Meet Jed Shiels
Equality – noun, the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, or opportunities.
People have fought for equality for centuries (and still are) – we have the feminist movement, along with the fight for equal pay, and for equal rights. Over the last few years, equality for women in triathlon (#50womentoKona) has increased its prominence. But what about equality for other minorities in sport – specifically the LGBTIQ community? What about equality for all?
Meet Joseph, or Jed, as he is affectionately known, a passionate 30-year-old triathlete from Melbourne, who is taking a stand against the hetero-normative culture of sport and paving the way for equality in triathlon for all.
On his sporting background and how he started in triathlon.
I grew up in country Victoria riding horses and helping out my old man with his racehorses. I was not the most coordinated kid but tried a lot of sports. I had all the gear, but nothing really took my fancy in those early days. Although, one sport that I did enjoy was swimming. I’m proud to say I was swimming age champion in Year 7.
It wasn’t until my early 20s, after a successful battle with weight loss, that I discovered the gym and running. It was around that time that I really started to value a healthy and fit lifestyle.
My venture into triathlon started when I was at university – a friend dared me to a do a Sprint Distance triathlon with him.
I agreed but went in very underprepared and, as a consequence, it’s safe to say that I hated my first triathlon experience.
But the post-race exhilaration and the satisfaction had me hooked! I continued to enjoy triathlon over the short course distance, never taking it too seriously.
I have always been someone who cannot be stopped once I put my mind to something. I’m a big believer in setting goals and developing a plan on how you’re going to achieve them. I watched a friend race the inaugural Ironman Melbourne in 2013 where he qualified for Kona and was very inspired. After a few beers, I remember thinking “I can do that” and it all started from there. After a lot of work and commitment, 12 months later I was standing on the start line of Ironman Melbourne ready to take on my first Ironman. I love long course racing – I love the challenge, and the commitment you need to fulfil the goal. I’m also very lucky to have a partner, friends and family who support me and come along for the ride. Having the right support is so important.
On his second Ironman – the 2015 Ironman Western Australia (IMWA)
I put a solid six months into IMWA, after building a good base prior – I even surprised myself with my consistency and commitment leading into this race. I went in with an ambitious personal goal to go under 10 hours. I sat down with my coach and figured out a plan. I knew the day would have to go 100% my way for me to achieve my goal. Unfortunately, I came out of the water about 5 minutes slower than I wanted but soon realised that it was a slow swim for most. My bike was where the magic happened. I remember hearing my coach yell at the 90km mark, “Stay consistent – you’ve worked your way into the top 15!” Coming off the bike, I ran into T1 to the words: “Welcome to the pointy end. You are in the top 10!” I normally keep my emotions under control, but hearing that, I immediately felt an overwhelming mix of emotion. I was off my goal time, but I was still completely exceeding my expectations. I took a deep breath to calm myself and off I went. I put myself in the hurt box on the run! I didn’t run like I knew I could, but ended up crossing the finish line in 12th position, with a total time of 10:27:32 – I was stoked!
On representing the LGBTIQ community at IMWA with the support by Jaggad and Stand Up Events
Leading into IMWA, I approached Jaggad with the idea of racing in a custom-made tri suit to support the #triwithpride movement, and they were 100% supportive. I also met Angie from Stand Up Events and saw how passionate she is about equality in sport, which made me even more excited about wearing the custom-made suit. I really just wanted to openly represent the LGBTIQ community in a sport and a culture where no one else has in the past.
There is a lot of momentum in other sports, like the AFL, but not so much in a sport like triathlon. In the lead up to IMWA, I was able to have some meaningful conversations with people about my story and how debilitating homophobic behaviour and language can be, especially for young people starting out in sport. My hope was, and continues to be, to make other LGBTIQ athletes feel comfortable to give triathlon a shot and know that they are welcome. I’m passionate about this and will continue to spread my story.
