Black Male Athlete With Prosthetic Legs Running On A Track

Empowering More BIPOC, Para-Athlete and Military Veteran Coaches

BY Phil White

There are too few coaches in the endurance sports world working for underserved communities. Understanding the journey of some coaches guiding these athletes can provide insights for other coaches and cultivate future coaches.

Members of the BIPOC community, para-athletes and military veterans can all provide valuable services to athletes, yet many find it difficult to get into coaching. We interviewed Paralympics triathlete and coach Jamie Brown, 80/20 Endurance Foundation’s Coaches of Color director Bertrand Newson and US Military Endurance Sports executive director Mandy Midgett to find some of the tools, groups and strategies available to help underrepresented coaches breakthrough. While also helping make their voices heard and contributing to their communities.

Investing in Coaches of Color

Bertrand Newson remembers the race day when a fellow athlete looked across at him and said, “You don’t look like a runner.” Whether it was the color of his skin or his height (over 6 feet) and muscular build, Newson wasn’t sure, but from the first time he started running in his early 40s, he knew he felt like a runner. Yet when he decided to get his first certification, the man who athletes would come to know as “Coach B” recognized underrepresentation.

“Overall, that cert was a wonderful experience,” Newson said. “But as I looked around on that first day, I didn’t see many people who looked like me. The handful of minorities there didn’t need to say anything to me about it — we just felt it. But we could all fall back on the fact that we were all runners who were there for our love of endurance sports, and so there was a level of common conversation we could have that was already embedded.”

Building Community

It was that same spirit of solidarity and unity that Newson had in mind when he started the RaceMob online community with Kevin Chang and founded Too Legit Fitness (TLF), which brings together runners and walkers in the Bay Area. Since 2011, TLF has grown from a handful of like-minded competitors to almost 1,000 people. I asked him what it meant that one runner wrote, “These are my people,” in a blog post.

“It’s the ultimate compliment because we want everyone to feel welcome, no matter what their speed is,” he said. “Whether you’ve done an Ironman, run Boston or are a busy parent with the weight of the world on your shoulders who’s struggling to find 15 minutes to work out, you’ll be comfortable here. I’m proud that Too Legit Fitness and RaceMob are incredibly diverse and very welcoming to all fitness levels and ethnic backgrounds. Just come out with a good attitude, put one foot in front of the other and support your fellow athlete, friend and team member. That’s all we ask.”

Newson continues to build on the good work that RaceMob and Too Legit Fitness started. In 2021, he accepted an appointment by the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) National Committee to a position focused on inclusion and development. Then when his friend and mentor Matt Fitzgerald called to discuss a new initiative from 80/20 Endurance, Newson recognized another opportunity to make a wider impact on behalf of BIPOC coaches.

Providing Opportunity

“In Life is a Marathon, Matt peeled back the curtain on his interracial marriage and mental health challenges,” he said. “He reached out to me at the high point of civic frustration in this country and said, ‘Enough is enough.’ He was going to start a foundation to help increase diversity in the coaching ranks and asked me if I’d be a founding member. I remember hanging up the phone and telling my mother, and she was almost in tears because this conversation happened when we were watching George Floyd’s funeral on TV.”

Soon enough, the 80/20 Foundation’s Coaches of Color initiative chose its first apprentice, Jessica Schnier, who received a $1,000-a-month stipend, training and certification as an 80/20 Endurance coach, one-on-one mentoring and hands-on coaching experience. The program is already bearing fruit, as it helped Schnier build her own business, Smiles and Miles Coaching.

“The amount of interest we got was overwhelming, and the caliber of individuals who were interested was fantastic – we could’ve chosen at least 10 apprentices who would’ve been just as productive and impactful as Jessica,” Newson said. “She’s done a great job and is already paying it forward. Our mission is to have multiple apprenticeships going concurrently, and we hope to achieve that in 2023.”

Newson equipped himself to transition from a successful career in the hospitality industry to full-time coaching through a combination of formal certifications, mentoring and self-education. He believes that in doing likewise, coaches of color will not only equip themselves with technical expertise but also make a positive mark in their communities.

