Cindy Lewis-Caballero felt more fatigued than usual during her month-long pro training camp in Florida in 2016. The runs seemed hotter, she felt bloated and had gained weight, despite training nearly forty hours a week. Maybe she had a gluten allergy? Maybe she was feeling her thirty-five years? She didn’t even considered that she could be pregnant. Surprise! Thirteen weeks pregnant, as it turned out.
That’s a hard left turn for any woman to navigate, let alone someone racing full-distance triathlons at the pro level. This isn’t a story of a pro taking a year off from the Ironman circuit to have a baby and return to racing, fitter and faster than ever. Lewis-Caballero’s story reads more like the lives of most age groupers, who don’t have the luxury of focusing solely on training and recovery. The challenges of being a high-performing athlete and a mom are many, but not insurmountable. It takes commitment, flexibility, support, and an incredibly high degree of organization to keep it all together.
Lewis-Caballero is a chiropractor with an established private practice in Burlington, Ont., a former professional triathlete, a respected multisport coach and personal trainer. I am all-too-familiar with her ability to get a lot done while staying fit – I try to keep up with her as an athlete and assistant coach. The challenge of becoming a mom presented her with practical and physical obstacles to overcome, and may have changed her direction, but not her positive attitude towards staying fit and competing.
Her racing career started as a ten-year-old on Manitoulin Island where she joined the cross-country running team to make some friends after moving from her birthplace of Elliot Lake. She went from racing the same boy around the cross country loop every day (and beating him) to joining the high school running team, then on to McMaster University where she studied Kinesiology and ran varsity track and cross country.
On a summer break in Tennessee, a run injury took her to a gym where she saw a poster for a try-a-tri. Not a trained swimmer, Lewis-Caballero got in the pool and swam 400 m to see if she could do it, then borrowed a friend’s mountain bike and signed up, finishing third She loved it and discovered she was good at it, so signed up for a standard-distance race when she got home and joined a masters swim club. At the first swim workout, one of the guys showed photos from Ironman Canada. That seemed like a good sort of challenge, so she signed up for the next year, then proceeded to run a marathon and do a half-distance triathlon in preparation. She qualified for the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii in her first full-distance race. That led to more Kona qualifiers, and turning pro in 2011, where she raced Challenge Roth in Germany and placed eighth – sharing the awards stage with the likes of Chrissie Wellington.
As a pro, Cindy’s life was pretty full – training athletes at 5:30 am, treating patients during the day, plus fitting in her own training during breaks or after hours. On top of that she was running her own coaching business and keeping up with her athletes’ training plans, as well as continuing her professional course work. Somewhere in there she also took care of her dog, got the basic logistics of life accomplished, met her future husband and moved to Burlington.
“Being self-employed definitely helped because I could set my own hours,” she remembers. “Many of my patients are also athletes, so they understood when I showed up for their treatments right after a run.”
A surprise pregnancy, however, took some adaptation on every level – physically, emotionally and logistically. Lewis-Caballero had to quickly evaluate her priorities and took racing out of the equation, although she continued to train with the intention of staying as fit as possible. She went back to teaching spinning classes, cycled, ran shorter (6 km) distances and continued to coach 6 am open water swim clinics for her athletes from her kayak. Once her baby was delivered by emergency C-section, Lewis-Caballero took some recovery time, but continued to coach her athletes and run training clinics with her baby strapped in a carrier or bundled up in the jogging stroller.
Home life for Lewis-Caballero and her family reflected her commitment to continue as a pro triathlete, although she knew that the full distance would put too much pressure on her. She and her husband would get up before 5:30 am and get on the bike trainer. During naps or as long as the baby was content in the swing, she would train. She adapted her work schedule to a three-day work week, starting at 5:30 am to train her athletes and treating patients until 7:00 pm while her husband worked from home and managed the family duties on those three days.
Lewis-Caballero’s attitude toward racing shifted in response to her new realities, both logistically and physically. Healing from the C-section turned out to be more difficult than she realized, and she felt like the deep scars were ripping when trying to run off the bike. Ironman 70.3 Vietnam was Lewis-Caballero’s last pro triathlon, after which she decided to change her goals and see what she could do that also felt fun. That included running, and planning for a second child, which she was hoping to time in between doing a qualifying marathon and going to Boston.
Lewis-Caballero was able to continue cycling to work and running throughout her second pregnancy. She ran an intentionally slower-paced marathon at 18 weeks to see if she could do it. The baby arrived and Lewis-Caballero shifted gears again, adding a nanny to the household to help look after kids and home when she returned to work three months later. She moved her chiropractic practice to a home office, and converted the basement to a gym, clinic and bike fit studio to better suit her family schedule and the growing number of athletes she trained and treated. Everyone in the house was welcomed to participate in group training events, including her nanny, two kids and two dogs. Soon the neighbourhood started to join in, and curious bystanders were becoming triathletes.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Lewis-Caballero’s belief that “you can do it, you just have to change how” is reflected in her own journey through life and sport, so adapting to the new constraints of COVID-19 protocols simply meant find out what else she could do. As a mother and athlete, she discovered that running was the easiest to manage with a full house and two young kids, so she set out to do any and all virtual run challenges. As the summer wore on, she accomplished increasingly longer distances packaged up as “run your years on your birthday,” “run across Tennessee” (and back again), and a virtual Boston marathon rounded up to 50 km. She also got more involved in trail running, doing her second 50 km trail ultra, then a 24-hour 100 km challenge. Currently she is working on the virtual “race across the world” challenge. Anything to stay motivated, fit and keep it fun.
She also adapted her coaching to offer virtual group training sessions on-line and helped her athletes find their own ways of navigating through the uncertainty by maintaining, and sometimes going beyond, their original training goals.
Keeping it all together
Like any other parent with a career, home life, relationships and personal goals, Lewis-Caballero is highly organized and schedules her time carefully, including time for herself. Multi-tasking is second nature, and priorities are given priority, including involving her husband and children (and nanny) in her lifestyle. She makes dinner during a phone interview, walks her daughter to school with the dog while on a coaching call with an athlete, schedules her patients during specific hours and fits her own workouts in between. Her kids are frequent guests in the Monday morning virtual core workout session, crawling under a high plank and offering commentary on the sweat factor.
Asked what advice she would give to another mother, Lewis-Caballero is quick to express her belief that you don’t have to give up being an athlete when you have kids; in fact, maintaining your own fitness is good for both you and as a positive example for your family. You will have to make the decision to commit to it (first and foremost), then do the work of scheduling your time. Once you have a schedule to follow, it’s easier to just execute against it. It’s like having a coach – you don’t have to think about each workout and risk talking yourself out of it when your motivation flags … you just do it. Lewis-Caballero still relies on her own coach’s training program to keep her on track, and to keep her from doing too much.
Although she does admit to feeling really tired sometimes, Cindy commits to getting up early to start her schedule each day because she knows that by the end of the day, her energy is gone and its unlikely the workout will happen.
Lewis-Caballero plans to return to triathlon once her kids get a little older and it becomes easier to schedule in the longer workouts. She says she’ll do an Ironman every five years to remember what it feels like for her coached athletes. She doesn’t care if she is competitive, she just wants to see what she can do. It wouldn’t be surprising to see her back on the podium in some capacity – ultra trail races, perhaps – because it seems that she can do an awful lot.
A version of this story appeared in the March, 2021 issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada.
Sandie Orlando is a regular contributor to Triathlon Magazine Canada.