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When she went into the hospital to give birth to her daughter, Skylar, pro triathlete Chelsea Sodaro had a plan. “I’m kind of your Type A endurance athlete,” she joked. She wanted a natural birth and as few interventions as possible—partially for the health of the baby and partially for her own ability to recover well after. She had done her research and practiced for the big day. She’d taken a series of hypnobirthing with lessons she worked on outside of class. She was ready. “I was prepared and excited, kind of like a race,” she said.
Of course, like in a race, things don’t go according to plan.
When the baby’s heart rate started to drop, the doctors induced labor. When she wasn’t dilated enough, a balloon was inserted into her cervix. “Worst pain of my entire life,” she said. They were going to have to do it again, so she got pain meds and ultimately an epidural when labor started to stretch into 23 hours and exhaustion began to kick in. There were more meds to expedite labor and her water had to be broken by the doctors. It was nothing like the plan. But, ultimately, she had a healthy baby—which is the most important thing—and she was surprised by how OK she felt physically in the days and weeks after.
That makes a big difference when you have a big physical goal, and Sodaro has a big goal.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Sodaro, who was fourth and the first American at the 70.3 World Championships in 2019, had only just started to hit her stride as a professional triathlete after switching over from running. Burned out after failing to make the 2016 Olympics on the track, Sodaro had come over to the swim-bike-run world late that year and then started to find more success when she moved to the 70.3 distance in 2018, winning some of her first half-distance races.
Then races were canceled and pros put their livelihoods and plans on hold. It seemed like the perfect time for her and her husband, Steve, to welcome a baby into their family. But she wasn’t ready to give up her career or her goals of being the best either. She gave birth to her daughter on March 16. She plans to be back racing late this summer. In August, the first-ever Collins Cup will be held, with $1.5 million on the line as teams from the U.S. compete against Europe and a squad of international stars. And Sodaro wants to be on that start line as one of the women who qualify to represent the U.S. That means she’ll have to be on her A-game and at a qualifying race by early August, and then ready to back it up in Slovakia in late August. Plus, then, she plans to be back toeing the line at 70.3 Worlds in mid-September.
It’s an ambitious plan. But it’s also just one big goal of many that a number of pro triathlete moms are putting into action right now. Pros Mirinda Carfrae and Sarah Piampiano have both said they’ll be back defending their spots at the Ironman World Championships in October; both gave birth earlier this year. Joining Sodaro at the top of the list of women in line for American spots at the Collins Cup is Jocelyn McCauley, who also just had her second kid.
So how do you return to that high an athletic level post-childbirth in time to achieve these goals? And how do you do it in a way that’s healthy? You do your homework and you talk to the women who have done it before.
First, Sodaro talked to other women, like Carfrae, who had been through this before. Her old college teammate, Alysia Montaño has been advocating for mom athletes in the running world, and her former running coach, Magda Boulet, won Western States after having a kid. Piamipano, her training partner, was pregnant at the same time and they shared stories. Everyone told her: Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, take as much time as you need, and know it’s a very very individualized experience.
Then, she did her research and pre-birth homework. There was evidence that perineal massage helps minimize tearing—and tearing during birth can be brutal for many women—so she got real comfortable with massage. Evidence also suggests most women recover quicker and experience less physical trauma from a vaginal birth instead of C-section. She also started working with a pelvic floor PT specialist while still pregnant, because many women who want to return to activity struggle with pelvic floor issues.
She stayed on a training plan, with modifications, through 24 weeks of pregnancy, and swam and biked on the trainer up through 35 weeks. She even strength trained through the week of birth. The only time her doctor told her to pull back was on her due date. But it’s all relative. For someone who’s used to 25-30 hours of hard training per week, an easy jog at 11-minute miles wasn’t a physical stressor for her or the baby—but for someone else it might be. She had to listen to her body more, which can be hard for a pro athlete who’s used to pushing through things. Overall, though, the medical recommendations in recent years have become more individualized and have recognized that every mom is different, and that “we’re capable of a lot more while pregnant than we thought,” she said.
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Now it’s time to start getting on a training plan again, she said. For the first four weeks postpartum, she just moved. She was surprisingly able to walk outside two days after giving birth and could spin on the bike inside 11 days after—which she wasn’t expecting. A little after three weeks, she wasn’t bleeding anymore and didn’t have pain, so she got in the pool and did an easy 1500y (mostly with a pull buoy because her core was still weak). At six weeks, she was “exercising,” as she calls it—ie. not real training yet, but more than just movement.
Her and her husband moved closer to her parents for childcare and physically she’s been happy with how she’s felt, though the challenge of getting back to the run paces she’s used to will certainly be a big one. But the hardest part might simply be the unknowns, she said. There’s the fatigue of feeding a kid when you also need to be feeding yourself; there was postpartum anxiety that caught her off guard; and she wants to be able to enjoy motherhood and her family too. Maybe the best way to do that is to show her daughter what she is capable of too.
“It’s an opportunity to make my daughter really proud of me when she looks back,” Sodaro said. It’s a fun experiment, a new challenge, and a big goal.
You can follow along with Sodaro’s pregnancy and postpartum journey to the Collins Cup in a series produced by the PTO. You can watch the emotional first episode below and see the rest of the episodes on the PTO’s Youtube channel.