Meet the Runner Determined to Get More Women of Color Coaching
Vanessa Peralta-Mitchell founded Game Changers, an organization committed to training women of color for running leadership positions.
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When Vanessa Peralta-Mitchell earned her Coaching Certification almost six years ago, she felt an overwhelming sense of isolation.
While sitting among a group of aspiring coaches, the runner, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador, realized she was the only woman of color in the room. What should’ve been an empowering educational moment made the mother of three from Norristown, Pennsylvania, feel intimidated to the point where she didn’t participate in most of the discussions.
“Getting myself to that room and then feeling like I didn’t belong in that room—my journey could have ended right there,” she said. “But seeing it through really propelled me into what I’m doing.”
The experience inspired Peralta-Mitchell to bring more women of color into the fold. In 2020, she launched Game Changers, a program that provides mentorship, career guidance, and funding to support women of color in becoming certified run coaches. The initiative aims to address a lack of representation among coaches in the running community. For example, only 7.3 percent of NCAA Division 1 head coaches are Black, Indigenous, or women of color, according to a 2022 study by the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport.
Now entering its third year, Game Changers continues to expand with 24 women participating in the 2023 cohort, up from 16 in the inaugural class.
“I think if we normalize run leadership looking like the rest of us, that’s when we can say that change is happening,” Peralta-Mitchell said.
Running Became a Way to Honor Women
Growing up in New Jersey, Peralta-Mitchell was active in sports, playing soccer, basketball, and softball throughout high school. While in college, she came home during a school break and watched a women’s sports documentary, “Dare to Compete: The Struggle of Women in Sports,” that inspired her. The film focused on the history of athletes who overcame inequities to participate in sports, including running. “I was really moved by what I was seeing,” Peralta-Mitchell said. “The fact that they fought so hard to give us those equal rights, I wanted to pay homage to these women in some way.”
At the time, the only running Peralta-Mitchell had done was in team sports. None of her friends or family members were runners, but she felt drawn to it because it was accessible. Right away, she set a long-term goal—to complete the New York City Marathon. In 2007, Peralta-Mitchell made her 26.2 debut at the Philadelphia Marathon, running 4:52. And in 2013, she finally met her goal, finishing the New York City Marathon in 4:55.
As one of the first people in her community to take up running, Peralta-Mitchell found herself in the unexpected position of being a source of information for friends and family interested in the sport. “I was becoming this expert among my peers, and I felt a level of responsibility to step up to that role,” she said.
She first learned about the opportunity to earn a certification through a friend, who wrote a Facebook post about the course hosted by Road Runners Club of America (RRCA). After digging deeper into the program, Peralta-Mitchell decided not to pursue it at first due to the cost and travel required to attend the two-day in-person session.
In 2017, challenging circumstances prompted a pivot. While seven months pregnant with her third child, Peralta-Mitchell was laid off from her job as a senior project manager, which led her to revisit the goal. Later that year, she took the nearest course, which was in New Hampshire, and became certified.
Aiming to Redefine the Industry
Over the years, as Peralta-Mitchell worked with different brands and companies that hired her as a run coach, she continued to notice an unsettling pattern.
“The people in charge, and the experts they brought in, were predominantly the same gender, same race. At all these different points, I was seeing this similar reel that was playing in my head,” she said. “I realized I would love to do something on my own.”
Before the pandemic, Peralta-Mitchell was set to host an in-person panel of running experts made up of women of color. In her search for panelists, she found that many of the candidates had a wealth of knowledge, but didn’t have certifications and weren’t aware they could earn them. When the pandemic forced her to cancel the in-person event, Peralta-Mitchell made the panel virtual and charged audience members a fee. A portion of that fee went towards funding certifications for five women of color. That initiative grew into Game Changers, which aims to “redefine the whole industry,” Peralta-Mitchell said.
“We’re going to show people that we, women of color, are just as much experts and leaders in this space as everyone else, that we’re the ones that belong in front of the room, that we belong on the mic, that we should be the ones being Googled and in the industry books,” she said.
Helping Women Build Coaching Careers
In creating the Game Changers program, Peralta-Mitchell partnered with RRCA, and together, they learned there are three main barriers for women of color earning a certification. The first is a lack of awareness of the opportunity. The second is the issue of access, and the third is cost (a Level 1 coaching certification course is $335). Because spots sell fast, RRCA now reserves a handful of spots for women of color in the Game Changers program. For the inaugural cohort in 2020, Peralta-Mitchell combined her own funds, a company donation, and contributions from friends to support the certification of 16 coaches.
In addition to the certification course, attendees of the Game Changers program earn their first aid certification, mentorship from a fellow woman of color who is a certified run coach, and access to a business strategist who helps them set long-term career goals. Those in the cohort are also paired with accountability partners who provide peer support.
“It’s not just about bringing women of color into this opportunity of being a coach,” Peralta-Mitchell said. “What kind of post-certification support do they need? How do we retain ourselves in this space?”
So far, 56 women have now become coaches through the program. Peralta-Mitchell said many are bringing running into their communities for the first time. For example, an Indigenous runner who lives on the Lummi Indian Reservation in Washington State built a program that’s designed to address the health needs of people in her area.
“The Game Changers program is helping to grow the sport in that way,” she said. “You have women who may not have thought about coaching, now through the Game Changers program are coaching and enabling others in their community to feel like they can run too.”
Peralta-Mitchell has also seen a ripple effect where mentees have inspired their mentors to take on new initiatives. For example, she said one mentor based in Texas was encouraged to create a 12-week beginner training program for her church.
This year, Game Changers is partnering with Brooks Running as a presenting sponsor. The team now consists of 75 women around the country, including 24 aspiring coaches in the 2023 cohort. For the first time, they will meet in person this fall, a big step toward the ultimate goal of giving voice to more underrepresented runners reshaping the industry.