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Episode 51 – Race Imboden, U.S. Olympian

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Race Imboden is a bronze medalist from the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in fencing. So you’re probably wondering what’s a fencer doing on a running podcast? In addition to his success in sport, Race made headlines as one of the top American athletes who has made a political statement and demonstration at a global championship. At the 2019 Pan American Games, he won a gold medal and took a knee during the national anthem. The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee placed him on a 12-month probation as a result of his actions. Imboden accepted the sanction but has never been silenced in his message against racism, gun violence, racial inequality and police brutality. Through his work with Everytown, an anti-gun violence organization, he’s looking to educate people and see change across the country. You’ll hear why this means so much to him in our conversation but also he will be a featured speaker at the next Running to Protest event in New York City.

Mark your calendars for Sunday, Feb. 21 at 10 a.m. at Washington Square Park. Follow @runningtoprotest for more information.

Follow Race Imboden on Instagram: @race_imboden


 

This is Runners of NYC. A biweekly podcast from CITIUS MAG. Hosts Leigh Anne Sharek and Chris Chavez look to bring you many of the untold stories behind luminaries and legends that make up New York City’s running culture. You can catch the latest episode of the podcast on iTunes so subscribe and leave a five-star review. We are also on Spotify!

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SHOW NOTES AND QUOTES

How he’s become a runner during lockdown…

“I had never in my life run for pleasure before…ever. Being a guy who has been training since he was nine years old at one sport, running part of what we did as a short part of our warmup and then it was the painstaking part of preseason. Sprints and fast-paced cardio was the sort of stuff that killed you. It was never something like, ‘Oh! It’s the weekend. I’m going to go out with my friends and we’re going to go running.’ And then, all of a sudden, lockdown hit. I was staying with my physical trainer out in California and we started realizing that the gyms were closed and we were dying to get back to moving but there was also an urge to do something different. There was an urge to find another way. Suddenly, it was ‘Let me try this thing that I’m awful at. I’m so bad.’ My body was not made for it. I was running but moving slowly. And then, I committed myself to it. I thought this is a way for me to get into that space where there’s pain and an urge to advance. As an athlete who is doing high-level sports, you’re always looking for a place to better yourself. You could see it very quickly. With running, you can start and then you’re changing your distance or changing your times and there are all these things to look at. I found a little bit of passion in it. I found some of the running protest groups and started to find this community in New York City and it took off from there.”

Connecting with Running to Protest…

“When (Chris) mentioned this protest run, a lot of the people I had grown up with were looking for things to do. There were all these different kinds of protests…For me, it’s always an ability when people combine the things they love. I love the concept of people going out and running to protest. The concept made so much sense to me. Especially since we’re in a time with COVID and people need to get outside and keep moving. I also think there’s an immense connection between being able to work out since it’s such a form of happiness for me. I can feel the difference when I’m in shape and healthy and taking care of myself. My mental health is better. All of those things are part of what this movement is about. The idea of this movement being so broad is what makes it special. It is to bring up systematic racism and to take care of that but we’ve seen Coffey now do indigenous people and now we’re going to highlight gun violence. There are so many places you can go to have an impact in social justice and reform. It’s brilliant to combine that with something that also brings happiness and establish a healthy environment for everyone.” 

The personal impact of gun violence

“We’ve had deaths that could have been avoided in my family because of gun violence. My grandmother committed suicide. That’s another massive part of gun violence prevention – it’s being able to help people and avoid people from having guns that could harm themselves. It’s not just gang violence or mass shootings…I think the stat is that every three days, a child is shot because a gun is not locked up properly and the ammunition is not separated. That’s been stuff I’ve been reflecting on. Being in the conversation and being a white person in the conversation of Black Lives Matter, there was a sense even for me to think, ‘Wow. This is a time for me to shut up and sit back.’ Well, yes, it is but I’m also competitive and I want to move and I want to do things. I was trying to find a lane for that as well. Everytown came to me and asked me to be part of their athlete council. They’ve been supportive of having me be in that…I talked and gave speeches at some of the rallies. I made it a point to go and meet survivors because I thought that was important. I want people to come to that same recognition and reflection with me at the beginning of this run. This is going to be something where I want them to hear from a gun violence survivor. I want them to hear from someone who may look like me. I think it’s important for people to realize that there are ways to be involved. In working with Coffey and Power Malu, New York is about everyone coming together. What makes New York special is community. What makes running special is community. Building that community and leading them to places where they really can affect change – especially in a city that’s so tightly compressed and has so much gun violence.”

