This Elite Running Team Is Hell-Bent On Increasing BIPOC Representation In the Sport
The five women who make up Angel City Elite are on a mission to encourage younger generations to start running and empower older athletes to stick with it.
While standing at the starting line of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials back in 2020, Sabrina De La Cruz glanced around at the pack of elite runners surrounding her. The Los Angeles native and Mexican American was one of the 390 competitors — all of whom had finished a marathon in 2 hours 45 minutes or faster within the last three years — but the overwhelming majority of them looked nothing like her, De La Cruz tells Shape.
"I feel like I had been kind of aware of the lack of representation [of BIPOC runners], but I was shocked because I saw it with my own eyes," she recalls.
On paper, the skewed racial makeup of the sport is just as blatant. A survey from The New York Times of more than 300 runners who qualified for the marathon trials found that 92 percent of them were white. By comparison, only 1 percent of respondents identified as Black, 1 percent as Asian, and 5 percent as "other," according to the survey. But instead of feeling ostracized by those stats, De La Cruz says she became driven to change them. "That's when I knew that I needed to do something other than sponsor myself and look out for myself," she says. "I had to look out for BIPOC running communities, too."
De La Cruz says she knew she'd have a bigger impact by collaborating with others, so she started calling up other distance runners she'd met over the years, including Grace Zamudio, Valerie Sanchez, Grace Gonzales, and Andrea Guerra. By March 2021, the five women had formed Angel City Elite and scored a team sponsorship from Brooks Running. Now, they're officially on a mission to improve BIPOC representation in the sport. "Our vision was just to make the running community more inclusive and become a community where, no matter your skin color or race, you can achieve your goals," explains De La Cruz. (Related: Lululemon's New Campaign Highlights the Need for Inclusivity In Running)
One of the key steps to fulfilling that mission is lifting the roadblocks that prevent or discourage younger BIPOC generations from picking up the sport in the first place. Based on her personal experience, De La Cruz says teens of minority groups might not know they can score college scholarships for running, and the lack of BIPOC folks landing sponsorships and appearing on magazine covers doesn't motivate them to try out for a team, either. That's why Angel City Elite is hoping to speak at high schools throughout the Los Angeles area, shedding light on the scholarships available, the travel perks, and the resources that can be provided to those who compete after college, she says. (Related: Olympic Runner Alysia Montaño Is Helping Women Choose Motherhood and Their Career)
"My biggest dream is that I want someone when they're 13 or in high school to say, 'I competed because I saw you guys on social media or a magazine cover,'" says De La Cruz. "I want to influence someone in that way because that's the reason why I started [running]. I was influenced by a Latina woman who I wanted to be like — she was a senior in my high school and she convinced me to try out for the track team. Hopefully, I can be that to other people."
Angel City Elite is rallying around BIPOC runners who are further along in their careers, as well. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it tough for the team to train together in person, but over the next two years, they're aiming to mentor post-collegiate athletes, says De La Cruz. Along with encouraging these runners to attend the team's workouts and runs, Angel City Elite will act as a support system that helps them hit their athletic and personal potential, she explains. To get spread their message, the team is also planning to sponsor a mile of the L.A. Marathon, collaborate with other groups to hold running events, and compete in track events and marathons, says De La Cruz. In doing so, Angel City Elite can inspire younger generations to join their school's team, as well as assure sub-elite BIPOC runners that they can compete at the pro level if they put in the work. And down the line, they're planning to expand the Angel City Elite team, welcoming qualifying athletes of all cultures, races, and backgrounds, she adds.
And by raising awareness, competing in races, and empowering those who have been left out of the sport of running, De La Cruz says Angel City Elite has the potential to ultimately change the running community as a whole — all the way to the most premier arena. "All BIPOC individuals should be given the chance to compete at a high level, but I feel like we don't have the advantage, either because of [a lack of] resources or not understanding that running could potentially help you succeed in life," she says. "I feel like [if we] give the chance to a younger person who is willing to put in the work, who knows, maybe one day we'll have another Mexican American who is able to be in the Olympics and win gold."