Courtesy KweStrong
“The triathlon is totally casual. No one is keeping tabs or timing race times.”

The Triathlon for Native Women: Fun Over Competition

Mary Annette Pember

The KweStrong Indigenous Women’s Wellness Triathlon in Minneapolis is a race like no other. First of all, it’s not really a race. Unlike the traditional triathlon’s focus on competition and times, KweStrong doesn’t even require participants to complete all of the events. According to triathlon organizers, the emphasis is on Native women supporting and inspiring each other to get healthy and physically active. “The triathlon is totally casual. No one is keeping tabs or timing race times,” according to Korina Barry, co founder of the event. “When we organized the first triathlon in 2012, we thought maybe 20 women would show up. Over 80 women participated.”

It’s been growing ever since.

KweStrong was created by a group of Ojibwe kwes (women) who decided to begin working out together in Minneapolis parks. They were surprised to find that they would often be the only people of color doing so. “It was awkward at first. We realized that the reason we weren’t seeing many other brown faces was that it was uncomfortable for people to venture into spaces where they didn’t see anyone who looked like them,” she noted.

As the Ojibwe ladies continued to work out they began to feel powerful; they wanted other Native women to feel powerful too so they began organizing informal training and running sessions via social media at Lake Calhoun park in Minneapolis. “We wanted to create a space where Native women could feel welcome and comfortable getting outside and getting active,” Barry said.

Barry and co-founders Lisa and Lucie Skjefte soon realized that economics also kept many Native women from becoming physically active; gym memberships and equipment such as bikes and canoes are costly. The three women created the KweStrong Mind and Body Training Facebook page and began fundraising with local organizations to provide free or low cost bikes and canoes for women to use during weekly training sessions as well as the triathlon at Lake Calhoun. “We meet every Tuesday and always have 30 or more women who participate on a regular basis,” according to Barry.

The women also decided to “indigenize” the triathlon and the weekly trainings.

“We canoe rather than swim, it felt more naturally indigenous; Our events are also intergenerational. Women are joined by their children and other family members during the weekly trainings and at the triathlon,” Barry said.

“Women push strollers or carry their babies on their backs when they participate,” according to Jackie Crow Shoe, a long time participant in KweStrong events.

The triathlon and KweStrong is really about wellness and supporting other Native women according to Crow Shoe.

Barry agreed. “Some women don’t train with us at all, they just show up for the event. Some choose to walk only a part of the route we offer. We encourage people to do what they can.”

“Mainstream triathlons are intimating. There aren’t many people of color competing. It’s also expensive and involves extravagant equipment,” Crow Shoe noted.

The KweStrong Triathlon also offers scholarships for women who can’t afford the registration fee. “Unlike mainstream triathlons, they wait for everyone to finish; they cheer them on. You can see many of the women are so proud of themselves for participating,” Crow Shoe said.

Triathlon organizers expect more than 100 participants this year. “Women come from all over the country for our triathlon,” according to Barry.

The KweStrong Triathlon begins on Saturday 9 a.m. August 22 at Thomas Beach at Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis.

Participants can walk or run 5k  (once around the lake) or 10k (twice around the lake), canoe (shore to shore distance is 3 miles), bike 9 miles (3 times around the lake) or just cheer others on.

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