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Juggling Triathlon & Parenthood

Many of the issues female professional triathletes face when considering motherhood are universal.

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Many of the issues female professional triathletes face when considering motherhood are universal. Others are unique to athletes, especially when a race-ready body is a job requirement. We chatted with a handful of pros about their hopes, plans and choices regarding parenthood, and how these things fit in and around their triathlon careers. Here’s what they had to say.

Nikki Butterfield (29), the 2012 Abu Dhabi International winner, and husband Tyler, also a professional triathlete and Olympian, are parents to Savana Rose, born Dec. 22, 2010. Nikki’s athletic career began in triathlon, switched to cycling, and looped full-circle back to triathlon in 2011, a mere five months after giving birth.

I’ve wanted to start a family since I was very young. I just had to wait until we weren’t traveling as much and Tyler was ready, too. The pull on me was getting stronger and stronger, and eventually it was all I could think about. I love racing, training and trying to get the best out of myself, but at the end of the day it’s my job. My family is what is most important to me. If I was racing now without Savana I think I would be very unsatisfied with my life.

Tyler always had in his mind that I would return to triathlon after we had Savana, but I didn’t start to think about it at all until late in my pregnancy. I had quite a few complications before Savana, so all I cared about was having a healthy baby. I was on semi-bed rest for the first 16 weeks of my pregnancy. From then on I would walk two or three times a week for half an hour and swim twice a week. The exercise was just to get out of the house and get some fresh air. I put on 40 pounds. After I had Savana I was dying to shed my pregnancy weight, which is what got me out the door in those early days. I wasn’t motivated to get back to racing at all—I just wanted to feel like myself again. I didn’t expect to race well for at least a year, but then I jumped into an ITU race in Europe and finished second.

My life is a balancing act in terms of spending time with Savana and getting in the training I need to be competitive. I have my moments where I don’t want to leave her. I love to train but I always question if I am being the best mom I can be. Now that Savana is a year old, I feel much better about it. I remind myself that most moms would be fortunate to only work part-time for the first year of their child’s life. It’s time for me to go back to work now. The days when I don’t feel like training hard, that is my motivation—to save enough so I don’t have to work if I don’t want to when we have our next baby, and to achieve enough that I feel content with my career when I choose to stop racing.

2010 Ironman Coeur d’Alene champion Linsey Corbin (31) and her husband, Chris, have been together for 10 years, and are perfectly content with their family of three (including golden retriever Madison).

I really enjoy the freedom of my pro triathlete lifestyle. There are things I want to accomplish—both in my career and for enjoyment, such as travel—and I’m not sure how a child would fit into the picture. Mainly though, a big personality trait of mine is that I am impatient! I don’t think I have what it takes to raise children and do a good job at it, which is really scary to me. Just like triathlon, I don’t want to do something and only do it halfway. It’s all or nothing. I don’t think I’m prepared to be in the “all” category as a mother.

I simply don’t have that maternal instinct. People insist this will come over time, but I’ll be honest—it just isn’t there. Chris and I have always been on the same page regarding what we want our future to look like, and raising a family hasn’t been a part of that. We both love to be around kids, though. They say the darndest things and they make you appreciate the small things in life. I hope all my friends keep being mamas so I can be a great auntie to them all!

I don’t feel as much pressure to have kids as you would expect. Times are changing for sure, and women are having children much later in life. If anything, the reaction I hear is: You will change your mind. Perhaps this is true, but for right now I don’t see it happening.

2010 Ironman World Champion Mirinda Carfrae (31) is certain she wants to add the title of “mother” to her résumé—once her racing career has wrapped.

I’m super close with my young niece and nephews, so I can’t wait to have my own little ones. I stay with them when I’m home in Brisbane and it really is nonstop action with those three beauties running around. It gets a bit crazy but I absolutely love it!

For that exact reason, I plan on waiting until I’m done racing to have kids. I have huge respect for people who can do both—I find it amazing actually! I seriously do not understand how anyone can juggle that much at once. Trying to balance the training, recovery, nutrition and racing alone is pretty full-on. Kids are the same, except you also have to be super-flexible. Their schedules and needs change all the time. I know myself well enough to know that I couldn’t possibly handle it all simultaneously. I can’t even imagine it! I’m more the type who just tries to do one thing at a time very well. For now I’ll stick to being a world champion athlete—later hopefully I can be a world champion mom.