Thoughts on Rule 50 binding athletes from protesting or demonstrating at the Olympics

“It’s not right. I’m on the social injustice council for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. We made the official recommendation after taking surveys and talking to the athletes on our council to ask for a reform of Rule 50. The USOPC has decided to back us but the same thing that’s going on in our communities at home is going on within our communities of sport. You see it being divided and there’s trust broken. There’s trust being rebuilt. There are conversations being had that have been very hard and haven’t happened because there hasn’t been a catalyst. We’ve had those catalysts. It’s a time to push and ask for change, especially for the community of color. As an athlete, you see such a diverse and strong team for the USA. It’s something that’s been coming for a while. To not be able to speak up when you’re an athlete just seems like a strange contradiction to me. You ask us to play a game for you and represent you. We do it and we do it to the best of our abilities. We’re the most winning team in the world. We are fantastically strong with a fantastic group of men and women athletes at the Games. But we’re people. We come from communities and represent those communities as well. We represent them and whatever it is we hold prideful whether that’s our religion and the garments that we wear because of it or whether it’s the color of our community or the safety of the water in our community like in places like Flint….these are all things that make athletes powerful. Where the Olympics really gets lost for me is that they ask us to come in and represent our countries for free and then tell us what we can and what we can’t do. They provide us with all these rules. You’ll sell our stories when you’re ready and when it’s good for you. The concept of being able to tell us when and when not to speak up seems a little strange to me. I think it’s inappropriate. You’ve seen the athletes say that now. Especially because Rule 50 is a rule that talks about silencing athlete protests and demonstrations and that have predominantly been athletes of color. You’re silencing almost a single group. That’s where it gets really tricky. They’ve had to realize that and they’ve had to stop that. The USOPC has been strong in supporting us and hopefully, the IOC will show the same smarts and get behind the athletes.”

Growth Over Time

“When you’re uncomfortable, you’re developing. When you’re pushing yourself outside of our boundaries and when everything seems terrible, that’s when the growth is happening. We can all relate to that. If you’ve ever done sports, when you walk away from that terrible day, you feel better about yourself. You always feel better about yourself. We can approach these conversations the same way. They do feel terrible. They will make you feel bad. They make everyone feel bad. No one is being attacked. It’s feeling bad on both sides. But when you walk away from it and things settle down and the emotions go back down and the adrenaline drops and you’re less guarded, you feel better. You’re able to come back. You’re able to come to the table again. It’s what makes us stronger. We need that as a nation. We need that in our communities. We need that in our sports.”

What If The Olympics Don’t Happen? What Happens to the Progress

“I think that everything is a step in the right direction. There’s definitely a conversation to be had about the way that we feel about these movements and the way it feels to be a part of them while taking ownership of anything. We want to say that we did this and we were a part of this or we did it first. Guys, we’re all late to the party. We were born yesterday. Most of the people who are here are young and hungry. It’s important but we’re not the first. We don’t own any part of this movement. No one owns any part of it, especially if you’re not a person of color. It’s something that we all have to share and drive for because it’s going to be for people that come a long time after us. I was just having a conversation the other day because we’re watching the Super Bowl and we see the things about race, which was essentially propaganda. I was saying that this is the stuff that we’ll look back on from the 80s and there’s a Black man in a butler uniform and you’re like, ‘Woah. That’s so crazy. I can’t believe they talked about that on television.’ We’re going to do the same thing in 50 years. We’re going to be like, ‘Look! We were trying to convince people that we’re not racist. We did it on TV in front of everyone. Watching the guys kneel in the NBA or watching the WNBA takeover with shirts and kneeling or even Megan Rapinoe and the USWNT  – there was this feeling like, ‘Damn. They did this. They’re doing this. Everyone is doing this now.’ That’s the goal. Everyone can do it. Yeah, the Olympics are canceled or passed on. The next Olympics is in one year with the Winter Olympics. There’s always an event. There’s always a place for it. The idea is to build these communities up and make everyone feel safe and strong so that their voices can be heard. The reason that we have these movements is because voices were not heard. People were scared. People were scared to lose their jobs. It was because of bad stuff happening. You have these giant organizations now going, “Ugh. We won’t do that. We can’t do that anymore.’ The reason is partly because there’s accountability and that comes from the people, the athletes, our friends and our families calling us out to have these conversations.”

“Yeah, it would be a bummer if there’s no Olympic Games because I feel like it would be a very political Games. But at the same time, I’m in fencing. I know that people forget the day after the Games are done that I go back to being a regular person. A million people could kneel at the Games and I don’t think you’d see a million people do it. You’re going to see a few special ones. That special one is important. But the idea that people felt comfortable to do that is so powerful for all the communities and all people. For people to be able to come and say what they want to say without worrying about the repercussions of losing monetary value or their families being hurt or being kicked out of the things that they want to do. That’s important. That’s the one thing I hope maintains and stays after all these movements.”


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