Ski to Sea is a huge part of the sports community in Whatcom County, but the upcoming May event almost lost a big part of the tradition.
After only four teams competed in the Whatcom County women's division last year, the section dedicated to local female athletes was on the chopping block.
Pete Coy, the race director, sent out a newsletter which stated the division would be cut if 10 teams were not signed up by the registration deadline.
Whatcom County women weren't having any of that.
Heather Nelson, a local paddler, along with fellow friends and competitors made it their goal to save the division and the tradition of Ski to Sea.
"Ski to Sea is a celebration of Bellingham at its core," Nelson said in a phone interview. "It's grown and now international elite athletes come from all over the world. But at the heart of it, it's still a celebration of Bellingham. The Whatcom County women's division gives local talent a chance to show their stuff. If they ended up cutting it, it would take away a big part of the race."
Nelson, 41, along with her fellow female athletes, gathered together and rallied to save the division. Now, 11 teams have signed for the the section - more than enough to keep it alive.
The group gathered support by finding sponsors - which included Core PT and Core Kinectics Pilates - and started spreading the word about the race.
"We just told them what we were doing," Nelson said. "We put our efforts out there and were able to reach women."
The difficulty lies in finding eight women - all from Whatcom County - to compete on one team. With 11 teams, there needs to be 88 Whatcom female athletes - a number quite daunting to the group.
"Overall, it's just really challenging for women," Nelson said. "Women are having children and working. A lot of things going on and going to a race isn't a top priority."
If one of the women on the team is unable to race due to a pregnancy or other matter and she is replaced with someone not from Whatcom County, the entire team is forced to compete in the open division, Nelson said.
"It's normal to have less women than men in any sport," Nelson said. "We had to reach out and bring the women back as a group."
Nelson, who is a mother of two kids, hasn't had a problem keeping her team together for seven years. Six of the eight members on the team are from the original group.
"Once you got your family life and work life, it's different things going on," Nelson said. "It's common for women to not put themselves first. Racing in Whatcom County, there is a closeness. My team has been together seven years and we want to bring that group dynamic and share it with other teams."
Nelson's kids - Hayden, 5, and Jazlyn, 2, - can get in the way of training but Nelson and her husband, Brandon, who also competes, make a schedule and stick to it.
"It is definitely a challenge," Nelson said. "We do a lot of 'I go, then you go' and swap between kids and training. A big part of how we are successful is we are very regimented. Create a schedule and work with it."
Nelson encourages any female athletes to approach any of the women participating in Ski to Sea and ask how to get involved. It's what they're there for, she said.
"Just try it," Nelson said to any curious females. "Women will say 'I'm not that good or I'm out of shape.' Whatever fears you have, put them aside. Just go have fun. Cross the barrier and you make friends and get fit. All that comes, but you have to take the first step."
Reach Joshua Hart at firstname.lastname@example.org.