Being an Athlete Mom Isn't Selfish
It may bring some of the best life lessons you can teach your children
It looks like a good time right now to be a mom and an athlete. In my sport, triathlon, a newer mom, Chelsea Sodaro, just won the Ironman World Championship. Track and field, US Women’s Soccer and other Olympic sports still don’t talk enough about parenthood and how it affects sports, but it is becoming more a part of the conversation.
While parenthood affects all sports, I identify as female and a female athlete, and so this post will definitely reflect my experience as a female athlete and mother.
So, thanks to Chelsea and more, it may seem like a good time to be a female athlete and mother. Certainly, maternity leave for female athletes is groundbreaking. Not being dropped by your sponsors is groundbreaking. This bodes well for the future of professional female sports. And hopefully this new awareness will trickle down into female amateur sports. But my experience was far different.
I identify as an athlete. I played sports all through high school and college, playing field hockey at a very high level until I didn’t. When I left school, I left sports. There didn’t seem to be any professional opportunities for sport for me, and so I never even considered or pursued it. I took an active job and continued to lift weights, walk a lot, and hike. It’s hard not to separate sport from the body dysmorphia I carried, and I continued to thrash my body in an effort to control it and how I looked for years. But I didn’t actively participate in any organized sports.
As a mom and professional, I had colleagues who played sports. When I worked with adventure racers and Ironman athletes, I thought “wow, I wish I could do that.” It never occurred to me that I could - I had young kids, a job, and a ton of responsibilities. My partner then would not have thought to say “go do you.” Even if I felt physically capable, when?
That all changed when I went through a pretty horrific divorce that went on for years. After 6 months of drinking wine and wallowing on the couch when the kids would be off with their dad and his new partner, I got sick of myself. I went to a trainer and had big goals: Run a mile without stopping. Survive a spin class. He laughed. I finished my first 5k 3 weeks later and he asked what was next. Triathlon, I said. What’s that? He said.
So, We learned together and made lots of mistakes. I finished my first triathlon, the Strawberry Fields Tri in Ventura, less than 2 months after I got off that couch. It was a hot mess and I did just about everything wrong, but I FINISHED and I felt unstoppable. I did something that I thought I could not do. I wanted more.
Thus began my tri journey, which has included triathlons of almost all distances, over 20 half iron distance races and several full Ironmans. Years of coaching, swimming, biking, running, learning and growing. Finding a community that valued me for me, not as someone’s mom or partner. Helping others learn to love this sport, and in the process, themselves. I could go on all day about what I’ve learned, but this is about why it isn’t selfish, right?
Never once in my triathlon experience have I stood by a man who I knew also had kids and had someone ask them what their kids were doing while they were training. NEVER ONCE. Never once was it implied that they were a bad father because they worked during the week and here they were on a Saturday morning going for a ride, or out for a long run on a Sunday or at the pool while their kids were getting ready for school. And while this should be the default, because all parents deserve time to do the things they love and need to do for themselves, this was NOT my experience.
Where were my kids while I trained? What did they do? Did I miss them? Did I feel badly?
The answer is that sometimes it sucked for them. Sometimes they sacrificed. Sometimes I did. Sometimes I trained extra on days they were not in my care, and sometimes I ran around softball or soccer fields while they played, screaming and cheering as I ran loops. Sometimes I was the weirdo on a bike trainer next to the bleachers. Sometimes they got to swim with friends in the shallow end while I swam laps in the next lane. Sometimes they ate donuts and served coffee on the beach while I swam in the open water.
We adapted. We made do. They got dragged along to my events and training, just as I got dragged along to theirs. They sometimes complained and sometimes so did I. I remarried and my new partner was a musician who valued their alone time in the studio and understood I needed my training like they needed their studio time and therefore we adapted there too.
My kids learned that women can have a professional career, athletic pursuits, and a healthy relationship with their partner and family. My kids learned that doing all those things did not mean they did not care about ONE of those things, it meant that sometimes adult humans NEED their own interests and time for their mental health, and that they could be more understanding, empathetic parents when their needs were met.
Some of my kids joined in the fun, doing kids triathlons. Some did not, pursuing their own dreams. One went on to play college and pro women's rugby, until they could not due to too many head injuries. All the while, they learned that you need to pursue what makes you happy in order to be able to be happy with others.
I thought the pinnacle of my parenting/athlete life had been hit when I raced Ironman 70.3 Victoria this year. 2 of my 3 children racing with me. My son, daughter and I. My son got sick mid training cycle but still wanted to come support - and then got roped into running the 13.1 miles of a relay leg. My former pro rugby player daughter had decided to try her first triathlon because “how hard can it be if my mom does it?” It was a crazy weekend of answering questions, making fun of ourselves and pushing each other. At the finish line with the two of them, I could not have been prouder.
But the lessons were not done.
Despite barely finishing the Victoria race, my daughter Phoebe got a slot to the 2022 70.3 World Championships in St George Utah. I wasn’t intending to go back to race in St George, but I wasn’t going to miss that, so I took a slot of my own too. Phoebe cried at the Victoria finish because she could not believe she had done it. When she took her Worlds slot, we looked at each other and I said “you can’t just show up for Worlds and hope to finish. It’s time to learn.”
And learn she did. We got her a better bike that fits her. She learned about bike fit, electronics and syncing workouts (not her forte), and she swam and ran more than she ever has. We met in St George for a few days and I pushed her as hard as she ever worked as a pro rugby player (just differently). She worked her ass off.
Come race week, she came early. She had read the Athlete Guide. She was annoyed at all the people who showed up for a World Championship unprepared. She brought her A game, and was decidedly less cocky than her first race. AND SHE SMASHED IT.
This is not a race report, but suffice it to say that during our last trainings together, I knew she would. And I knew the day when she would beat me would come sooner rather than later, but racing on the same course as her but not racing her inspired the hell out of me. I wasn’t ABOUT to let her beat me, but I was inspired to push harder and run faster. I looked for her, but ran my own race. We yelled and cheered for each other when we passed each other on a couple out and backs.
And my first question, after completing my own race, was “Where is my baby?” And she was coming in fast behind me, and almost beat my time but she didn’t. We can be family, we can support each other, AND we can be competitors. We can care about others AND OUR OWN RACE.
Triathlon is a single person sport, but anyone who is in it, knows it is so much about community. And actually, that is part of the beauty of it - taking care of oneself and also caring about a community. That’s a huge lesson right there, for me, my kids and actually everyone. You can take care of both.
So, sure, there were times when it seemed and felt selfish to be an athlete and a mom. But I believe wholeheartedly that the lessons my kids learned from me training day in and day out, being committed to getting better, showing up for myself, for them, for others, and from competing far outweigh the sacrifices we all made. And maybe the sacrifices made were actually really important parts of the lessons too.
It’s not going to be easy. You will succeed, you will fail, you will make sacrifices, so will those you love, you will keep showing up, it will be worth it.
That’s where my children were while I was training.