Meredith Kessler: Moving the PTO on women’s issues

Slowtwitch: What was your motivation about joining the PTO?

Meredith Kessler: Early on in my career, it was imperative to me personally that I help the arena of professional triathlon racing be better positioned when I left than when I began. It started with writing letters to race directors and to Ironman about ways to improve racing. Eventually, like-minded individuals on the pro racing circuit tried to formulate a way to have a clear voice in having some influence on how the sport of triathlon needed to thrive going forward. That was the Professional Triathlon Union (PTU) a 2015 forerunner of the PTO. As with any startup, it is difficult to launch with a cohesive plan and actions. Yet you learn from your mistakes, and here we are in 2020 with a much better version.

ST: What might the PTO do for pro women in triathlon?

Meredith: With pro-women-specific issues, it takes time and baby step victories. The model you have to look at is professional women’s tennis and soccer. It would help if you had time to develop the athletes, showcase their personalities, become role models to the masses, and have the foundation to make this happen. This is one of the PTO’s goals. However, even though the athletes in these mainstream sports are in a much better position, they still have ongoing battles, such as the US women’s soccer lawsuit for equal pay. It is typically a challenging battle where there isn’t anything that gets easily handed to you.

ST: What are some of the particular issues facing pro women triathletes and how might the PTO work on them?

Meredith: It is important to not look at male versus female at this point; this inherently pits one group against another, which is not what the PTO is looking to do. The board is made up of bright-minded women and men trying to help the triathlon sport for all who participate. There are plenty of organizations within the sport who do a tremendous job in keeping the female voice alive and well, and we commend them for these actions. I do feel triathlon is a very welcoming environment for women to attempt to achieve their athletic goals, yet there is always room for improvement. But changes will not happen overnight. Still, if we have a solid foundation to gain leverage on several important issues affecting the triathlon community, these will undoubtedly include a healthy female perspective and presence.

ST: What qualities do you bring to the table?

Meredith: Unfortunately, you blink and realize you have been out of college for 22 years and living in the real world, trying to earn a living with multiple jobs; time is flying. I consider myself an elder statesman in the realm of triathlon. I have seen companies in the sport come and go, athletes retire, races ended and created. So this perspective alone is enough to put me in a good position to create the waves of change.

ST: What experiences do you bring to this task?

Meredith: I began working 60+ hour weeks as a manager at the Ritz Carlton. My next step was to RBC Capital Markets in finance while completing 9+ years as an age group triathlete, followed by working several side hustle jobs at the same time to lay the foundation for a pro triathlon career. I am now trying to carve a niche for an eventual post pro career (it’s not over yet!) with a two-year-old in tow! You look back and realize you have accomplished a lot.

ST: What will be your duties with the PTO? What ideas will you suggest to make triathlon grow?

Meredith: My specific duty as a board member is to participate in discussions on the overall direction and provide my professional experiences. I am also hopeful to be able to help guide the younger generations, and hopefully, they can learn from my successes, failures and mistakes.

There always has been a free flow of ideas and plenty of agreements and disagreements; this makes a well-rounded board. We have engaged Charles [Adamo] and Sam [Renouf] and the team to manage the organization’s business affairs, and the athlete board assists them and is focused on athletes’ welfare issues.

ST: What do you think is the most important, innovative, and promising thing about PTO?

Meredith: The bottom line is we need athlete unity across the professional ranks just like other high profile sports. If and when we can achieve this milestone, we can help lift triathlon from a fringe niche sport to a more significant presence. The masses can then feel and witness the true beauty of triathlon that we already know and love.

ST: And what is its biggest challenge?

Meredith: The biggest challenge is to gather enough cohesion and influence to have meaningful dialogue with the current systems in place. If you cannot achieve this, the status quo will remain. For many years, professional triathletes have been squirrels trying to get a nut, and there haven’t been many nuts to go around. This is what we hope to change, which will elevate the sport’s perception from an underground clique to a force for all to see. If Cornhole and Darts can pack houses, get advertising dollars, and get TV coverage, triathlon should be able to do that and more!

ST: One of the most innovative things about the PTO is their emphasis on being in a partnership with the elite athletes. That was their first big decision to distribute the $2.5 million to the current top points earners to help pros survive the pandemic and the lack of events. Will this work?

Meredith: I do think that ‘work’ is the wrong word in this situation. It was the right thing to do, and it was a massive benefit because it helped many athletes who had nowhere else to turn during these difficult times.

ST: Can you see PTO expanding to more beautiful, demanding venues beyond the Collins Cup? Or will it remain an organizing entity with a year-end points championship?

Meredith: The plan being discussed is having a few significant events.

ST: What can the PTO do for the age grouper?

Meredith: Growing the sport helps age groupers by expanding revenue streams beyond age group entry fees. This lessens the pressure on organizations to keep raising entry fees and thus become more accessible. This creates a domino effect of more profitable races, less urgency to pack athletes onto a course when it is unsafe, and fewer rule-breaking instances within the competition, which are common concerns of age groupers.

ST: How might the PTO offer support to the great issues of the day – the pandemic, racial equality, et al?

Meredith: We are individual athletes, free to express ourselves regarding these issues in any way we see fit. We do not presume to speak for the groups suffering inequality. There may be complaints about the diversity in triathlon, but economic barriers drive much of that. We are engaging with the national governing bodies seeking the best way to lower the barriers for all people.