FROM RACING TO MOTHERHOOD
By Pam Morales Worsham
Motherhood has not stopped Kaitlin Donner from chasing lofty career highs. In fact, since having her son Christopher in 2019, the multi-sport elite athlete and physical therapist has only gained speed. Gleaning over her career milestones, it’s clear that she’s been able to build on her high-level output year after year, in part because of the mom hat she wears.
A trip down memory lane for Donner B.C. (Before Chris) includes competing in the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Trials and clinching the 2015 World Cup crown in New Plymouth, New Zealand as an elite triathlete. Once baby came along in 2019, the accolades really started ramping up again. Donner smashed her way to a first-place female finish at the 2020 We Are Houston 5K (16:10), had a third-place podium finish at the 2020 Clermont Sprint Triathlon Panamerican Cup on the elite triathlete circuit, and a 16:06 career-best 5K at the 2020 Set Goals Not Limits Showcase in Satellite Beach. She currently has her sights set on running a sub 16 in the 5K, having recently competed in the Trials for Miles - NYC Qualifier with a 16:10 second place finish and at the University of North Florida Invite with a 16:15 finish.
It’s all impossible until it's not, right? Or in Donner’s case, it’s all insanely possible, especially as a mom. Donner sits down with us to talk about the impact motherhood has had on her racing mindset and strategy. She also shares her thoughts on what could be done in the sporting world to support athlete moms who are driven to compete at a high-level, like herself.
In 2016 you headed to the Olympic qualifying in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the USA triathlon team. Tell us about the grueling training and your mindset going into the competition.
I honestly never believed I would make the US team and struggled with self-confidence throughout my time racing triathlon. I loved the training and had some really great sessions demonstrating I was fit but was constantly standing scared and nervous on the starting line of races. Our US women are so strong that I never thought I was in the mix, and I have no doubt that attributed to never racing to my potential. The Olympic selection event in Rio was one of my worst races where I just struggled throughout the race and on a tough, hot course like that there is nowhere to hide.
Since then, you’ve become a mama to baby Christopher. Please complete this sentence: Motherhood is...
The hardest and best thing I have ever done.
What impact has motherhood had on your performance?
I have raced significantly faster since having Chris, and I think so much of it is mindset. I used to get very anxious and nervous before races, but now I am distracted making sure Chris is ok, that he has everything, that I show up and race without overthinking it. Chris has really put racing in perspective that yes, it is part of my life and I want to do it well, but it’s not everything. I strongly believe this mindset, along with an extended break from running while pregnant and returning to run after childbirth -- a new pain threshold from childbirth -- and the focus on targeted strength while pregnant has been part of racing well postpartum.
I know you’ve said in the past that in order to compete on the elite level athletes must travel and you’re not willing to be away from your family right now. How do you think the current point system could be reassessed to make it more inclusive of mothers?
Yes, for elite triathlon there is quite a bit of international travel to be successful. Especially when you are new to the sport, or coming back after injury, childbirth, or anything that has removed you from the sport for an extended period of time. You must accumulate points at various races to work your way up from continental cups (least competitive level of racing) up to the world triathlon series events (most competitive and where the world champion is crowned). Not only are these events held all over the world, to be successful there are periods where staying international makes the most sense instead of traveling back and forth to the US where you lose training days, don’t recover as well and risk illness.
I don’t know if changing the point system makes sense, since you want to keep it competitive and give athletes from around the world a chance to compete. But I think national federations could provide more support to moms and dads, though they aren’t removed from the sport during pregnancy, they still balance family and training life.
The biggest way to support moms immediately postpartum is to not force or encourage female athletes that have chosen to start a family to come back to sport too early. Some companies and sponsors are starting to have maternity leave clauses, which is a step in the right direction because in sport, performance matters. But rushing moms to get back out doing their sport can place unnecessary stress on an already healing body and mind.
