Ironman Melbourne 2014: Where Are the Women?

The Ironman Asia Pacific Championship race was held this past Sunday in Melbourne and as is always the case in an Ironman event, it was a show to remember.  Ten professional women entered the race, among them some promising new faces who may very well be future world champions.

At around 3pm, I was sitting at mile 25 on the run course enjoying a late lunch with my daughter (I could learn to love this spectator thing).  The run course was only a few feet from our outdoor table, so I was able to jump up and snap photos of the top three men as they raced past us toward the finish line.  When I returned to our table, I pulled out the Ipad to check the Ironman Live blog, which provides live race coverage throughout the day.

“Where are the women?” my daughter asked.

Good question.  A few minutes passed while the pro men’s finish was covered on the Ironman Live blog and then finally, a quick update was posted on the women, providing the positions of the top 4 contenders.  At that point we headed to the finish line, where the attention was back on the men and especially on the emotional finish of local favorite Craig Alexander, who came in 5th in what could be his last Ironman race.

At the finish line, we waited expectantly for the first women finishers.  Based on the coverage on Ironman Live, we expected Caroline Steffen first, followed by Mary Beth Ellis, and then perhaps a battle for third between Angela Naeth and Rebekah Keat.  As Caroline Steffen came across the finish line, an appropriate fuss was made by the race announcer.  But Mary Beth Ellis, in second place, barely drew a mention as she crossed between two male finishers.

When the third place female grabbed an American flag while entering the finishing chute, my daughter and I were shocked.  It was Kim Schwabenbauer, the #10 seed among the female pros who had not drawn a single mention on the Ironman Live blog during the race.  Where did she come from?  What happened to Angela Naeth and Rebekah Keat, who had been poised to battle it out for third place?  When did Kim Schwabenbauer pull past them?  After Kim’s finish, there was one quick post about her advance into third, but I looked back and confirmed my recollection that she had no coverage while the race was still on.

I found myself suddenly quite annoyed.  And as I stood there at the finish line thinking about it, I realized that I had been annoyed with the coverage of women in the race since early morning, when the announcer barely acknowledged Mary Beth Ellis, the first woman to complete the 2.4 mile swim (who, by the way, exited the water before about a third of the male pros, despite a three-minute delay at the start for the women pros — a shockingly great swim).

Yes, I know that there were 25 male pros and only 10 female pros in the race.  Perhaps the larger male field is a reasonable explanation for the fact that there were 90 posts on the Ironman Live blog about the men’s race and only 60 about the women’s race (yep, I counted when I got home).  But that doesn’t quite explain a very matter-of-fact, almost bored tone of voice I heard whenever a female competitor was identified to the crowds.

It also doesn’t explain the lack of fanfare at the finish line (or at the swim) for Mary Beth Ellis’ stellar performance.

Nor does it explain the fact that the top 8 to 10 men’s positions in the bike race received on-going reportage on the Ironman Live blog, yet only the top 3 women’s positions were covered with any continuity (and then mainly the positions of Steffen and Ellis).

It doesn’t explain the attention to male age group competitors (non-pro participants) and almost no mention at all of female age-groupers.

And it doesn’t explain the fact that the third place winner in the women’s race — who was the number 10 seed and not expected by anyone to win a podium spot — was never mentioned during live coverage, even when she came from behind.  From the Ironman Live coverage, we knew nothing about the third place finisher’s race (where she was in the swim, on the bike, when she made her pass on the run, etc.).  If she had been so far behind all day that she didn’t warrant a single mention, her surge into third place on the run seems even more remarkable — surely notable enough to report on the Ironman Live blog.

I love the Ironman.  I think that the Ironman organization does a generally terrific job staging these events.  I would tell anyone who asked that IM Asia_pacific in Melbourne is a fabulous venue and well worth the price of admission.  But that doesn’t keep me from being disappointed about the coverage of the women in this race.

Maybe I’m missing something.  Maybe my perception of the day is inaccurate or skewed somehow.  I truly hope so, because there were a lot of young women in that crowd at the finish line.  I’d like to think that some of them have the grit, determination, and athletic skills to become future Ironman champs — and that they believe that it is worth their time and energy to try.

From what I’ve seen in my time here, Australia does a fabulous job of encouraging young people to get involved in sports, and there is plenty of evidence that extra effort is paid to girls and young women.  But, as I see it, there was an important opportunity missed on Sunday at IM Asia-Pacific, which provides an entire day of truly inspirational exposure to some of the most amazing endurance athletes on the planet.  Let’s hope that Caroline, Mary Beth and Kim were able to animate their fair share of young girls along the way, even with the modest levels of showcasing and fanfare that they were given.



    • Nan Dawkins says

      Kate and I had such a huge good time sitting there, eating lunch, watching the sea, waiting for the athletes, chatting. It really was sooooo much better than being out there on the run course. :)

  1. says

    So much more relaxing for you than competing ;) – Sorry to hear that the women were so unacknowledged, I am guessing all the commentators were men.

  2. Nan Dawkins says

    You know Lynn, I hadn’t thought about that. I should check into who was commentating and posting to the Ironman Live blog.

    It WAS fun to be a spectator!

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