Over the past few days I have encountered the topic of pregnancy and endurance athletes. It started with the fantastic witsup.com article about Pip Taylor returning to triathlon after the birth of her daughter. There was also the blog post by Lauren Fleshman about coming back to the 5K post-pregnancy. After reading these, I randomly ended up having a conversation with my friend Stacey Miller about Kona qualifying for female triathletes and how an athlete’s family plans must weigh on their professional athletic decisions. My brain was already churning when I saw an announcement from Jordan Rapp that his wife is pregnant with twins, which led me to the thought what if it was Jordan Rapp (and not his wife) who discovered he was pregnant before Kona, how would having a child (or two in his case) affect his career as a professional triathlete?
As a starting point, there are not many female professional triathletes with children. Taking a look at the Kona starting list for 2013 Gina Crawford, Sara Gross, Natascha Badman, Elizabeth Lyles and Jessie Donovan have children. Badman, Lyles and Donovan had their children prior to beginning their careers as professional triathletes. Crawford and Gross took time off mid-career to give birth, however both ladies had their children prior to the current KPR system for Kona qualification. These five women represent only 14% of the female professional field in Kona.
While there are not many mothers in the ranks of professional female triathletes to begin with, recent revisions to the KPR system will make it even harder for professional female athletes to decide to have children mid-career and still pursue Kona. (As an aside, I know that Kona is not the only race available to triathletes and that Challenge and Rev 3 are working hard to compete with Ironman and the World Triathlon Corporation (“WTC”), but for now Kona is the big show and sponsors — who pay these ladies — want to see their athletes on the big island in October.) Professional athletes qualify for Kona based on their KPR Ranking, which is comprised of the athlete’s five highest scoring races. The score can be made up of WTC 140.6 and 70.3 races, although no more than three 70.3 races can be used in a qualifying year and athletes must complete at least one 140.6 race (Kona doesn’t count for the one race requirement, but points obtained at Kona do count). Each WTC race is assigned a specific point value and points are awarded to all professionals who compete. For the 2014 qualifying year the value of Kona has been raised to 8000 points (up from 6000 points in 2012 and 2031) while the value of all 140.6 races is now at least 2000 points (up from 1000 points in 2012 and 2013). Coming in 12th place at Kona is worth more than winning Ironman Lake Placid. While the points values of 140.6 races were increased, the points values of 70.3 race were not and most 70.3 races are worth 500 or 750 points. What this change does is: (1) reward athletes who perform well in Kona; and (2) favor athletes who race multiple 140.6 races over the course of the qualifying season rather than one 140.6 race and several 70.3 races.
Unfortunately this new system also penalizes professional female triathletes who decide to have children. Let’s go back to the hypothetical female Jordan Rapp. Rapp has a fantastic 2013 season and qualifies for Kona but learns that he is pregnant and will be 24 weeks pregnant on October 12, 2013. Rapp decides not to race Kona and gives birth to twins on February 1, 2014 (Congratulations!). It takes Rapp a few weeks to recover (he was lucky and had a vaginal birth) and his doctors clear him to begin training in late February of 2014. After four months of training, Rapp is back on form and ready to race by early July. While Rapp is seeing great results during July and August of 2014 (he even scores a win at Ironman Canada in Whistler in late August), his comeback is too late to qualify for Kona in 2014 and he is left out of the P-8000 race and corresponding points bonanza. All he can do now is work hard towards qualifying in 2015, having missed Kona in both 2013 and 2014 and having lost several sponsors in the process because of his lack of results. His decision to get pregnant side tracked his career for two years, despite the fact that he was in great shape and able to race Kona in 2014.
For me, this hypothetical is a problem. When WTC conceived the KPR system in 2011 there was a provision that WT could offer “wild card” slots to correct unforeseen problems that might arise with the system. It was referred to as the “Lance Armstrong Rule,” as many people thought it was WTC’s way of ensuring that Lance Armstrong would be in Kona in 2012. While the rule was never applied to Lance Armstrong and was done away with for 2013 Kona qualification, I think that it should be partially resurrected. My opinion is that the WTC should create a rule whereby a pregnant female professional triathlete who has previously qualified for Kona under the KPR system should be able to re-qualify for Kona in the year after giving birth under an alternative arrangement. I would propose that in a such a situation, the athlete who returns to the sport mid-year should be able to qualify by demonstrating fitness by finishing in the top two at a P-2000 race or top five at a P-4000 race. This would allow female athletes to return to highest level of the sport quicker (and would allow them to plan pregnacies knowing there was a road back), would ensure that the best athletes are at Kona and would end the efective two year penalty for choosing to have a child.