Nicole DeBoom: Changing Women’s Sports with a Skirt and a Smile
It was a dreary, cloudy winter day in December 2003. I was a professional triathlete on an off-season training run, slogging along in all-black men’s training clothing that was clearly not made to fit my body as it pinched, prodded and just plain bothered me. To top it off I was wearing a beanie that made my head look like a peanut. As I ran by a full-length storefront window, I checked myself out and thought, “I look like a boy,” followed by, “I’m totally uninspired,” followed by, “Why can’t I wear clothing that actually looks cute?”
Bingo! A lightbulb went off as the word “cute” turned to “pretty” and visions of a future world that included flattering, great-fitting, women’s performance wear swirled in my head. I cut my run short and started scribbling notes the minute I got home. In those few minutes, I decided that I would start a women’s clothing company. Not only that, I decided I would single-handedly change the unattractive, ill-fitting, “shrink it and pink it” industry with the introduction of something revolutionary — a running skirt.
I didn’t say it was rocket science. In fact, that was the beauty of my idea: I wasn’t inventing a skirt, I was simply inventing a new use for a skirt. Skirts were already prevalent in many sports, including tennis, golf, lacrosse and bar-hopping, but they just had never been used in running or triathlon.
I spent 2004 consumed by this idea. I was committed to creating a product that would solve all the problems of the shorts world. No more pulling fabric out of your crotch every few steps. No more chafing. And if you wore the only alternative to running shorts — spandex shorts — no more showing-everyone-everything-you-got!
As I worked on this project, I didn’t quit my day job. In fact, I decided to register for the 2004 IRONMAN Wisconsin, a race that I had a chance to win. I decided to test my idea on the battlefield and had a home-sewn prototype created for the marathon run of the IRONMAN.
Race day came and I had momentum! I came off the bike in third place and as I shuffled into the transition, I knew I was going to do it. I snapped on that little loincloth-styled race belt skirt and headed onto the hilly course in the heart of Madison.
The first few miles felt surprisingly good, considering I had already been swimming and cycling for 6.5 hours. As the third woman, I had a lead bike escort. The crowds were raucous — it was a football weekend at the University of Wisconsin. As I ran toward the bigger crowds, they were excited to see the third-place woman. They cheered me on as I went by, “Go third woman!”
But it was what I heard after I passed that created a jolt of energy I had never felt before in a race. They saw that I was wearing the skirt, and they asked out loud, “What is she wearing? Is she wearing a skirt?” They were curious. They were excited. They even seemed proud of me — I was doing something so different, they didn’t know what to make of it, so to them, I was innovating on the race course.
I continued to pass crowds in waves of excitement. But instead of fading, the waves kept pushing me. It was unlike any race I had ever done — it was a constant buzz of positivity. The temperature rose and hit 90 degrees. I was heating up, so I started dumping water over my head to keep my core temperature down. That’s when I realized the skirt was more than moral support — she was literally holding onto the water and coolly swishing against my thighs with each step. She was a natural cooling mechanism!
I continued running, gaining strength with every crowd I passed. At some point I passed the second woman. By the start of the second loop, the first-place woman was in sight. The skirt kept me grounded. She helped me stay aware of my body with a light swish here and there. She had my back (or maybe she had my butt!). Just as importantly, she was driving the positive energy that flowed from the crowds. She gave me the strength to make a strong pass — and then I was leading! The chick in a skirt — or as the crowds called me, “The Skirt!” — was now in first place.
I kept running. Though it was tough and painful, I widened my lead to more than five minutes. All I had to do was finish. One foot in front of the other. Again and again and again. And suddenly there it was: the finish line. It was mine, all mine. I ran across the line with a mix of disbelief, happiness and, yes, exhaustion too. I won the race! Wearing a skirt!
Moments later, on national TV, I was asked how I felt and instead of praising my performance and calling attention to my skirt, I said, “I don’t know, but I’m exhausted. I need a nap.” I NEED A NAP? That’s what I said on national TV? Clearly I needed to work on my media training, but I would have time for that.
The most important decision of my career actually came three days later when I incorporated the name Skirt Sports and officially created my business. I launched my first running skirts into the market in February 2005 at an expo in Austin, and sold hundreds of skirts to women who had no idea what they were but needed to have one!
The business took off. In May 2005, Runner’s World featured a small product hit called “Tough Girls Wear Skirts,” and we literally sold a thousand skirts in a few weeks. The running skirt category was official.
The early days were a blur. I was shifting from an athlete to an entrepreneur, and I loved it! All the energy and passion I found in racing was seamlessly transferred into my new business. It was a thrill ride, mostly due to the fact that I was learning so much every day — something that my racing career could not offer. Building a brand is hard work, but when you are pursuing your passion, it doesn’t feel like work. I was often asked what I did for fun. My answer? “I work.” I don’t know if this was a good answer, and it’s clearly not a life-balance kind of answer, but I honestly believe that it is the only way to get something much bigger than yourself off the ground. You must become it. It must become you.
“If you can find a way to fuel yourself with positivity, you can overcome anything and your positivity will be contagious, helping countless others around you.”
Yet merging yourself with your business is not always sustainable. After a few years of burning the candle at both ends, I realized that I was not invincible. My marriage was showing signs of wear-and-tear. The adrenaline that had driven me for years was wearing off as I started getting sick. Old injuries that I ignored were rearing their ugly heads. I was blinded by my passion. I was doing too many junk miles and fueling myself with the wrong nourishment. It was time to make some changes if I wanted to do this for the long term.
The first thing I did was cut out a crutch that had plagued me for decades: drinking. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be any fun if I didn’t drink, but the truth is, I’m just as fun, AND I wake up feeling great everyday. I also make good decisions that help me go forward in life, instead of taking half steps backward.
Shortly afterward, I did some soul-searching and realized that while I thought I never wanted to have a kid, I had changed my mind – AND IT WAS OKAY TO ADMIT IT! The beautiful thing is that my husband, Tim, had also changed his mind and so we became parents at 40.
Today I’m a 44-year-old mom of a four-year-old, business owner, founder of a non-profit that helps women change their lives, and former pro athlete who is constantly trying to find new ways to keep my body in shape that fit into my schedule.
I have learned that the key to a happy life is to fill it with things that make you smile. I have been faced with countless obstacles along the way, and I can tell you this: attitude is everything. If you can find a way to fuel yourself with positivity, you can overcome anything and your positivity will be contagious, helping countless others around you.
Remember that girl who won the IRONMAN with a skirt and a smile? Sometimes that’s all it takes.
Born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, Nicole DeBoom was a standout swimmer, qualifying for the 1988 Olympic Trials and later graduating from Yale University. She decided to pursue the sport of triathlon, and a lucky seat assignment on a flight to the 1995 ITU World Championships introduced her to her future husband Tim DeBoom (future two-time IRONMAN World Champion). Nicole started racing professionally in 1999, racking up countless podium finishes. Her triathlon career culminated in a win at the 2004 IRONMAN Wisconsin, wearing a prototype of the first-ever running skirt — a skirt that would launch a revolution in women’s fitness clothing just a few months later. Nicole founded Skirt Sports in September 2004 with the mission of helping women find inspiration, confidence and courage through the transformative power of running and fitness. Today, Skirt Sports is a national women’s apparel brand offering a full line of products that fit real women’s bodies and support their busy running lives. Currently, you can find Nicole chatting with customers at the Skirt Sports Boulder flagship store, helping women change their lives through her non-profit organization Running Start, interviewing visionaries for her popular podcast Run This World and chasing around her four-year-old girl, Wilder.