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The rise of triathlon’s super-moms

Since 2017 triathlon has seen a surge in successful performances by new moms.

Over the last few years we’ve seen a surge in triathlon performances by new moms – a sign of both the sport’s development and the spirit of its competitors.

Mirinda Carfrae greets daughter Isabelle after winning Ironman 70.3 Mont-Tremblant.

I’d never done an interview with Radka Kahlefeldt (nee Vodickova) until the first Challenge Championship event in Samorin, Slovakia in 2017. While she’s married to an Australian (Brad Kahlefeldt) and now spends most of her time there, it was a big deal for the Slovakian race organizers to have the Czech Olympian at the race, so they were keen that I speak to her.

Doing the interview, though, I couldn’t figure out why she seemed so, well, to be honest, mellow. This wasn’t a fired-up competitor getting ready to take on some of the best triathletes in the world in a Championship event just hours from her hometown.

A month later I came across her again. This time we were at Challenge Roth, standing at one of the aid stations. She was getting ready to give Brad a water bottle.

“So why aren’t you racing,” I joked, knowing full well that her focus was on half-distance events.

“Well, I’m pregnant,” she said.

Suddenly that interview in Slovakia made a lot more sense.

Radka Kahlefeldt gets ready to compete at Challenge Prague. Photo: Kevin Mackinnon

The Kahlefeldts would celebrate the birth of baby Ruby the following January. Radka would return to racing just 11 weeks later, winning Ironman 70.3 Philippines. She would win another 70.3 race in Viet Nam a few weeks after that. Then finish third at the Championship, win the Ironman 70.3 Asia-Pacific Championship and, well, just keep on winning. In 2019 Kahlefeldt enjoyed even more wins, including five Challenge-Family series races (topping the Challenge-Family bonus pool) along with Ironman 70.3 wins in Geelong and Davao along with a sixth-place finish at the 70.3 world championship in Nice.

What’s even crazier about Radka Kahlefeldt’s impressive return to racing? She’s just one of so many new mom’s who have returned to their winning ways not long after they’ve become a mom.

Liz Blatchford and Meredith Kessler relax with their little ones after Ironman Mont-Tremblant in 2018. Photo: Kevin Mackinnon

First things first. Super mom’s in triathlon? It’s hardly a new trend. For years we’ve seen age group competitors balance work, kids and triathlon racing at the highest level, competing at world championship events across the globe. The difference here is that this is a group racing at the professional level, women who look at triathlon racing as their career.

Over the years we’ve seen many moms winning big races around the world. Heather Gollnick’s entire pro career came when her kids were old enough to go to school, giving her time to train while they were in school. Natasha Badmann’s daughter was a teenager for most of her wins at the Ironman World Championship. Beth McKenzie started setting Ironman PBs and winning titles after she and husband Luke began a family.

Nicola Spirig celebrates at the finish line of the 2019 ITU Grand Final in Lausanne. Photo: Kevin Mackinnon

Then there’s Nicola Spirig, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist. She had her first child in 2013. Three years later she took the silver medal at the Rio Olympics. The following year she had her second child (this time a younger sister to her son). Last year Spirig nailed her spot for the Tokyo Olympics (now delayed to 2021). It seems almost appropriate that a woman with a law degree (a type-A triathlete, maybe?) who somehow managed to balance the pressures of being an Olympic gold medalist with parenthood to attain another Olympic medal would inspire the concept of “maternity leave” for some of the top athletes in the sport.

The woman who beat Spirig in Rio was one of the first to take up the super-mom torch. American Gwen Jorgensen’s son, Stanley, was born in August, 2017 – and it wasn’t long before the Rio gold medalist’s sights were set on making the American team for Tokyo in the marathon. (She has since decided that she’ll try to make the team on the track.) Jorgensen was hardly the only big-name triathlete delivering babies around that time. Three-time Kona champ, Australia’s Mirinda Carfrae, celebrated the birth of baby Isabelle that same month. So, too, did Great Britain’s Liz Blatchford (who lives in Australia), a two-time Kona bronze medalist. A few months later came 12-time Ironman champion Meredith Kessler’s son, M.A.K. Former world champion Caroline Steffen, who is Swiss but also lives in Australia, celebrated the birth of son Xander in February of 2018.

Shortly after that Kahlefeldt starting her winning spree, setting the stage for the amazing results that seem to be the norm for the latest round of super-moms. Kessler would finish sixth at Ironman Texas in April and by June was back to her winning ways, taking Ironman 70.3 Mont-Tremblant and Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga. In August she took third at Ironman Mont-Tremblant, too and would eventually qualify for Kona again with a third-place finish at Ironman Arizona in November. Carfrae was also back racing in April, 2018, taking a bunch of runner-up finishes until she topped the podium in July at Ironman 70.3 Santa Rosa. She would cap off her season with an impressive fifth at the Ironman World Championship in October. Blatchford would take the win at Ironman 70.3 Busselton in May and then nail her Kona slot by winning Ironman Mont-Tremblant. Steffen would also return to racing, taking the win in her hometown race at Ironman 70.3 Sunshine Coast and then setting a new course record in winning Ironman Western Australia last December.

