Jack Bristow had waited patiently to get his World Championships chance in Age-Group Triathlon.
His moment arrived in late September in Pontevedra in northwest Spain — but his preparations were hampered by a heart-stopping crash just two days before the race.
Fortunately, he emerged from that incident largely unscathed, although the same couldn’t be said for his bike.
Having an additional sense of purpose is a familiar feeling for the British athlete, who has become known for proudly representing both his country and the LGBTQ community in competition.
Since sharing his coming out story with Outsports back in 2016, Bristow has lifted rainbow flags on finish lines, pushed back against the global governing body until it U-turned on a policy that prohibited displays of Pride, and spoken up for his fellow queer athletes in a sport in which barely any others are publicly out.
In 2018, he was a European champion in Estonia and had always been eager to get to a Worlds. Yet after the cancellations caused by COVID-19, he avoided last year’s edition because of its location — Abu Dhabi — where anti-gay laws persist.
After that entirely understandable decision, he vowed he would “go all in” for 2023. The ambition for Pontevedra: to put his best swim, bike and run together, and peak at the right time.
In a strong field, he finished ninth in his 25-29 bracket, and made the top 25 overall out of over 650 amateur athletes across all male age groups.
“Being 29, it’s my last year in this bracket and potentially the last year I can really dedicate the time to triathlon at this level,” he told Outsports.
“I went to Pontevedra looking to get the full Worlds experience, but on my way to do a recce of the bike course, someone pulled out on me from a side road.
“I didn’t have time to avoid it so I went into the side of the car. I was fine but my bike was totalled.
“It was stressful scrambling to find another bike. I had to rent one. Immediately, that’s not as good.
“I was on the start line thinking, ‘I’ll just see what I can do’ — and I was very happy with my swim, and really happy with my run which was the second fastest in my category.”
He estimates that not having the use of his own bike probably cost him only a couple of places, such was the strength of the top triathletes.
“It was cool to just be in the mix,” he reflected, “and it’s a good point to finish my age-group career. I’m going to take a break and do other things while I’m still young and fit.”
‘Sport needs out athletes’
Bristow was 22 and had only recently graduated from university when he wrote about the self-confidence he had gained from coming out and how his triathlon club teammates had greeted his personal news with “love and acceptance”.
He had placed fourth in his first European Championships (in the 20-24 age group) in Lisbon in 2016 and explained how he felt a sense of responsibility to other athletes who might be struggling with their sexuality.
Seven years on, his importance as a role model has only grown. There were no publicly out triathletes — men or women — at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, while for the Paralympics, only two.
Even among his fellow amateurs, there are few advocating for authenticity in the way Bristow does.
“It’s surprising,” he said, “considering triathlon is such a western European, North American-dominated sport. It tends to attract people who have been to university, who are from that background.
“I find it disappointing but at the same time, elite men’s cycling doesn’t have any openly gay athletes either. I guess there’s still a culture in endurance sports of, ‘we’re really tough and we know how to suffer’ that is traditionally ‘masculine’. That’s the mentality.”
If it is panic about being perceived as weak that prevents gay triathletes from coming out publicly, continued credit is due to Bristow for not only banishing those fears but being visibly vulnerable too.
Go back a few posts on his Instagram feed to the start of Pride Month, and you’ll find a picture of him sobbing into the Progress Pride flag he took with him to Madrid for the European Championships.
At that event, the swim was cancelled at the 11th hour due to poor water quality and the switch to a duathlon didn’t suit Bristow so well.
However, by the end of the following month, he was on top of the podium at the British Championships for the first time in his age-group career, setting him up well for the Worlds.
It’s been a roller-coaster of emotions and he says that whenever a rainbow flag makes an appearance alongside him, it’s an attempt to acknowledge unheard voices.
“I was miserable in Madrid, crying into the flag rather than waving it,” he said. “But the way I always think about it is that visibility in sport for under-represented minorities is important.
“For the LGBTQ community, it needs people to be out and vocal and visible and the easiest way to do that is with the rainbow flag.
