Motherhood to small children is difficult enough. So during days already filled with changing diapers, reading kidsʻ books and preparing meals, try adding this to the routine: Training for an Ironman World Championship.
This year, two pro triathletes who will take the field Saturday in the first-ever female’s only title race in Kona are advocating for women who want to pursue family and sports simultaneously.
And one of them is the defending champion, 34-year-old Chelsea Sodaro of the United States.
“We have an equity problem in this sport as we know,” said Sodaro, who pulled off an upset last year to become the first mother to win the World Championship since Switzerland’s Natascha Badmann in 1998.
“There are way more men competing than there are women and I don’t think that’s because women don’t want to compete. I think it’s because they don’t have access to all the things they need in order to participate in this beautiful sport. And that’s something we really need to work on.”
Sodaro’s dream includes free child care and lactation stations at triathlons to make this sport more accessible for women.
“I am so inspired, especially by the amateur women who are choosing motherhood and choosing themselves and taking on hardcore careers and carving out a little bit of space and time for themselves,” Sodaro said. “For most of us, our full-time job is performance so what they do is truly, truly remarkable.”
Beyond the extra pressure to defend the title, the 34-year-old Sodaro said she wants to test herself, adding that seeing her 2-1/2-year-old daughter Skye at the finish line will be the ultimate trophy.
Skye was in the arms of Sodaro’s husband when they watched at the finish line as she became the first rookie since 2007 to win the world championship, crossing in 8 hours, 33 minutes and 46 seconds.
Sodaro will be among the favorites this year when the 2023 version of the grueling 140.6-mile race starts on Saturday at 6:25 a.m. HST, at Kailua Bay for the 2.4-mile swim. The race continues with a 112-mile bike and a full marathon of 26.2 miles.
“I knew this race was a big deal but I didn’t realize how many people cared about the title and how it really transcends triathlon,” Sodaro said on Thursday during the Ironman press conference of top contenders.
The second mother in the pro athlete field is USA’s Sarah True, this year’s European Ironman Champion with a time of 8:54:53.
“There are quite a few moms in the field. We’re just two of them,” True said of herself and Sodaro. “As this sport gets more professional, as there are more financial opportunities for athletes, hopefully, we’ll see more women who are able to balance being a professional athlete along with motherhood.”
True and her husband Ben have one son, Haakon, who was born in July 2021. True is also pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology at Antioch University New England. She said she had research paper due on Friday.
“You see far too many women in their peak choose to opt out of a professional sport because they don’t have the support they need to continue,” the 41-year-old said. “I would like to see no woman have to choose between those two things. At this point in 2023, I’d like to believe we can financially support and give resources to women who choose to do it.”
USA’s Taylor Knibb of Colorado will compete in the Kona championship race for the first time on Saturday. Her mom will be racing as well.
At 23 years old, Knibb made U.S. Olympic history when she became the youngest woman ever to qualify for its triathlon team ahead of Tokyo 2020. Now, at age 25, she captured the VinFast Ironman 70.3 World Championship title (half the distance of the Ironman) in Lahti, Finland at 3:53:02.
Also returning to the field this year is Switzerland’s Daniela Ryf, who is nicknamed “Angry Bird” due to her steely determined face during races. The 36-year-old is back to reclaim her title after failing to defend it in 2022, finishing a disappointing 8th. She was in tears after crossing the finish line.
Ryf has won five Ironman World Championships. She also holds the race’s record for the best female finish, at 8:26:18 in 2018.
More importantly than winning the title, said she wants to have a race she can be proud of.
“I hope to be able to go hard,” Ryf said. “Each race is like a picture and I want to create an amazing picture.”
The camaraderie was seen among Ryf and Knibb as the two have raced each other in the past, most recently in Finland.
Ryf told Knibb that the first Kona Ironman is special and to enjoy it.
“She was mentioning she hopes to get a photo with me in the race,” Ryf said of Knibb, adding they’ve raced against each other twice and the young American has beat her twice.
“I’m hoping I can get a picture with her,” Ryf said with a smile.
Last year’s runner-ups, Lucy Charles-Barclay and Germany’s Anne Haug, also will be back in the field on Saturday.
Charles-Barclay, of Great Britain, has finished second in Kona in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2022. Last year, her time was 8:41:37. The 30-year-old is also the current record holder for the Ironman World Championship swim split in Kailua-Kona.
“It’s a tough race,” she said. “I always have to dig super deep to get that second-place finish.”
Haug took third place last year and was the 2019 Ironman World Champion. During the press conference, the 40-year-old said it would be a dream come true to take the title this year.
Haug is coming to Kona following a first-place finish in the Club La Santa Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote triathlon in March.
The men’s and women’s races were split up after last year’s two-day race event in Kona where pro women compete on Thursday and the pro men race on Saturday.
The main reason was to accommodate the backlog of participants who qualified for the championship and did not have a chance to compete due to the pandemic. So this year’s field is about 5,200, double the average for past races.
Deciding that two race days were ultimately too much for the Kona community, the organization decided to split the men’s and women’s races up. The men raced in Nice, France, in September.
Germany’s Laura Philipp, who suffered a five-minute penalty for apparently drafting, finished fourth last. Sweden’s Lisa Norden, who also was penalized five minutes, was fifth.
During the press conference, Philipp, the 2022 European Ironman Champion, said getting the penalty last year was tough. Going into the race this year she is better prepared.
“My number one goal is not to stop during the bike leg and hopefully I will show the refs that I’m a fair athlete and don’t try to cheat,” the 36-year-old said. “Hopefully, no one will get one as we all want fair racing.”
Another pro to watch in Saturday’s race is Great Britain’s Kat Matthews, runner-up in both the 2021 Ironman World Championship and 2023 Ironman 70.3 World Championship races. The 32-year-old comes to Kona after she was forced to withdraw from the competition last year after a serious bike crash that resulted in fractures to her skull, two vertebrae and sternum.
Norden, an Olympic silver medalist in triathlon and four-time Swedish National Time Trial Champion, also will return to Kona after finishing fifth at her debut race last year.
Australia’s Sarah Crowley, 40, will be competing. She finished third during the Kona championship in 2017.
To promote motherhood and sports, Sodaro is partnering with &Mother, an organization dedicated to breaking the barriers that limit a woman’s choice to pursue and thrive in both career and motherhood, to do a special sweepstakes. The winner will get a replica of her Kona race bike, a Canyon Speedmax CFR, which she’s named “Rainbow Explosion.”