On a clear Sunday morning, sisters Josey and Christina “Teeny” Pickett met up at UTEP’s Centennial Plaza to embark on a strenuous masked run. Although the sisters live on opposite sides of El Paso, training for the Mighty Mujer Triathlon has been an uplifting way for them to stay connected.
“It’s something to bring us together — to celebrate the women in our lives, and to get closer together in supporting each other in different goals,” said Josey, a 37-year-old dance instructor and Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at El Paso.
For the Pickett sisters and others participating in the annual event, the Mighty Mujer is not only an opportunity to reconnect with loved ones or to focus on physical fitness, it’s also a way to build new support networks: women inspiring and motivating each other through the shared test of endurance and will.
“As a woman who has worked constantly in male-dominant fields, I have really relied on the women like my sister and my mom and my friends to get me through that, and so Mighty Mujer to me, it gives you that community,” younger sister Teeny said, a 24-year-old metallurgical engineer and artist.
Triathlons are notable among competitive athletic events in terms of gender equity — women receive the same prize amounts and occupy equal billing to men at the elite level, and throughout USA Triathlon’s history it has placed a strong emphasis on female participation.
The growing popularity of women-only events like the Mighty Mujer suggest that in communities like El Paso there’s a need for competitive athletic spaces specifically for women.
“What I had seen with the first triathlon that I had produced (in El Paso) was that it was 70% men, about 30% women,” Mighty Mujer organizer Gabriela Gallegos said. “The feedback that I was getting was, women were a little intimidated, they were concerned that it was going to be an overly competitive environment for their first try at something new.”
Gallegos, founder and president of Race El Paso and associate professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health, is an accomplished triathlete. When she moved back home to El Paso in 2008, she knew she wanted to carve out a space for women to engage in triathlon events.
“(I) really wanted to open the doors to people who were not currently active and to show them that they can be,” Gallegos said, emphasizing that the intention of the Mighty Mujer has always been to bring in a wide range of women — cutting across age, race, professional background, body type and level of athletic experience.
She has done that with the annual Mighty Mujer event, where it’s not uncommon to see multiple generations of a family participating.
“(The Mighty Mujer is) life-changing for women because it’s generally their first triathlon,” Cindy Conroy said.
Conroy, 56, is the director of community outreach at WestStar Bank and a devoted enthusiast of the Mighty Mujer. She got involved with the event nearly 10 years ago, and has become the person who counts off and puts each participant in the water during the swimming component of the race.
“I’ve put 70- and 80-year-old women in the pool before, and they’re out there doing it. It’s just really incredible,” Conroy said.
But this year, there will be no swimming for the in-person version of the Mighty Mujer. Things have changed significantly for the annual event in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which rendered last year’s event entirely virtual.
Taking place on April 24, the hybrid in-person/virtual event’s swimming options have been constrained by pool closures and public health safety concerns. Virtual participants can still do all three components of the competition.
“It’s the 10th year for Mighty Mujer, and so I think that was a big part of the motivation to figure out how do we do this and how can we design it in a way that will protect public health,” Gallegos said, explaining that this year’s event had to be simplified and scaled down. Capacity for the in-person bike and run options are limited, there won’t be any spectators at the start or finish aside from fellow competitors and unlike previous years there won’t be an expo after the race with vendors and food trucks.
Nonetheless, Gallegos said she has no doubt that El Pasoans will find ways to show support for all the mujeres competing this year.
“We have people every year (who are out there) having breakfast on their front porch so they can cheer people on. I think we’ll still see a lot of community support with people outside of their houses,” she said.
For sisters Josey and Teeny, participating in the in-person Mighty Mujer event this year is special not only because they’ll be in it together, but also because of the connections they’re excited to forge with other women in the community.
“I hope I meet amazing women. I know I will,” Teeny said.
Cover photo: Josey, left, and Christina Pickett warm up for their training run at UTEP’s campus on Easter Sunday. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)
Disclosure: Cindy Conroy is a financial supporter of El Paso Matters and a member of the organization’s board of directors. Gabriela Gallegos is a financial supporter of El Paso Matters.