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A Virtual World of Real Opportunity: Women and eSports
Jasmin Welter, elite eSports racer, explores how eSports welcomes more women into the sport.
By Jasmin Welter, elite e-racer for Saris + The Pro's Closet
As a female cyclist, commuting, riding for pleasure, training and racing, I’ve often wondered - Where are all the other women?
After some research on the topic, the main concerns that prevent women getting on bikes are safety concerns and socio-cultural limitations. As a bike commuter in the city of Chicago, I can relate to and understand the safety concerns. In training, I haven gotten used to being the only or one of very few women on group rides. In contrast, I’ve frequently heard statements like “My wife is at home with the kids”, “My wife is scared of traffic” and such during coffee stops. As a bike racer, I see the small size of women’s fields in bike racing. Oftentimes I’ve asked myself: “Do I belong here?” or “Is it worth it?”
A Safe Space
The emergence of eRacing and virtual training opportunities brings forward a safe environment for women - both in terms of physical safety but also as a safe and convenient space to be a female athlete in a supportive community. Initiatives like large women-only group rides or the Zwift Academy have been empowering experiences for women who don’t have the luxury to enjoy those environments IRL.
As a bike racer in Chicagoland, women’s fields have been fought for hard, but numbers are still low across the categories. Weekend travel to races across the Midwest are the norm to encounter larger, more competitive fields. The time and financial investments are a large boundary to women specifically, and here is where eSports makes all the difference.
Jasmin Welter atop the Intelligentsia podium.
The Power of Accessibility
This ease of accessibility is a tremendous help for female riders of all ages, for mothers, for time-crunched professionals. The number of opportunities for riding and racing for beginners to pro cyclists is encouraging and motivating, and likely provides an environment few women have experienced on the road before.
The first thing I was positively shocked by when joining Zwift was the sheer number of women riding. Instead of a handful, the rides had hundreds of participants. Team manager Jenn Real knows the advantage of eRacing’s accessibility and opportunity for women all too well.
“As someone living on the Big Island of Hawaii, where we have exactly one road race a year, Zwift is my competitive outlet. Zwift enables me to race at a very high level, while living off the grid on a farm in the mountains of Hawaii. It’s at least a six hour flight to find a big women’s road race IRL. Without Zwift, I doubt I would still be racing bikes.”
I entered the world of eRacing as a wildcard for Team Fearless in their Annual Women’s Team Championship 2019. Ultimately joining the powerhouse of Team Saris + The Pro’s Closet was a true game changer: All of a sudden, I’m racing a field stacked with up to 100 women, many of them pros from all corners of the globe - a level that I would very likely never have had the opportunity for in real life as someone who picked up cycling in their late 20s.
The eSport community is large and competitive but also cordial and inclusive. Our team itself counts racers of all ages and backgrounds, and from more than 5 countries. I truly enjoy the community the team provides as much as the motivation to support my team and compete with the best. Many of my teammates are mothers or retired professional athletes, and eRacing gives them the unique opportunity to keep competing at a high level without many of the downsides that professional racing comes with. Teammate Anna Russell, a former professional triathlete, sees Zwift as a lifeline in both a social and competitive way.
“Zwifting through pregnancy and the newborn days was an amazing way to keep active but also have social interaction. Now I am able to regularly race while the kids are sleeping, something I never thought would be possible.”
Anna Russell with her husband Hayden and kiddos.
Teammate Caroline Murray adds,
“Even though a fielding a homework question on Pythagoras’ Theorem isn’t ideal at the best of times let alone when you’re seconds away from the final sprint of your race, having such an accessible platform for training and racing whilst juggling working life and being a mum (mom) is an absolute godsend. Having a community of amazing people who totally get it when you’ve had to cut your ride short because your kid couldn’t find the blue bowl for their cereal solidifies my love for Zwift even more!”
Caroline Murray throwing down the watts.
The Growth of eSports: Strength in Numbers
eRacing has been growing for years, and platforms like Zwift have broadened their cooperations with national cycling associations to establish national (and ultimately world) championships as an additional discipline of bike racing. The support of Saris and our fellow sponsors has been instrumental for setting our team up for success in this movement as we compete against the world’s cycling elite.
eRacing has certainly experienced another boom due to the recent coronavirus pandemic. The opportunities emerging from this rapid growth are endless - for the individual and the sport of cycling as a whole: When the numbers of female Zwifters are rising, why wouldn’t organizations and companies support women on bikes IRL? When equity is possible virtually, then why wouldn’t the real world follow suit? I’m hoping our actions in eSports will complement and strengthen the work that’s been done by advocates for parity in cycling.
Jasmin in Canyon/SRAM kit after completing the women's Zwift Academy.
We are very thankful for our sponsors Saris and The Pro’s Closet, who believe in our athletes and support us on this next level of e-racing. Follow Team Saris + The Pro’s Closet on Instagram and Facebook and make sure to connect with us on Zwift too.
Jasmin lives in Chicago, Illinois, with her husband Dominic, their dog Kay and their rubber tree, Benjamin. Hailing from Germany, Jasmin moved to Chicago for a job in business development for German companies in the US in 2012. Jasmin is a Category 2 racer on the road and has dabbled in mountain biking, track racing, gravel and cyclocross. She is the current Illinois Criterium State Champion and will try to race you up every little bit of elevation that can be found in Chicagoland (chances are it's a boatramp...). Follow her on Instagram and the Saris + The Pro's Closet team at @saris.proscloset.