“Like a member of the clergy, teacher or family elder, a coach can have a profound impact by sharing knowledge, seeing potential and igniting it,” Newson said. “You can help people live longer, happier, healthier lives and positively impact those in their social circle. There just needs to be more diversity in the sport – different perspectives and voices – for the end product to be more fulfilling.”

Guiding Para-Athletes

Jamie Brown was born missing the fibula on his right leg and three fingers on his right hand because of a congenital birth defect. But he never let this hold him back and pitched in the NCAA Division III World Series for Chapman University. It was on the baseball diamond that his love of coaching was born. “I had a different way of seeing things and explaining them in a way that’d help my teammates,” he said. “I was always watching what hitters were doing and where catchers were setting up and then giving people tips, tricks and strategies. After college, my old high school coach asked me to come back, and I ended up teaching PE while running the pitching and defense. We were talented and had some first-round draft picks.”

Brown followed a similar pattern with endurance sports. In 2013, he was introduced to the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) by Erica Davis, the first woman to summit Mount Kilimanjaro in a wheelchair. After that meeting, he competed in his first swim, bike and run event, even though he didn’t have a prosthetic for running. Progressing quickly in all three disciplines, he won the sprint triathlon at the USA Paratriathlon National Championship and then claimed the Pan American title. He has since racked up many podium finishes on the ultra-competitive ITU World Triathlon circuit.

When Mark Barr, currently number one in the world in PTS2, asked Brown to coach him, he got his USA Triathlon certification and added USA Cycling and NASM-CPT, CES and PES qualifications. Brown has continued guiding more elite and club-level competitors, using his insights as a solid foundation. One of the challenges coaches face when guiding para-athletes alongside their able-bodied clients is that they might make false assumptions about their capabilities. Brown believes that the biggest misconception is that challenged athletes are slower, which often isn’t the case, as shown by the fact that he has won several open division races.

Understanding Each Athlete

“If you’re going to coach para-athletes over shorter distances, you need to go to a sprint triathlon and see how fast it is in person because it’s a real eye-opener,” Brown said. “Otherwise, you might end up training your para-athletes at a much slower speed than they’ll need to race at to be competitive.”

Once a coach commits to working with an advanced para-athlete, they need to apply even greater diligence to their discovery than they would to the usual athlete onboarding process.

“Have a conversation with the athlete to discover what their limitations and abilities really are,” Brown said. “It’s all too easy to put your own thought process onto that, but usually the prosthetic or the disability isn’t the problem. Their limitation is more likely to be something similar to that of an able-bodied athlete, but you need to find out so you don’t do them and yourself a disservice in their training.”

Another area of understanding that’s key for para-athletes and coaches alike is grasping the complexities of their equipment. For able-bodied competitors, this usually just means a basic grasp of bike parts, but it’s elevated for this population.

“You almost need to be like a bike mechanic to be working on prosthetics,” Brown said. “Really understand it because it’s part of your equipment. How many people go to a race and something breaks, and they have no idea how to fix it? Those little things are magnified for us because it’s not just our bikes but our prosthetics too, which are like our cars. Running legs are evolving now to make them more efficient for distance running because most were designed for sprinting, but after that first 400 meters, we’re running 12 more, so a different kind of fatigue sets in. I can talk people through sockets, liners, and the rest of their systems at different stages of the race.”

If they’re not a high-level para-athlete themselves, Brown recommends that a coach participates in USA Triathlon’s weeklong certification course, which usually takes place in Colorado Springs, where members of the national team train.

“It’s important to see the mentality of these athletes outside of the race. They’re doing this as a job, and you need to know-how seriously they take it. There’s probably a stigma around how much training they can do and a misconception that you have to dial back their volume or intensity, but having been a resident in the Colorado Springs program, I can tell you that it’s a heavy load. If you go there, you’ll also get exposure to the elite-level coaches who have been involved on the para side for a long time.”

