Dressed for success

Skirt Sports founder on the need for more women in tough sports

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Susan France

Nicole DeBoom was watching the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in 1982 as Julie Moss entered her final mile of the race with a comfortable lead and her body began to give up. Moss collapsed and got back up several times until she couldn’t stand, and then she crawled to the finish line. She finished second. 

“I remember seeing it as a kid,” says DeBoom. “Instead of the usual response of, ‘Why you would want to do that to yourself?’ I thought it looked so cool. I knew I wanted to push my body to the limits.” 

What piqued her interest that day eventually led to a deep, lifelong investment in athletics, competing professionally in triathlons and working to increase the presence, welcome and equality women feel in sports. Her now 10-year-old clothing company has become the business venture to fit her drive to see women well-represented in competitive sports and pursuing active, healthy lifestyles.

DeBoom had always been an active kid, and found a niche in swimming. She went on to become one of the fastest swimmers in the nation, even qualifying for the Olympic trials in 1988. Later, she was recruited to swim for Yale. After graduating in 1994, DeBoom says, she had some soul-searching to do since she knew she wasn’t fast enough to swim professionally. She was looking for direction and had a realization. 

“This mantra emerged and carried me through my life: ‘When my body is fit and strong, my mind is fitter and stronger too,’” she says. “It’s simple, but I knew then that when I’m not in shape, I’m not happy. My body needs to be strong for my mind to function productively.”

Remembering her interest in triathlons, she decided to give them a try while she was doing odd jobs and waiting tables. The first race DeBoom attempted was “nothing special.” She hadn’t trained and did it on a whim. 

“I remember coming home after the first one and having this release — I started crying. I didn’t like it, but I really wanted to like it,” she says. “It was a love-hate relationship from the very beginning.” 

As time went on, she needed to try it again, but this time she trained and took it more seriously. She didn’t like to fail, she says, and wanted to see it through in this sport she calls masochistic and still describes as one for people who like to suffer.

That self-motivation was ingrained in her since childhood. She says her parents encouraged her to learn goal-setting, and even as early as fourth grade, she would write down her swim goals and put them on the mirror. 

“You need trifecta to be an amazing athlete,” she says. “You need to have some talent, hard work ethic and mental toughness — that’s the real kicker.”

She did her first race in ’94, a full season in ’95 and went professional in ’99. Throughout her career, DeBoom continually used the mental aspect to persevere through her races.

“Every Ironman, I questioned if I should keep going at one or two or more points along the way,” she says. “It always just seems too hard, too long, too far. But the option to drop out, you might question it in your head, but it was never an option for me. It was never that bad. You just keep going.”

Competing in triathlons did more than provide physical and mental fitness. In 1995 on a plane to a competition in Cancun she met her future husband Tim DeBoom, a fellow triathlete who would go on to win two world Ironmans. The pair married a year later and moved to Boulder. Along with competing in triathlons, she was a swim coach for the Longmont Redtails.

Though there has been a women’s category in triathlons almost as long as there have been national competitive triathlons, participation wasn’t equal. In certain races, she says, there would be six pro women at the starting line versus 25 men. But, she says, there was something special about being a female triathlete, and she felt that she was in a pioneering area.

Despite the unequal numbers, women have made several major strides in the sports world. The National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education reports that in 1972, when Title IX passed, 7 percent of girls participated in high school sports. In 2011, that number was 41 percent. According to a recent Ironman press release, last year’s world championship race saw a 9 percent increase in female participants from the year before. And over the past four years, the triathlon has seen 80 percent growth in female registration and a 275 percent international increase. DeBoom was born the same year Title IX was passed. When talking to women who are 20 years older than her, she realizes how different her experience was.

“I truly believe that my generation is the first that didn’t have the same kind of barriers. Ten or 15 years before there weren’t sports available,” she says. “I always did sports and never felt like I couldn’t.”

Throughout her childhood, she had female sports icons to look up to — Olympic gold medal runner Mary Teresa Slaney, swimmers Janet Evans and Tracy Caulkins, and Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won gold in the first women’s marathon in the 1984 Olympics. 

“I benefitted from the previous generation’s work,” she says. “Those women allowed us to be seen as relevant and feel noteworthy and important.”