On “coming out” as an LGBTIQ athlete
I came out to my mum when I was 26 and then slowly to the rest of my family after that. It was no big deal for mum – I think my old man struggled a little bit more because he was upset that I had to deal with this secret for so long, by myself. It was a long time before I felt comfortable talking about it with others outside of my family network. That meant keeping big secrets, and that’s a terrible feeling. I’ve been very lucky and have never had a negative reaction. But I did protect myself when coming out in the sports space. For me, coming out to other athletes would only really be an option once I knew that there wouldn’t be a negative reaction.
I was in the sport for a couple of years before “coming out”. I had a lot of fear that I would be treated differently and that being “gay”, I would be perceived as more feminine or as not having the same ability as my peers. I also didn’t want to be the token gay guy.
Thankfully, I don’t think I get treated differently. I think being part of an amazing and accepting club (Tri-Alliance) has helped. Saying that, as a gay person in sport, when I hear the words: “Homo”, “Poof”, “That’s gay”, “C’mon homo”, even if they’re not directed at me, it’s very hard just to dismiss these words. You can’t un-hear them!
On experiencing homophobia
Unfortunately, I have many examples of this, but here is just one. I remember training at The Tan one night and we were finishing an epic run set with hill repeats. I was running with a mate, and we were having a bit of banter to motivate each other and to develop a bit of competition. Every time, as we took off at the bottom of the hill, he would shout, “C’mon poof!” In fairness, he didn’t know I was gay at the time, and it didn’t bother me the first couple of times. But doing repeats it soon got to me. It bothered me that he thought I would run faster if I were called a “poof” – do gay people run slower than straight people? I’d had enough, so I beat him to it and said – “Careful mate, you might get beaten by a homo!” I took off up the hill and left him behind. On reflection, I’m not sure that was the right way to handle the situation, but it worked at the time.
On the hetero-normative culture of sport and equality for the LGBTIQ community
I think overall there is a strong hetero-normative culture in triathlon. My feeling is that we are probably a bit ignorant to this, but the more we try and promote our sport and welcome people into the triathlon community we will see this as more of an issue. I think work at club level is really important so that people who identify LGBTIQ can feel comfortable and safe to be themselves. There are many LGBTIQ specific sporting clubs in Melbourne, but none of which are triathlon related. This is fantastic, but not all LGBTIQ people want to access these clubs, as they might not meet their tri-specific needs. When sport has such a hetero-normative history, we need to savvy in how we include people from diverse backgrounds moving forwards.
Regarding equality, firstly, let me say that the movement happening to support women and to give women the same opportunities in triathlon as men is great, but I do think the LGBTIQ community are under-represented. I think that has a lot to do with our culture. As I have already mentioned, language is a big one, and we need to be inclusive and mindful of the words we use – my coming out was stinted every time I heard homophobic language. As a young fella I was searching for a role model, someone that was like me, so I do think that when we have more LGBTIQ people coming out in sport the younger generations, and even the older that don’t feel comfortable with their sexuality will feel comfortable to be who they really are. I would love to see peak triathlon bodies stand proudly on this issue and develop strategies on increasing participation and equality for all athletes.
On his advice to other athletes
Everyone is different and on their own journey. If I think back to the time in my life where I started in triathlon, I was very closeted and had significant fear that I would be found out. At that time in my life, I had a secret life where I was never really myself. I don’t think we can expect every LGBTIQ person to stand up and speak out. I hope that for the athletes that do speak out we can make an impact in our sporting codes for the better so that LGBTIQ athletes of the future can be successful in sport.
My message to triathletes and the wider community is that we need to remember that people come from so many difference backgrounds, all with their own stories.
I think triathlon for many people is bigger than swim, bike and run. For some, like me, it really helps you to understand who you are as a person. We need to be able to nurture this and support people in their goals instead of just focusing on times, split and numbers. For me as a gay athlete, a big message is to be inclusive in your language and culture.
One thing you can’t live without… Coffee!
If not triathlon… Horse riding
When not training… Netflix
A guilty pleasure… Blueberry muffins
Bucket list race… Ironman Sweden
Athlete you admire… Jan Frodeno