Image: Kenny Withrow
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” Laura Siddall says vehemently. Siddall, a professional long distance triathlete from the United Kingdom, might be quoting children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman but she’s taken the mantra and made it into her own. Not only is Siddall a voice and role model for equality in triathlon but, in early 2021, she launched SidSquad, a mentorship program for young female triathletes.
Photos: Guillem Cassanova
“I wanted to do something for a long time,” Siddall says, “so when Parcours wanted to give away a set of wheels, I had the idea for the programme and it came together with a lot of my other partners.” The programme invited young female triathletes in the UK to submit video applications for the opportunity to be mentored by Siddall. “I left the details loose,” Siddall says, explaining she wanted to adapt the programme to the needs of the selected athlete. “If they needed coaching, I would coach. If they needed mentorship, I’d be there.” Siddall was blown away by the response and narrowing down to just one athlete was really difficult (although all other applicants were invited to join an online community to help support one another). In the end, Laetitia Corbett caught Siddall’s attention.
Siddall coached and mentored Corbett for the 2021 season. “I didn’t know how much it would change everything,” Corbett says. “I love the sport anyway but I love it even more now and it’s just given me such a huge community of athletes.” Corbett says she had dreamed of going to the world championships and was excited when she unexpectedly qualified for the 18-24 age group in her last race of the season. As Corbett explains her experience racing and making her dream come true, Siddall is quiet, eyes down and smiling, laughing when Corbett details an especially hard training session or a tricky moment during the race. After working with Siddall, Corbett says, “The goals are definitely bigger than I ever thought they could be.”
Siddall aims to continue and expand the SidSquad programme for the 2022 season but her goal remains the same: “I want to see more women doing triathlon and believing they can do triathlon.” The success of the program, Siddall says, is just proof that there is a need for female-focused sport initiatives. “There is a need to connect females in sport, to keep them within the sport, to ask questions, to have that dialogue,” she says. “And also that there is an amazing bunch of talent out there that we need to keep in the sport or keep active.”
The need for programs like SidSquad, however, are only one part of the solution.
“Athletes need to promote and support one another,” Siddall begins, but gender inequality doesn’t stop there and neither does Siddall. “There is a male dominance in triathlon. Yes, we race the same distance, the prize money is equal, but there is a bias in media coverage, sponsorship contracts, the way races are set up, policies, and it’s just going to take a long time to change,” Siddall explains. When it comes to equality in triathlon, Siddall is very clear: “everyone has a responsibility—we all do, to hold each other accountable.”
“There’s a responsibility with the media to show female sport. The media has to be equal; but, then I think there’s also the responsibility of the brands and the sponsors to make sure they’re doing everything equally—promoting their female athletes and having equal contracts—and pushing back to the media to hold them accountable,” Siddall says, adding that fans can also push that demand to brands and media.“It’s hard because there are stereotypes so I think it comes back to the media leading the way and if they show it, the sponsors will come, the interest will come.”
Speaking out and acting for change “is tricky,” Siddall admits, but doing something hard and seemingly impossible isn’t a deterrent for a long distance triathlete who swims 3.8 km, cycles 180 km, and then runs a marathon in one race. If Siddall has shown the world anything, it’s that triathlon can be and needs to be more inclusive and, as she says, “if you can see it, you can be it”.