A couple months ago I learned that retired professional triathlete Catriona Morrison received an award from Queen Elizabeth II – for volunteer work. Around the same time, I had an intriguing conversation with academic Amy Rundio about her study of the motives of endurance athletes. Through these discussions I realized that triathletes may not be the selfish group we imagine them to be and that recognizing this, and recruiting on that basis, could be the key to growing our sport.

Text by Sara Gross  |  Lead Image Witsup

 

In January 2015, Catriona Morrison retired from the sport of triathlon and four months later was awarded an MBE by the Queen – for services to sport and voluntary service in Scotland.

The MBE is not, as I first wondered, an honorary masters degree, but an award appropriated twice a year by the Queen for services to the British Empire. Morrison is a four-time duathlon World Champion and multiple Ironman and 70.3 winner, but this alone was not the reason she was nominated and selected. Morrison also spent large portions of time volunteering in her community.

Morrison_run2

The MBE, or Member of the British Empire, is the first rung on the awards ladder in Britain. The highest rung is to be named a Dame or a Knight. On the same day that our beloved Ms Morrison was selected, a Northern-Irish musician called Sir George Ivan Morrison (aka Van Morrison) also received an OBE, or in other words, was made a Knight. Triathlon’s not-so-Brown-Eyed-Girl with the same name will be in good company on awards day.

While many triathletes find the rigour of a life spent training and recovering to be demanding on our physical and mental energies – not to mention our schedules – Morrison somehow found time to volunteer in her community, and she did enough of it to receive an award. I wonder, is Morrison the exception in her desire to help others through her sport or is she the norm?

Morrison helped design, develop and deliver the “Champions in Schools” programme from the Winning Scotland Foundation, an initiative that created a system for elite athletes to go into schools all around Scotland: “with the aims of exploring growth mindset, effort and resilience and inspiring and motivating young people to develop their potential in all areas of life.” she explains. As a friend of Catriona’s, I have always known her to mentor and support young athletes, especially women, through the National triathlon team structure and in her everyday life. I have also known her and husband Richard to take in couch-surfacing athletes who are trying to break through at the top level. She is an all around good egg and is not alone in the endurance athlete basket.

(c) Challenge Rimini | Getty Images

(c) Challenge Rimini | Getty Images

American scholar Amy Rundio who studies motives for participation in endurance events can attest to this. In her research, Rundio found that athletes competing in an event with a charity component report stronger motivations related to self-esteem, recognition and approval, personal goal achievement and competitive ambitions.

“I spoke to individuals who joined an organization that raised money for cancer research while cycling across the country about their experience.” Rundio explains,  “Participants primarily expressed motives related to helping the cause or related to the sport when joining.  After spending numerous hours riding and helping the cause through volunteering and fundraising, many participants expressed new appreciations for both the sport and cause, and continued participating in endurance events and supporting the cause for many years after they left the organization—even when they weren’t motivated by it originally.”

So maybe Morrison and Rundio are on to something. While many are apt to talk about triathlon, especially the longer distances, as a selfish pursuit, perhaps our focus is wrong. Instead, focusing on how we can make a difference through our participation could be the key to unlocking the questions of increasing participation in triathlon in general – and among women in particular.

 

(c) Bec Brindley Photography

(c) Bec Brindley Photography

“… every child should have the right and opportunity to become the best that they can be in all areas of their lives.”  –  Morrison

 

For Morrison, its all about the kids:

“I am most passionate about inspiring and motivating young people. Sport has enriched my life beyond measure and allowed me to explore and develop my own mental and physical potential. I believe that every child should have the right and opportunity to become the best that they can be in all areas of their lives. If I can play a small part in making that happen then that’s great.”

And it’s her World Championship and Ironman titles that make Morrison an effective ambassador for kids, “especially the moment when you tell them that you grew up around the corner or train in the local pool – the realization that “normal people” can do extraordinary things.”

Rundio’s work could have wide-spread implications for how we design and market events, and how we market our sport in general. “For example,” Rundio explains, “leveraging a cause could help sport organizations attract new participants, and if properly designed, the experience could also help keep these participants actively involved in the sport.”

As Morrison says, “Being an athlete, especially in an individual sport can be a selfish pursuit. However, it does not mean that you have to be personally selfish. In my own journey I have always believed that the help and support that I received and demanded of others by necessity required that I gave of my time and abilities towards others.”

It is no coincidence that Rundio’s study and Morrison’s personal experience align when it comes to using sport as a launchpad to do meaningful work. In fact, the personal attributes attained through a commitment to training and racing triathlons often flow intrinsically into everyday life as we learn self discipline, time management and effort-based reward. As Morrison notes “I think that there are many athletes who want to contribute in some way back into their communities or society but often lack the confidence and mechanisms to do so.”

 

“… triathletes are by-and-large a strong, motivated, confident group who want to grow our sport, not just to get people off the couch…”

 

If our end goal is to encourage more women into our sport, maybe our focus needs to be shifted. Instead of directing our energy towards the personal accomplishment that comes with finishing a race, perhaps we should broaden that scope and show how those accomplishments inspire others. Perhaps the world needs to know that triathletes are by-and-large a strong, motivated, confident group who want to grow our sport, not just to get people off the couch, but because we know first hand that motivation, inspiration and the desire to help others make up the very fabric of our community.

“It’s all too easy to get overly bogged down in the silo of training and racing,” says Morrison, “being out and about at work in the community helped me maintain a healthy perspective when I was competing. Most of all it made me fully appreciative of the fact that I was living a dream and fully cognizant of how privileged I was to be doing so.”

The fact that so many of us relate to this sentiment says it all. If we really want to encourage more women to take up triathlon, we need to focus not only on the personal accomplishment of finishing a race but on how that accomplishment can inspire others and become a catalyst in our own lives to finding the time and energy to pay it forward.

 

SaraGross

 

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