen describes one experience when Armistead was 19 years old. The night before her world champion win, she was requested to play Nintendo Wii in front of her male teammates while they watched. She was “subtly toyed with, [and] slyly objectified, simply because she’s female.” Sarah True, Olympic triathlete, has also spoken of her experiences with sexism in triathlon. Once married, she became the the wife of an accomplished triathlete, versus a two-time Olympic qualifying triathlete herself.
It is easy to condemn sexual abuse, but it is not so easy to condemn the attitudes and behaviors that support its existence, like those described above. Wherever a behavior falls on the continuum of sexism, each behavior connects to support a cultural system where sexual abuse is tacitly permitted and excused.
Alarmingly, according to Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who is also an attorney, there are limited, if any, legal consequences for club coaches who perpetrate sexual abuse: “Few legal protections [apply] to the U.S. Olympic Committee and its National Governing Bodies (NGBs). Because athletes in club or Olympic sports aren’t competing for a school, Title IX’s student protections aren’t available; athletes are also not employees, meaning Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, [doesn’t] apply either.” If you were surprised by how many of your friends, triathletes or otherwise, hashtagged #MeToo, it is important to remember, whether or not we hear about sexual abuse in sport, it is happening. Based on the sheer magnitude of #MeToo hashtags, we would be naive to dismiss them as isolated incidents–each individual hashtag combines to paint a larger picture of the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment. It’s an epidemic and we must do better.
So what can our community do about it? Most importantly, we can believe and support our friends who come forward and share experiences with us. Whatever level of triathlon you participate in–a local club or the national team–we can all do a better job of creating a climate where sexual objectification is unacceptable. We can demand equitable treatment and equal coverage for women triathletes. We can vet coaches and call out problematic and sexist behavior when we see it–even when it’s uncomfortable for us. And in doing these things, we can work to create safe, non-objectifying spaces for girls and women triathletes. Women and girls have the right to participate in triathlon and any sport without fear a coach or fellow athlete will sexually objectify, harass, or assault them.
If you have experienced sexual assault and want to talk confidentially with someone about it, there are resources in Denver to assist you. Call The Blue Bench, a 24 hour hotline: 303-322-7273. You can also visit the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault for a comprehensive list of statewide resources.