And the winning hasn’t stopped. Kahlefeldt continued taking races through 2019, including a thrilling come from behind win in front of a home-country crowd at Challenge Prague. Last June, Canadians got to see Carfrae put together one of the most amazing races of her career to bike clear of the rest of the field at Ironman 70.3 Mont-Tremblant on her way to an impressive win. Third that day? Kessler, who had qualified for Kona earlier in the year with a third-place finish at Ironman New Zealand.

Michelle Vesterby and baby Markus a few months after he is born. Photo: Kevin Mackinnon

All of which had Denmark’s Michelle Vesterby chomping at the bit. Vesterby and husband Klaus celebrated the birth of Marcus in May, 2019 and she made her return to full-distance racing at Ironman Copenhagen, just three months after giving birth, where she finished fifth. Vesterby wasn’t just determined to get back to racing for herself.

“I want to show Marcus and myself and the women around me that we are capable of doing a lot of stuff,” she said. “We’ve already seen super-moms like Radka, Nicola Spirig, Mirinda Carfrae, Caroline Steffen, Meredith Kessler … I think that it’s great that we have a community that is showing that you can be a mother and an elite athlete at the same time. That’s something that I want to give to Marcus – to show him that you can balance all parts of life and be good at all parts of life. That me being an elite mom will not affect him.”

Related: Kona bound, baby! Two super moms nail their trip to Kona

Vesterby painstakingly documented her training throughout and after her pregnancy and received everything from support to concern to outright criticism for it. She was back on her bike a couple of weeks after Markus was born and swimming a week after that. She feels it’s important that every mother work at their own speed.

“I didn’t have trouble during my pregnancy,” she said. “We have to do it in our own speed. Everyone was telling me I was doing too much, but he was really comfortable. He came a week before his due date and he was 4.1 kg. Which is a big baby. He got what he needed. I gained 19 kg, despite training 20 to 25 hours a week, because that was what my body needed. I really think my body adapted well to the pregnancy. The training I put in was so slow – people look at the hours, but they don’t realize it was really just movement.”

Mirinda Carfrae is all smiles after one of her best races ever at Ironman 70.3 Mont-Tremblant. Photo: Kevin Mackinnon

For Carfrae, coming back to racing wasn’t as easy as she made it look.

“All of last year (2018) I feel like I raced on emotion, the excitement of being out racing again, but it didn’t feel great,” she said in an interview after her win in Mont-Tremblant. “A lot of those races I got off the bike and I felt 100 years old.”

Carfrae sees a lot of benefits from competing in the sport as a mom, including an ability to move past an accident that required six stitches in her calf two days before the race in Mont-Tremblant.

“Since I had Izzy I stress a lot less, I worry a lot less about the little things,” she said. “I just focus on the things that I can control. Having a toddler pulls me in a lot of different directions, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love having Izzy with me and I’m still racing very well and still loving racing, which is the main thing.”

The race in Mont-Tremblant signalled a huge breakthrough for Carfrae, who isn’t typically renowned for her cycling prowess, but dominated on the bike in Quebec.

“I think that was probably the best races I’ve ever had,” she said. “I’m still not a great swimmer, but I biked really strong and then to run well off of that … I used to be kind of a one trick pony, but now I’m able to put down a good bike. I put it down to way more time on the trainer. I just don’t have the time to ride as much as I used to, so all the bike rides I do are quality and they count.”

The “quality of training” theme is a recurrent one with the new moms who are enjoying so much success. Vesterby is already noticing a difference with her approach to training since Markus arrived on the scene.

“When I’m out there there’s no time for bagel stops and coffee,” she said. “My training is more efficient than before.”

It should probably come as no surprise that Kessler, who worked as a bank executive for years before finally giving up work to turn pro, would be the one who likens this current trend of super-mom racing to that of working mothers around the world.

“When I raced Texas when he (M.A.K.) was five months I started tearing up – I was crying like a school girl – because I was going to have to leave him for the nine hours that I was racing,” she said. “I slapped myself right away. ‘Meredith, people do this all the time, they go into work. You get to bring your kid to work and you’re going to see your kid while you’re biking, while you’re running. Suck it up – you’ll be with him for the rest of the evening. Life is good, you’ve got it made, you’ve done what you wanted to do. You get to bring your kid to your business meetings.’”

She continued the analogy to a regular training day.

“Some people drop their kids off at day care or their nanny and then they head off to work,” she continued. “They might not get to see their kids for eight or even 16 hours. We get to see our kids in between our sessions.”

And that’s what is likely the most remarkable aspect of this impressive trend. For these women, the sport isn’t just a passion, it’s their job. So, they’re figuring out ways to continue their careers after starting a family.

“The only person you should listen to is yourself and believe in yourself because there are no limits,” according to Vesterby.

This batch of super-moms are proving that point in style.

A version of this story appeared in the September, 2019 issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada.