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Correction: This article was corrected to clarify that USA Triathlon has a policy extending benefits and stipends to national team athletes during pregnancy and for up to a year after. This policy has been in place for the last two years.
As training partners, professional triathletes Chelsea Sodaro and Sarah Piampiano have shared many miles together: Riding their sleek carbon bikes along the rolling roads along the coastline near their northern California homes, running for hours side-by-side on dusty trails, or meeting up on pool decks for early morning swim sessions.
In the past few months, however, the pair has shared more than just training time. They’re both brand-new first-time moms, their babies born within weeks of each other last month. And, once they’re ready, the highly-accomplished women plan to return to triathlon and once again compete against each other on the world’s stage. In the meantime, they’re still collecting paychecks as pro athletes, thanks to a brand-new maternity leave policy from the Professional Triathletes Organization (PTO).
Though coming back to an elite level of sport after pregnancy is not necessarily novel, being paid during the time off is. In fact, Sodaro, 32, and Piampiano, 41, are two of the first pro triathletes to benefit from the PTO’s maternity leave policy. Launched in November, the policy entitles women to take up to 15 months off while retaining an income through pregnancy, including up to six months after the baby has arrived. The athlete’s PTO rankings will also remain fixed throughout that timeframe. So, if they return to the sport within six months, Sodaro and Piampiano will still be ranked 11th and 12th, respectively, in the world.
The Start of a Change
Just a few years ago, the landscape for women in triathlon–and many other sports–looked drastically different and maternity leave coverage for athletes simply did not exist. For decades, many women, whether they wanted to or not, were all but expected to start a family once their competitive days were well behind them.
Concerns over the lack of paid maternity leave in professional sports came to a head in 2019 when Allyson Felix, arguably the most successful American track athlete in history, revealed that her sponsor, Nike, wanted to pay her 70% less after she gave birth to her daughter, Camryn, in November 2018. Other athletes followed with their own tales of bias: Olympian marathon runner Kara Goucher revealed that when she had her son, Colt, in 2010, she was told by Nike executives that she wouldn’t be paid until she started racing again, which lead her to race a half-marathon just three months after giving birth. She went on to place fifth at the Boston Marathon in a personal best of 2:24:52, hoisting a 7-month-old Colt on her hip at the finish line. Back then, we celebrated her tenacity and her ability to rewrite the timeline on postpartum fitness. But, as Goucher later shared, the rushed return to competition in order to earn a paycheck resulted in a debilitating hip injury and took an emotional toll she still struggles with to this day.
While the outcry following Felix’s story lead to Nike, as well as other major apparel companies, adding maternity protections for their sponsored athletes, there was still no such policy furnished for professional triathletes as a whole. USA Triathlon, the governing body of the sport in the U.S., did add a policy two years ago for their national team athletes—any athlete who qualifies for their elite athlete health insurance or a national team stipend will continue to receive those benefits during pregnancy and for an additional year after. And while some sponsors do have maternity clauses built into their contracts, “not all of them do, and there’s also room to grow in terms of what those clauses look like,” said Piampiano, who admitted she worried that she would wind up in a similar situation to Goucher’s when she contemplated starting a family.
“One of my biggest concerns and fears about becoming a mom was the postpartum period and feeling pressured, whether self-imposed or otherwise, to get back to training ASAP,” she said. “As an athlete there is the inevitable stress around getting back into shape and performing at a high level, as well as getting back into competition. So many women aren’t afforded this same time with their families. And, for many of us, particularly within the sport of triathlon, there are financial stresses associated with time away from the sport. Historically, many women have really pushed their bodies to come back quickly in order to get a paycheck.”
Not to mention the pressure involved in having to climb back up the rankings ladder once returning to the sport. Triathlon, like tennis, has started ranking professional athletes based on points accrued in competition. The rankings can determine how much money an athlete makes in sponsor agreements or bonuses–the PTO, for example, paid its top 100 ranked athletes year-end bonuses ranging from $100,000 to $5,000 at the close of 2020–to entry into coveted races with big prize purses, like the Collins Cup.
