Nicholas Turco is working to create a more inclusive college and trail running community. This 22-year-old University of Colorado Boulder (CU) student is researching the sports climate for LGBTQ student-athletes at his university and fundraising for an endowment project that aims to increase inclusivity of the LGBTQ community within NCAA sports. At the same time, he’s also taking his first steps towards becoming a trail runner on the elite level.
I met Turco for the first time when he was performing pre race “strides” the day before the 2020 USATF Trail Marathon Championships in Moab, Utah. He placed an impressive 6th in a competitive field. This performance earned him entry into the elite field at the prestigious Mont Blanc Marathon in Chamonix, France this upcoming June 2021.
Increasing Visibility and Allyship for The LGBTQ Running Community
I could tell from watching Turco’s gazelle-like strides that he was a speedy runner, but little did I know the even greater “strides” Turco was making towards establishing a more inclusive running community. Turco speaks humbly on the issue of underrepresentation by minority groups in the running community, “My experience as a gay runner is only my experience. There’s so many people and different lived experiences that I want to be cautious about speaking for the whole community.” Continued Turco, “The most important thing anyone can do is to be willing to listen to other people and ask questions. Be open to talking to people about what their lives are like. This holds true with regards to LGBTQ communities or any underrepresented minority in sports.”
For Turco, visibility of minority groups is one of the keys to better diversifying our sport, “Whenever people see someone like them doing something they want to do it’s powerful. When Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman on the Supreme Court, it let other women know that they could do the same. Visibility alone is a big deal. It tells young people growing up that they can belong anywhere.”
Joseph Gray, 18-time US champion and professional trail runner for Hoka One One, has been similarly outspoken about visibility for Black runners in trail running, “If we look at media and running related journals and blogs you see a huge disparity concerning inclusion of Black culture within articles and Black athletes used for ads. How can I or other Black athletes inspire the next generation of Black trail runners if we aren’t seen?”
In addition to visibility, Turco is inspired by the role of “allies” in diversifying our sport. Allies, or those who affirm and support minority groups even if they themselves aren’t a minority, can play a huge role in making positive changes for our sport.
“You can be the only gay person on your team but it doesn’t matter if you have really good friends who make you feel accepted. Having people that surround you and know you belong on the team is essential. Allies are people who are willing to go the extra mile and say that you being different is awesome. Allyship is key to inclusion. I have found friends and allies here in Boulder, CO and not a day goes by that I am not grateful for them.”
In recent years, major advancements in NCAA policy have been made to accept and further include the LGBTQ community in college sports. But policy alone doesn’t lead to more inclusion. This is where Turco’s research at CU takes a closer look at what we should be doing to make running more inclusive.
“When it comes to governing bodies such as NCAA or USATF, what they provide are recommendations. They do have authority, but the power when it comes to including people has to do with what institutions, teams, athletes and coaches are actually doing. The NCAA is doing great with its recommendations for LGBTQ and inclusion for transgender athletes, but that’s only part of the solution,” continues Turco. “What’s the culture like at the school? That’s what my project dives into. We know that policy for LGBTQ athletes is really high and positive at supporting the LGBTQ community at CU.”
Turco cites a tool in his research known as the Athlete Equality Index which measures LGBTQ inclusion policies in collegiate athletic spaces for universities across the country. CU recently achieved a high score of 95/100 on the Athlete Equality Index, making it one of the top scoring schools in the PAC-12. “It’s awesome that the policy at CU scores highly on its alignment with NCAA recommendations, but what’s the culture on these teams like? Those things can be the same or different. I’m interviewing athletic staff, coaches and athletes over Zoom video conferences to better understand the sports climate for LGBTQ athletes here at CU.”
Turco’s project doesn’t just stop with research. He’s currently in the middle of a fundraising effort which could greatly diversify the college athletic scene at CU.
“We’re starting the first-ever endowment for LGBTQ NCAA athletes and allies. I’m working with the philanthropy arm of CU to fundraise. It’s our goal to raise one million dollars to give full scholarships to one athlete and one ally per year who come forward with a project proposal to work on for their four years at CU that advances diversity and inclusion in athletics.”
In addition to school donors, he’s also working with local running groups Run Boulder Athletic Club and the Boulder Harriers to come up with donation campaigns to kickstart fundraising. Turco’s research project and fundraising will be completed in the coming months, which will help foster changes in the NCAA sports climate to be more inclusive of LGBTQ athletes.
Keep an eye out for Turco on the top of the elite trail running scene. He comes from a traditional running background of road and cross country running and is currently coached by two-time Olympian Kathy Butler. He wants to continue this path in traditional running, but is rekindling his love of trail running and wants to include more trail running and racing in his schedule.
About his running future Turco said, “The disciplines in the sport of running can feed into and support each other into the athlete you want to be. I take joy in running fast on the roads and cross country courses. I love the traditional running experience, but running trails like Moab is something special that adds to my ability as an athlete. Overall, I think trail running is the kind of running that I’ll be able to excel in at the elite level the most. My goal is to be patient and remind myself that I have time to do everything I want.”