Paid Maternity Leave Helped Triathlete & Mom Chelsea Sodaro Become an Ironman Champion

When Chelsea Sodaro steps onto the pontoon to start the Professional Triathletes Organization’s (PTO) U.S. Open in Milwaukee this week, she’ll do so with some serious sports cred to her name. Sodaro is not only one of the top 20 female triathletes in the world (she’s currently ranked 17th) she’s also the 2022 Ironman World Championship winner — a feat that’s all the more impressive considering that she accomplished it just 18 months after giving birth to her daughter, Skylar.

If you’ve given birth or raised a toddler yourself, you might be wondering just how the heck she pulled that off. Sodaro is right there with you.

“I think a lot of parents who pursue sports can appreciate how hard it is just to get to the starting line,” she told SheKnows in an interview earlier this year. “That’s no different for me. It’s a huge victory for me to get to a starting line in one piece — healthy both physically and mentally — and that was no easy task walking into Kona.”

One thing that helped her along the way: PTO’s paid maternity leave policy. Yes, you read that right. The organization offers its female athletes 15 months of paid time off — including up to 6 months after giving birth — and pays out a monthly stipend based on the bonus money an athlete would earn based on their PTO World Ranking Status. To date, PTO has paid out more than $200,000 to its athletes through the program.

Sodaro was well into her pregnancy when the policy went into effect in January 2021, but was still eligible for the stipend, which she says “felt like a massive emotional boost and a vote of confidence” in her decision to pursue motherhood as a professional athlete. More than anything, she adds, “it just felt really validating to me that there was going to be this support. It was a statement that female athletes matter, and they have a place in sport.”

The benefits of the PTO maternity leave policy helped Sodaro support her family during a time when she wasn’t actively competing, although it couldn’t quell the working-mom guilt that’s all too familiar to so many women. Sodaro admits to fears of missing out on her daughter’s life when she’s traveling and racing and training. Having a supportive partner in her husband, “who is nurturing and caring and wonderful” makes her feel better about her career choice, “but it’s still hard,” she admits. “There’s such an emotional and mental burden on moms and women that I’ve experienced.”

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By the time the Ironman was on the horizon, Sodaro wasn’t sure the grueling race was even in the cards for her. She’d been traveling solo with her daughter in Europe for training camps and races; struggling to balance training and childcare, she got the flu on the way home. Six weeks out from the biggest race of her life, she was forced to take time off to recover. Sodaro was, in her own words, “freaking out.” Her husband was circumspect. “He said to me, ‘If training doesn’t click within the next couple of days, you can just have a Hawaiian vacation.’”

As a new parent, that sounded pretty good. Sodaro got on the plane and found that her pre-Ironman training camp actually came together. Still, her own expectations were tamped down — and everyone else’s were nonexistent. “I don’t even know if anyone picked me to contend for the top 10,” she says. 

On race day, she was nervous but quickly found her flow, having a dream swim and spotting a massive rainbow that proved to be a hopeful symbol that she carried through the day.

“I felt a lot of gratitude for being out there,” she says. “Racing among these incredibly talented women and [being] so focused on my own process. And I just l found myself exactly where I wanted to be throughout the different periods of the race. It wasn’t about winning for me, it was such a victory just to be competing as my best self.”

Sodaro, then 33, finished the race first among the women in 8 hours, 33 minutes and 46 seconds. “In a race that long there are so many decisions that you have to make,” she explains, “and what I’m really proud of is that I said yes to the hard questions. When it got challenging or when I was having to decide to lean into the pain, I just kept on saying yes.”

Sodaro’s reward — aside from the prize money and famous laurel crown — was seeing her husband and daughter waiting for her at the finish line. Getting there was a huge family effort, so seeing it all pay off felt like the best way she could say ‘thank you.’

“What I do is selfish in a lot of ways,” she says. “So many of our family decisions are like, ‘What’s best for Chelsea’s training? What’s best for Chelsea’s racing?’ We have to say no to a lot of fun things, and so delivering on a day like that was a really cool way to say, those decisions and those investments you made in me and for me paid off.”

Helping it pay off for other professional athletes — in the form of paid maternity leave benefits — is an important part of her work now. Sodaro has been inspired by fellow athletes like Alysia Montaño (a friend and fellow UC Berkeley teammate) and Allyson Felix who have paved the way on this issue, but she knows there’s plenty more to be done.

“I am having to advocate for myself in a new way, right now, and I feel a responsibility to do that so that perhaps other women in the future won’t have to ask for maternity leave clauses [in their contracts],” she says. “I feel a huge responsibility to make things better for the next generation of women.”

The fact that she’s actually raising part of that next generation raises the stakes.

“Advocacy work, it’s hard work,” she says. “It takes like a lot more energy than just talking about swimming, biking, and running. And I’m proud and happy to do that. But I hope that my daughter enters the workforce in a world where we’re not having these conversations anymore because it’s just standard practice. That would be my pie-in-the-sky dream.”

You can watch the PTO US Open women’s race at 4 pm CDT on Friday, August 5.

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