I think education is another huge avenue federations, sponsors and sports in general should be going down. Instead of female athletes believing their careers are over after having kids, why not educate that you can come back successfully and do both? This change in thinking and culture will take time and shouldn’t all be placed on federations or individual sponsors, but I think that would be a great place to start.
Tell us a little bit about the races you did in Jacksonville and New York last month.
The races in both Jacksonville and New York were really fun to get to race on the track! I suppose if I raced fast enough (sub 15:20) it would have been an Olympic Trials qualifier, but that was not my intention, and I am nowhere near that kind of fitness/speed. About eight months after Chris was born, I raced a 5K in Houston because I was there supporting my sister, who was running the marathon, and I ran 16:15. This was almost 30 seconds faster than I had ever run a 5K and since then I have been chasing a sub 16 minutes 5K, something prior to Chris I never thought was remotely possible. Both of the races in Jacksonville and New York were in an effort to get that sub-16. I ran 16:15 in Jacksonville and 16:10 in New York. When I didn’t do it at the local 5K at the Downtown Melbourne (another 16:10), I started looking at other races and decided on both Jacksonville and New York about 3 weeks before the races. Of course, I will try again! Right now, I am taking a little break since I have been racing so much and trying to maintain fitness chasing these goals but know I need a break, reset, then build back up. The hardest part of coaching myself is actually taking the break I need instead of continuing to race.
What is your winning formula in trying to be your best in sport while raising a child, one of the hardest jobs ever?
I don’t know if I would call it a winning formula. I do strongly believe, and research supports this, that the best way to get better at running is to consistently run. If you are able to get out the door most days of the week and stay injury free – you WILL get better. It’s not easy some days depending on sleep at night and other responsibilities but if you want something enough, you can make it happen. I have learned to really love my stroller runs and getting to share being outside with my son when I can’t get a run in early. Oh yeah, I’m also an early bird so getting runs in before he wakes up is key to better runs and a better chance of the run happening.
How has motherhood impacted your Olympic dreams?
I don’t think motherhood has impacted my Olympic dream. I stepped away from triathlon before deciding with my husband to start having kids because I felt I had tried hard enough. Even at that time I didn’t want to live internationally or travel as much. I’m a homebody and was constantly homesick. Since having Chris, I have raced about three triathlons but have shifted my focus to running, which I haven’t done since college, since I enjoy it the most out of the three sports, and it takes significantly less time than triathlon training.
The Olympics has a “no spectator rule” that excludes mothers from traveling with their children, even if they’re breastfeeding. What are some initiatives that could be adopted by brands and/or institutions to support professional female mom athletes?
That’s a really tough one. I can’t imagine qualifying for the Olympics and achieving a life goal, then to not have any family there or a child still being breastfed left at home. I think brands and national federations reaching out to determine the individual needs of moms since depending on how old their kids are, if they are breastfeeding, etc. will help determine the support needed. If nothing else, I think providing mental health support would be huge for these athletes, and honestly for all athletes as we continue to navigate the global pandemic. Mental health is one of the most underutilized professions and resources in professional sports and postpartum in my opinion.
2004 All-American USA Swimming Scholastic
2007 Awarded All-American at Satellite High
2009 Age Group Nationals in triathlon
2011 USA Triathlon Collegiate National Champion
2011-12 USA Triathlon Under-23 National Champion
2012 USA Triathlon Under-23 Athlete of the Year
2014 USA Triathlon Elite Sprint National Championship podium finish
2015 New Plymouth World Cup Victory in New Zealand
2018 Launched New Wave Physical Therapy and Sports Rehabilitation
2019 Gave birth to Christopher Donner
2020 We Are Houston 1st Place Female (16:15)
2020 Eye of the Dragon 10K 1st Place Female, Course Record, PR (35:11)
2020 Space Coast Half Marathon PR and 1st Place Female (1:18:45)
2020 Set Goals Not Limits Showcase 5K PR (16:06)
ITU triathlon career: 55 starts, 4 wins, 15 podiums
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