Celeste Callahan still recalls in cinematic detail the moment in 1976 that would literally change the course of her life. “We were living in South Dakota and I was sitting on a black-and-yellow …
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Celeste Callahan still recalls in cinematic detail the moment in 1976 that would literally change the course of her life. “We were living in South Dakota and I was sitting on a black-and-yellow plaid hide-a-bed, folding diapers and watching [the soap opera] The Edge of Night,” she says. “I suddenly realized I didn’t know how I had gotten here. I later told my husband I felt like running away and he told me to go get a good pair of running shoes.”
The founder of Colorado Wild Women, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit women’s triathlon organization, did just that. “I went to Payless and spent thirteen dollars on shoes and it felt strange spending money on something just for me, even though I would spend much more money on dresses to look good for my husband’s business functions.”
Raised in the South, the daughter of a career Air Force officer, she was used to nice dresses and never questioned her mother’s view of women’s domestic role. “It was very important to my mother that I find a good husband to take care of me but also had something to fall back on in case something happened to him.” Having received the message that more academically ambitious careers exceeded women’s capabilities, Callahan earned a degree in education, married and quit teaching to raise her children. She moved around the country, following her husband’s career with Bell Systems. But it was her desire to run away that day in South Dakota that led to discovering a more authentic life.
She would wait for her oldest child to get home from school to watch the younger two, head to a nearby park and alternate running and walking until — in two weeks — she could run the whole thing. “To me that was the biggest achievement I’d ever made,” she says. Although she’d played tennis competitively for years, she hated it. “In tennis you were only as great as your backhand.” She found the discipline of running different. “It was cold and I would come home refreshed and take a bath and be ready for other people. It made me happy and gave me the idea that you can achieve a goal one day at a time.”
Running became a daily habit and she soon found a friend to accompany her. When Callahan’s husband’s company hosted a charity run, she and her friend Jan signed up to race. “We loved that you got a T-shirt and that the guys who were part of our couples circle started to address us on a topic other than children.”
Callahan later accompanied her husband to New York on a business trip in 1979 that coincided with the New York Marathon. “We’d started running races and getting T-shirts and I thought that would be a really cool T-shirt to have but they said, ‘No, you can’t do that; it’s very hard to get in.’ So when I went back home I thought, that’s what I’m doing next.”
Callahan and Jan started training for the next year’s New York Marathon on New Year’s Day. “While everyone else was drinking that night we didn’t and got up early and ran. It was cold and snowing and a moment of conquering everything — the idea of partying, the weather — and of putting your first foot forward for this goal.” By the time the June application deadline came, they’d trained hard. “I had called Fred Lewbow, founder of the New York Roadrunners Club, in May. When he found out we were from South Dakota, we were in. They were trying to get people from all over the United States and no one from South Dakota had participated before.”
After completing the New York Marathon and another in Duluth, Callahan learned about the Iron Man [triathlon] race in Hawaii while her husband was being transferred to Seattle. His new job came with an athletic club membership and Callahan joined its largely male triathlon club. “I was definitely the slowest and stupidest one there,” she says. “When we went swimming, they really did laugh at me. And I had a girl’s seat and baby seat on my bike. But you make friends and there’s something called mythical membership where if people expect you to show up some place at twelve o’clock on Wednesday, you just do it.”
While training for Seattle’s Seafair triathlon in 1986, her husband learned he was being relocated to Denver. “I told him I really needed to do this marathon and he said fine, we’ll leave the day after and we did. He’s always been very supportive.” The Seafair marathon provided another pivotal experience. “You’re training in a mixed [gender] group and nobody knows where your husband works. I’d had only relational experiences where I was somebody’s daughter or wife or granddaughter. You get a sense of how people respond to you when you can’t do anything for them. I planned on quitting after Seafair. But then I won in the women thirty-five-and-older category.”
After moving to Denver, Callahan sought to boost her swimming skills by enrolling in the master’s swimming program at Washington Park and hired a swimming coach to help her train to attend the national triathlon championships along with her friends in Seattle. There she met kindred spirit, Judy Flannery. “We didn’t meet again until the Iron Man in 1988 and became best friends. She was a mother of five with a similar journey, extremely interesting, funny and the most supportive person I’d ever met.” The duo began participating together in national and international events.
In 1997, Flannery launched the United State’s Triathlon Women’s Commission and asked Callahan to serve as the Rocky Mountain representative to recruit women into the sport. “The Danskin Triathlon was coming. I put an ad in the paper and forty women called; including one who told me Judy had just been killed while bicycling near her home in Maryland.”
The catastrophic news coincided with a meeting at Callahan’s home of women interested in the Danskin event. “It was really difficult for me but it turned out to be quite an enthusiastic reception and we worked hands-on to help these women who didn’t know how to do anything learn to swim, bike and run from April seventh until the triathlon at the end of August. We had a victory party at my house and the women wanted to do it the next year but call it a team. The team became known as CWW, combining my initials and two other women’s — Weber and Wuerhle.” About three years ago, the organization became Colorado Wild Women.
The organization amassed 500 members over the years and Callahan received multiple awards including an award of excellence from the Women’s Commission of the International Triathlon Union and an award from the International Olympic Commission for volunteer of the year. “Until five or six years ago we were the only game in town and then people splintered into groups because they wanted to not travel so far or go longer distances.” But Colorado Wild Women continues to thrive; helping women who never believed they could do something like this prove themselves wrong.
“We give women a safe, supportive place to be vulnerable at whatever level they’re at. Something exciting happens when you do something you didn’t think you could and I think children benefit greatly seeing their mother has her own life. Maybe she’s scared but she goes out evening after evening and tries and then does it. People tell us they become sharper and feel more interesting.” Some even break off bad relationships and some go on to try other things they never dreamed they could do.”
For Callahan, currently training for an Alcatraz swim in August 2016, the rewards of helping women experience the transformation that multisport participation has given her continue. “Sport is not the most important thing but it will help you do the most important things. You’re a better wife, mother, lover, worker if you take care of yourself. If you put your own oxygen mask on first you’re much better at helping others. If I had something like this when I was first raising my children I don’t think I would have lost my mind. I’d never understood the concept of redemption before. But when one of our members does something she really didn’t think she could, I feel redeemed for all the times I was told I couldn’t do something.”
For more information on Colorado Wild Women, go to teamcww.org.
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