Becky Lavelle (37) gave birth to daughter Caitlin on June 15, 2010, during a brief hiatus from her highly decorated triathlon career.

You don’t realize what you’re missing out on until you have a child! It’s fun to watch her grow and share life’s adventures with her. There are challenges that come with the territory—I don’t have as much time to myself, traveling is more difficult and there can be more stress in certain situations—but they are far outweighed by the benefits.

I don’t have quite as much time to train, as I’m with Caitlin full-time, but it has made me focus more on quality vs. quantity. I make the most of every workout. Going through the pregnancy has made me a tougher athlete and has given me a new perspective on training and racing. I’m doing this for Caitlin as well and I want to make her proud!

Most people are impressed that I was able to have a child and come back to professional racing so quickly, and still be successful. I am proud that I’m able to stay fit, make a living doing something I love and at the same time take care of my daughter and experience all of her ups and downs. I hope that I inspire other women, too. It can be done!

Newly married in December 2011, three-time Ironman champion Mary Beth Ellis (34) entertains the possibility of combining children and career in her future, but wants to reach the heights of long-course racing first.

I would consider going back to racing post-kids, but probably not Ironman events. I’d like to conclude that part of my racing career prior to becoming a mom since it requires so much training time and mental focus. However, I think coming back and doing shorter events might be a possibility.

I don’t feel outside pressure to hurry up and have children, but I do know that I’m not getting any younger. I actually feel a bit more pressure in terms of my triathlon career, just knowing that I have limited time to reach my potential before I’ll need to stop and try to start my family.

One female pro (33), who asked to remain anonymous, shared her concerns about actively trying to become pregnant while negotiating contracts with sponsors.

While I would never withhold information from my sponsors should they ask, I certainly don’t advertise that my husband and I want to have a baby in the very near future. It’s a natural reaction for a sponsor to spend their minimal budget on athletes they know will continue to race, who are younger or who have no interest in having children. It’s hard to go back and forth with sponsors about my race schedule knowing that I may—or may not—get pregnant. Negotiating and “selling yourself” isn’t easy in general, let alone if they knew I want to have a baby. Unfortunately, unlike my last “real” job, this industry does not provide athletes with proper maternity leave. Basically, having a baby is almost like being injured.

In an ideal world, I would love to plan a pregnancy so that I only miss one race season. That would mean getting pregnant in the November–January timeframe and having the baby by September. If that happened to me, I know I would absolutely be race-ready by May. I really look forward to being a mom and there is never going to be a perfect time—fate must run its course! I have faith that my body will rally back stronger than ever post-baby. I would hope to race full-time for five to seven more years after becoming a mom, and I know my mental fortitude and gumption would support that journey.

Endurance Daddy

The balancing act between parenting and athletic pursuits is not limited to mothers. Pro triathlete Craig Evans (34) focuses on the Xterra race circuit as time allows. Top priority for Evans and his wife, Holly—who both manage full-time careers—are children Haley (6) and Tyler (5). Craig also coaches Optimum Endurance, a Tennessee-based team of 20 triathletes.

In the past, we tried to manage our kids’ schedules and do it all ourselves. That was like juggling six footballs at once. Now we have a nanny who helps with school pickups and after-school activities. My problem is I want to do it all, but I know I can’t. Planning my day minute by minute is key. We also believe in “man-to-man” and not “zone” defense, so we stopped at two children.

My kids offer a sense of balance to my triathlon career. They keep me honest, humble and focused on a positive attitude. Their smiles keep me going and have really opened my heart up to other athletes who don’t have what I’m lucky to have.

My kids are very active and I take them to every race possible to show them that video games are not always the best activity. Now that they’re a bit older they can do a kids’ race now and then. I get more excited about their races than some of the ones I’m doing!

I don’t really get sleep like I should. I do a ton of “ninja” night training when everyone has gone to bed and my workday is complete. If I didn’t have to do the things a father should every day, I would have more time, but I don’t know if I’d be any faster. I don’t think I would be nearly as strict with my training. I always say there should be a workingman’s professional division—and I would win, hands down!

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Triathlete magazine.  Subscribe to Triathlete and save 51% off the cover price.