“It’s paired with getting the best results possible and being taken seriously as a competitor. I would never want the flag to just be a gimmick.”
Triathlon struggling on LGBTQ inclusion
It was in late 2018 that World Triathlon — then known as the International Triathlon Union — altered wording in its participation policy that amounted to a de facto ban on Pride flags.
Athletes were instructed to “avoid displaying any kind of demonstration of political, religious, sexual orientation or racial propaganda”. Bristow, who had celebrated with a rainbow flag in Leeds just a few months before, led the fightback with an online petition that quickly garnered media attention.
He asked for ‘sexual orientation’ to be removed from the policy wording; for the governing body to express that LGBTQ people are welcome in the sport; and for the publication of inclusion strategies for all marginalised groups.
The first of these requests was swiftly granted, but the other two have been all but ignored. A search of World Triathlon’s X feed and website content shows no mentions of ‘LGBTQ’ or ‘Pride’.
“I’ve not seen anything from World Triathlon,” said Bristow, while he feels national governing body British Triathlon has blown “hot and cold” in its approach, although it did create an LGBTQ+ network and occasionally reaches out to Bristow around calendar dates and awareness campaigns.
They also consulted him and other LGBTQ network members when the World Age-Group Championships were awarded to the United Arab Emirates. “In the end, they have to go where the sport is, they’re not really in control,” he added.
“It’s one of the problems with sportswashing in petrostates. It complicates the issues of LGBTQ representation in any sport and triathlon is not immune from that.”
This is the first year of British Triathlon competition since the governing body rebranded its men’s category as ‘open’, a decision taken after a survey of its members showed 80% wanted a “protected” women’s category, despite there being no known trans women triathletes at the elite level.
Bristow feels this was a “reactionary” response to a wave of scare stories in the media about a so-called threat posed by trans athletes in sport. When he carries a flag these days, it is always the Progress Pride flag — that had only just been created when he was campaigning five years ago for rainbows to be allowed in the sport.
The words removed by World Triathlon in 2019 from its rules about demonstrations were “sexual orientation.” Is there a chance the Progress Pride flag could be seen as political? “Yeah, it’s something I’ve had to be careful about.
“Although we prevented the rainbow flag being banned, messaging seen as political is still banned, so it depends on the country.
“I presumed Spain would be fine and it was, but you have to anticipate the online reaction too. My pinned tweet is of me with the Progress flag after completing the London Triathlon last summer. I had to hide a lot of the replies on that one.”
Triathlon is for everyone. Now and for always pic.twitter.com/Qi4KXVsSaq— Jácķ (@Jack_WJB) August 7, 2022
World Triathlon’s trans policy is more inclusive but still restrictive: Trans women can apply to compete in international triathlon competitions, but since the most recent policy change in August 2022, they must wait four years after transitioning if they have ever competed in a sport before.
It’s a situation that’s also fraught with difficulty for athletes who simply want to be allies to trans people, but Bristow says shows of support are needed more than ever.
Wherever endurance sport takes him next, he will continue to be a voice for them and for all LGBTQ athletes. He wants to try something different, like the Rapha Pennine Rally — a self-supported backpacking ride from Edinburgh to Manchester — or a gruelling Backyard Ultra.
What has certainly given him a huge boost in recent races has been the presence of boyfriend Ben, cheering him on.
“Having Ben there has certainly taken the pressure off this year, particularly when things got stressful before races,” he added.
“After Madrid, I was out with him and two other queer friends, and another LGBTQ triathlete who was in my age group. That was really good, even if the race itself wasn’t.”
Bristow would love to see an out gay triathlete competing at next year’s Olympics and partying in Paris afterwards. He wrote in 2016: “Coming out is scary and hard, but once you’ve done that, the self-confidence it will give you makes all the other challenges look like a walk in the park.”
With nearly a third of ‘Team LGBTQ’ athletes having won medals in Tokyo, the incentives are clearly there. As Bristow has shown, courage can boost your capacity to excel in a multitude of disciplines.