DeBoom says she still saw women athletes marginalized in sports though. 

“I felt empowered because I was a strong woman athlete, but I felt frustrated at the lack of attention paid to women in any sport, not just my sport,” she says.

Her senior thesis, “The Female Athlete: an Oxymoron,” featured interviews with her athlete friends about their experience in various sports and analyzed the conflicting media messages for women in sports.

“The magazines were showing us that women need to be really thin, not have a lot of muscle tone and have on lots of make-up to be pretty and beautiful. But athletes have to be strong, usually bigger, powerful and aggressive to be good athletes. Those ideas were totally at odds,” she says.

Another struggle for DeBoom was the disconnect between being an athlete and a woman in terms of what she wore. For part of the day, she trained in generic workout clothes, and then outside the gym she wore something completely different. At the time, there weren’t many fitness clothing options for women. DeBoom says the two main choices were running shorts that bunched in all the wrong places, causing painful friction between the thighs, and skin-tight spandex that put everything on display. There was little variety, color or design. In late 2003, with no business or fashion design experience, DeBoom got inspired to start a women’s fitness clothing brand, which would later become Skirt Sports. She wanted something to wear when she worked out that would match her bright and bold personality. 

“It wasn’t about looking hot and sexy for anybody else. … I wanted to look like myself.” DeBoom says. “For some women, the clothing wouldn’t be a trigger, but it was for me. Clothes are really important for me, especially when I can infuse my attitude into them.” 

In 2004, DeBoom tried out her first prototype. She was still competing professionally and entered the Wisconsin Ironman. There, she debuted a running skirt that was essentially a race belt where she could hook her number, with a skirt attached and a pocket in the back. It was in this race, wearing the first running skirt, that DeBoom won her first and only Ironman.

“It was like a perfect storm of all these things coming at once,” she says. “While I was on the course people started chanting, ‘Go skirt!’ It was like a revolution was happening.”

DeBoom took her $5,000 prize money and incorporated Skirt Sports three days later. That first prototype is still on display at Skirt Sports headquarters in Boulder. The office has bright pink walls covered in motivational running posters with Ryan Gosling and slogans like “Run for the doughnuts” and “Run with your heart, not your Legs.” The occasional exercise ball can be seen rolling down the hall, and around noon the staff pulls out yoga mats for quick midday workouts.

“One of our core values is fitness … and the big question of how you fit it in your busy life,” DeBoom says, adding that she would rather pay for the time for Skirt Sports employees to take a class, even if it means working less, so that while they’re working they’re feeling fresh and productive.

Skirt Sports also now owns a 5k, 10k and half-marathon, and has launched a Kick Start program to match a beginner runner with a training plan and a running mentor. 

While Skirt Sports initially produced some technical racing pieces, DeBoom says they’ve shifted to provide for women of all sizes and fitness levels. Her personal perspectives have also adjusted, particularly with the arrival of her now 3-year-old daughter.

“I used to think two workouts a day was the standard, and if you did less than that you were a slacker. I believed that for myself; I don’t anymore,” she says. “It took a while for that to change. Since I had a baby, I can’t even fathom two workouts a day. There’s too much going on.” 

DeBoom continues to do marathons, trail races, swim meets and sprint triathlons. In 2014, her New Year’s resolution was to do a race a month — and she completed 10. 

Over the years, DeBoom has seen body perspectives change from her days as a college athlete. 

“Now in society we’re saying, strong is beautiful,” DeBoom says. “Size doesn’t matter. It’s a big message that’s coming out in the past 20 years.”

Today, she says, women have more options and can wear what they want. 

“I think that women, somewhere along the line, felt like they had permission to let their feminine side out,” DeBoom says. “Prior to that women felt like they had to fight for that. It was like they had to be like the men to be taken seriously. In the last 10 years women have gotten stronger and said they’re just as awesome, just as serious, just as talented.”

DeBoom hopes to inspire other women the way she was inspired by female athletes and strong women.

“When you see someone else succeeding, you gain strength and confidence,” she says. “I want to be that for my daughter and the girls I used to coach. They’re strong women. It’s important for them to see other women doing strong things. [My daughter] should be empowered to do anything she wants to do, whether it’s athletic or in any other area. It’s all wide open for her.”  

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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