The Points Chase
And, like tennis, triathlon did not historically protect the rankings of female athletes if they temporarily stepped away from competition to have a baby. This can be a devastating blow to even the most heralded champions: Just look at Serena Williams, who plunged from the top ranked woman in the world to 453rd after taking time off to have her daughter in 2018. (When Williams spoke up about the bias against working moms and the antiquated rankings system, the World Tennis Association eventually amended their maternity leave policy to allow “special rankings” to stand for three years.)
British triathlete Rachel Joyce, 42, faced a similar fate in 2017 when she returned to the sport after having her first son, Archie. Joyce, now retired and the co-president of the PTO, had been on the podium at the Ironman World Championships in 2013, 2014, and 2015. But she said her racing resume was virtually obliterated after she took the 2016 season off for her pregnancy.
“It was like all history had been wiped away,” Joyce said. “It didn’t matter that I was second in the world a year before. I had no choice but to go out and race and chase points.”
In order to earn a berth to the Ironman World Championships in 2017, Joyce set off on an arduous path to earn the minimum amount of Ironman qualifying points to get on the start list. She raced four Ironmans in five months, even winning Ironman Mont Tremblant in August of 2017, less than a year after giving birth. At the time, Joyce chalked up the exhausting chase to “all part of the job.” It wasn’t until she discussed the situation with eventual PTO chairman Charles Adamo that she realized “the ridiculousness of it all.” The conversation, she said, led to this change, supported by the deep pockets of billionaire Michael Moritz, the organization’s main investor.
“As we built the PTO, we decided to make it a priority to protect women who become pregnant,” Joyce said, adding that several other PTO board members and athletes, including Piampiano and multiple Ironman champion Meredith Kessler, were involved in structuring the policy last fall. “The rationale is that most women won’t be able to race during this period, so they would otherwise lose out on their PTO annual bonus. No one should ever be penalized for getting pregnant.”
However, Joyce’s Kona chase wouldn’t necessarily have been changed by the new PTO policy. The PTO rankings are run and administered by the PTO—not Ironman. While the PTO rankings take Ironman performances into account along with other key races, the two organizations don’t currently coordinate on policies. The process for a pro to earn a spot to Kona is determined solely by Ironman and has since changed, in part because of Joyce’s experience, to require a simple slot allocation at a qualifying race—not a points chase—but that is true for all athletes, mothers or not.
Bringing Home the Bacon
To date, there are 11 female pros receiving maternity leave coverage from the PTO, including Piampiano, Sodaro, Mirinda Carfrae, and Radka Kahlefeldt. A handful of men, including PTO co-president Tim O’Donnell (and Carfrae’s husband) have also taken advantage of the parental leave policy, which offers up to four months leave from the date they become a parent. (The PTO also offers up to six months of compassionate leave for any woman who suffers a miscarriage.)
The amount of money a triathlete receives during this time is determined via a formula created by the PTO that calculates loss of earnings based on their PTO ranking at the time she becomes pregnant—an indicator of what she might have earned in annual bonus. For example, if a woman is ranked fifth in the world and becomes pregnant on April 1, she would be entitled to a $60,000 bonus payment at the end of a year, paid monthly in $5,000 installments from her pregnancy date. She’d also collect $15,000 (her “already earned bonus”), totaling $90,000 over 15 months.
While Sodaro and Piampiano both say they would have started a family this year regardless of whether they received maternity leave coverage, the unexpected peace of mind has taken the pressure off.
“I actually got a bit emotional when I found out about the maternity leave policy,” Sodaro said. “As a female athlete, there is a lot of stress and fear that goes into the decision to get pregnant and take time away from competing. To me, the PTO maternity policy says, ‘female athletes are valuable, we need them in sport, and their well-being is a priority for us.’ Women shouldn’t have to choose between starting a family and pursuing sport at the highest level.”
Sodaro, who was the top American female at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in 2019, believes she has even better races ahead of her. But as much as she wants to compete again, she’s also eager to soak in her time as a new mom and focus on her daughter–and herself.
“I’ll have a little bit of breathing room to find my form again. I’ll be able to recover properly and set myself up for the best possible return to racing. I am eager to get back to fitness and back to racing. It’s my job and my passion and what I love to do,” she said. “But, like all mothers, we should have the room to enjoy the beginning of a child’s life.”