Melissa Otterbein never has thought of herself as a world-class athlete, just someone who was persistent and worked hard to achieve her goals.
At Towson University, where she was a member of the swimming team, Otterbein made the Colonial Athletic Association championships twice in her four years.
Otterbein, who grew up outside Philadelphia and has remained in Baltimore after graduating four years ago, has another goal that appears a little more challenging: She is trying to get the Tour de France to hold a race for women.
When Otterbein, 26, competes today in the Ironman 70.3 Triathlon World Championships in Las Vegas — an event consisting of a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run — she will inscribe her singlet with the same words she wore when she qualified for the event this summer in Boulder, Colo.
Otterbein's biceps will marked with the letters “TDF.”
The inspiration first came when Otterbein read an article on ESPN.com in which Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme casually dismissed a proposal made public by British Labor Party deputy secretary Harriet Harman to have the iconic bicycle race include a separate event for women.
That led to a petition signed by more than 70,000 supporting Harman's proposal.
Prudhomme was described as rejecting the proposal “with a wave of the hand.”
“When I read that, I thought, ‘How can a man, with the wave of his hand, prevent women from competing internationally?'” she said recently. “I was very encouraged to see that I wasn't the only woman to feel that way. I was excited to see their activism. That's when it hit me that I could dedicate the race that I'm training for to women participating in the Tour de France.”
In addition to the petition they helped write, former Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington of Great Britain and Kathryn Bertine, a former professional ice skater turned triathlete, have put together a documentary, “Half the Road,” depicting the inequality between the sexes in the world of professional cycling.
“One of the things they shared in the trailer [was that] professional male cyclists have a mandated minimum salary of $29,000. Women have no mandated pay and often earn less than $11,000, which is below the poverty line,” Otterbein said.
Otterbein is trying to get the word out locally about the Change.org petition through her affiliation with the Baltimore Area Triathlon Club, which she joined in February 2012. She posted a link to the petition and the documentary on Facebook.
Otterbein said a number of spectators and competitors at the 70.3-mile triathlon in Boulder asked her, “What race are you talking about?” when they saw what was written on her singlet. Others, mostly women, said, “I like your shirt.” Otterbein said their interest motivated her.
“It was encouraging to hear that while I was biking all those miles,” she recalled.
The inspiration led to Otterbein finishing 12th in her age group (25-29) in her first attempt at an Ironman triathlon. While only the top-three finishers are guaranteed spots in the 70.3 Ironman World Championships, a volunteer at the Boulder event told her she should hang around the awards ceremony in case some who qualified didn't show up to claim their spots in Las Vegas.
Only one claimed a spot, giving Otterbein a place in today's event.
“I kind of look back and think that opportunities don't always come for the most blessed but for those who are ready and looking — certainly looking,” she said.
Otterbein, who competed in her first sprint triathlon (typically a half-mile swim, 16-mile bike ride and 5-kilometer run) before starting at Towson, credits two members of the local triathlon club, Linda Anders and Sheryl Savage, for guiding her through the grueling training sessions required to run and swim and bike the longer distances.
“Having that companionship has been very inspiring,” Otterbein said.
Despite a 20-year difference in their ages, Otterbein's cause has had the same effect on Anders. The mother of two girls, ages 9 and 6, Anders said she was watching this year's Tour de France when one of her daughters asked whether Anders ever considered competing herself.
When Anders explained that the event was open only to men, the girls were dumbfounded.
“They were shocked that women weren't invited to it. They were like, ‘Whaaaat?'” Anders said Friday.
When Anders later saw Otterbein's Facebook post about the Tour de France flap, she pointed out to her children that “this is a very good friend of mine, and she's protesting the very thing that we were speaking about. It just really hit home.”
Otterbein said the idea of competing in a 70.3 Ironman has been “an ongoing journey. … Something kept tugging at my heart.”
Savage, the president of the Baltimore Area Triathlon Club, said Otterbein has gone from being a novice to a fairly high competitive level in a short time.
“We would go for 40-, 50-, 60-mile rides and Melissa would show up with a smile, one bottle of water and no nutrition,” Savage recalled Friday. “We would get two or 21/2 hours into a ride, and we'll turn around and say, ‘Where's Melissa?' She bonked six miles back because she just didn't have the education and training.”
Savage, who played softball at Bucknell and who earlier this year competed in a 140.6-mile Ironman event in Idaho, said she and others in the club spent time educating Otterbein about what she needed to do with her training and nutrition.
“It's amazing to see how far she's come in the last six to eight months,” Savage said. “She comes prepared, she knows her bicycle mechanics and now she's riding with our fast pack of riders.”
Another inspiration for Otterbein is a little more personal. Her older sister Lauren has Down syndrome and has been competing in Special Olympics events for the past 15 years. After returning from Las Vegas, Otterbein plans to cheer on her sister at a soccer tournament in Harrisburg, Pa., later in the month.
“She's been a very strong inspiration. She is just so enthusiastic about cheering you on,” Otterbein said. “She will call me up sometimes and just say, ‘I'm excited to watch you race.'”
Currently working as an assistant at a Baltimore AIDS and HIV clinic, Otterbein said she has taken a couple of graduate classes in public health, with a particular interest in “utilizing sport for development, learning about organizations that use sport to promote social justice, peace advocacy in international communities, including refugee camps.”
In one class, she wrote a paper on how volunteers at the camps will “use sport to promote health education, for refugee students to stay in school.”
Regardless of what she does in Las Vegas, Otterbein believes she is making progress — both personally and for female triathletes in general.
“It's a sport where women feel there's momentum now that there can be some real changes,” she said. “I do feel like we're just beginning to hit the surface.”