Brown has continued to juggle coaching elite athletes in person and other levels via TrainingPeaks with his racing against the best in the world. Last year, he overcame a torn hamstring to qualify for Team USA and placed ninth in the sprint triathlon at the Tokyo Paralympics. Looking ahead, he plans to continue consulting with elite competitors as they prepare for Paris in 2024 and remote coaching other competitors. Anyone wishing to ask Jamie about coaching or competing can reach him at Jamie.v.brown [at]

Supporting Veteran and Active-Duty Military Coaches

Mandy Midgett’s first triathlon was with makeshift equipment in an unlikely setting — a U.S. Air Force base in Panama — and was hardly a win from a gender equality standpoint. “We were only allowed to race half the distance that the men did, and I was riding a Huffy mountain bike.” Nevertheless, she was hooked and soon, after some swim coaching, finding a supportive group and buying a road bike, she earned a spot on the Air Force Triathlon Team. Her first event outside the military was in New Jersey and showed her just how special the sport can be.

“People were willing to lend me their wetsuits because the water was 56 degrees,” she said. “For me to not know anyone and feel so welcomed made me want to stick with it and help others. With my military background, I’ve always coached, but I eventually decided to make it official.”

Once she retired from active duty in 2013, Midgett earned her USA Triathlon certification and committed to coaching and mentoring athletes. She currently serves as the executive director for US Military Endurance Sports (USMES), the only nonprofit organization of its kind that serves 100% current or former service personnel.

Inclusion and representation are hallmarks of their elite team, comprised of cyclists, runners, triathletes and para-athletes. Two of the latter competed in ITU World Triathlon and one at the Tokyo Paralympics.

“Seventy percent of our athletes carry some sort of disability — whether those are visible or invisible wounds,” Midgett said. “We do make some allowances, but don’t treat them any differently to able-bodied athletes and we all train together.”

Midgett is also passionate about increasing female participation through USMES and served as the event coordinator for the Outspoken: Women in Triathlon Summit.

“When you get women into the sport, it gives them the confidence to get things done,” she said. “And they’re used to the equality side of things because, in the military, it’s pretty much equal. What I love about triathlon is that you can’t judge people by their cover — you see all ages and bodies dominating.”

Another Type of Service

While civilians can coach veterans and active-duty military personnel effectively, Midgett believes that those who have or are serving have a lot to offer.

“Leadership, time management, discipline — you learn all these things,” she said. “You’ve often had subordinates, so you know-how to communicate with people, motivate them and get the best out of them without being overly critical. You also have to get along with others and embrace change. We have a USMES coaches affiliate, and most have a military background. If an athlete knows their coach has served, they respect that.”

Through racing, coaching and serving USMES, Midgett has seen firsthand the subtle advantages that current or retired military personnel have when it comes to guiding their peers.

“Military commitments are totally different to a civilian nine-to-five job,” she said. “The wife of one USMES athlete posted that he had to go in early because he was helping with the Afghanistan pullout. Others could be on an aircraft carrier for six months. If they can run on deck, it will either be with a strong headwind or tail wind. Maybe they’ll have access to a stationary bike, but they won’t be able to swim. So, we’ll have to get creative to prepare them for a triathlon. When you’re coaching an active-duty military athlete, you also have to factor in their unit’s physical training and testing requirements.”

Not only veterans can make an impact in guiding others, but also currently enlisted service members.

“If you’re active duty and want to become a coach, work with your unit to see how you can help candidates pass their physical fitness tests or lead group sessions,” Midgett said. “I’ve prepared military people for their Green Beret and other Special Forces qualifications as well as triathlon. It gives you a great perspective.”

For those who’ve sacrificed for their country, coaching can become another way to serve. “Some get their USA Triathlon certification, while others have been competing for so long that they just do it,” Midgett said. “You see a need, want to do more, and give back to your sport because you love it.”

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About Phil White
Phil White is an Emmy-nominated writer and the co-author of The 17 Hour Fast with Dr. Frank Merritt, Waterman 2.0 with Kelly Starrettand Unplugged with Andy Galpin and Brian Mackenzie. Learn more at and follow Phil on Instagram @philwhitebooks.

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