This past weekend I spent 19 hours in southern California to attend the very lovely wedding of Katie Lieberg and Geoff Stowe. My weekend consisted of 8 hours travelling to San Diego, 19 hours in California and then another 8 hours travelling back to Connecticut. While I was in San Diego, the ITU World Triathlon San Diego took place in Mission Bay. I didn’t get to watch the race in person, but even on my laptop screen Manny Huerta’s reaction when he realized he had made the U.S. Olympic team was priceless.
While the men’s race met with little controversy (the process pursuant to which the American male racers were chosen is a completely different story), the women’s race was different. There were ten American women on the start line in San Diego, including Kristi Johnson, who had never (and still has not) completed an ITU race prior to toeing the start line in San Diego. Ms. Johnson’s entry into this world class race raised a lot of eyebrows given the fact that her personal record at the Olympic distance was over twenty minutes slower than those of her fellow competitors (in fact Ms. Johnson exited the water almost 8 minutes after the lead pack and was promptly lapped on the bike and pulled from the course). There has been plenty of commentary as to whether Ms. Johnson “deserved” the start given her less than stellar previous performances (the merits of her start were fully debated here).
I don’t take as much issue with her getting the start (she followed the USAT rules, which unfortunately are even more mediocre than Ms. Johnson’s performances) as I do with certain individuals’ reactions to her start. Numerous times over the past week, individuals, including Ms. Johnson herself, have characterized her decision to start the race in San Diego as “brave” or “courageous.” In fact her coach, Ryan Riell, posted in his blog: “Good luck Kristi. For the rest of your life, you will always know you had the courage to take your place on the start line at the biggest race of your day on American soil.”
I have to disagree with these characterizations. Triathlon is a sport. While it does push its participants to their physical limits, triathlon is not war, it does not place its participants in life-or-death situations or require super human feats. While some performances in triathlon may rise to level of brave or courageous (John Blais and Rick and Dick Hoyt come to mind), Ms. Johnson’s decision to start the ITU race in San Diego does not rise to this level. Ms. Johnson’s decision may have been a lot of things (stupid, self centered, opportunistic, arrogant — in fact the same can be said for many of my decisions with regard to triathlon) but like most other decisions and performances related to triathlon it was neither brave, nor courageous. I wish that as a community we could reserve those words for acts and performances that truly deserve them.