Breaking Barriers: Multisport Pioneer Gives Back to the Sport She Loves

by USA Triathlon Foundation

Celeste Callahan raises her arms and shares a look of accomplishment after exiting the water during a race.
Celeste Callahan

For a female multisport pioneer who grew up in a pre-Title IX era, triathlon brought her an unexpected benefit—friendship.

Unlike girls and young women today, Celeste Callahan wasn’t allowed to be an athlete growing up. And friendships were difficult since it was “catty in those days,” she said.

“When I was growing up, women didn’t have friends,” she said. “What makes a friend is vulnerability, but we didn’t do that in high school or college, because we had to be brave for other people.”

Things began changing in the 1970s. Title IX was passed in 1972, providing women and girls with equal access to sports. But some barriers still remained.

As a stay-at-home mom, Celeste found herself desperate for something that would challenge her and make her feel alive. She liked the idea of having a long-term goal.

Kathrine Switzer revolutionized women’s running when she ran the Boston Marathon in 1967. Celeste followed in her footsteps when she began running marathons, including the New York City Marathon in 1980.

Celeste Callahan and her friend, Judy Flannery, finish the New York City Marathon in 1980.
Celeste Callahan

While preparing to climb Mt. Rainier, Celeste knew she’d need to do endurance work to prepare. She settled on triathlon, and persisted, despite experiences that may have led others to quit: being laughed at during her first masters swim clinic. And being dropped within the first block of her first group ride.

“I had no idea what to do,” she said of her start in triathlon. However, she remained undaunted and, at age 42, won the female 35+ category at her first triathlon at Seafair in Seattle in 1984.  

Before triathlon, Celeste said she felt like her identity was tied to being someone else’s daughter, wife or mother. For the first time, she felt like she was just Celeste. A woman who would go on to accomplish many amazing things, starting with navigating her first national championship alone. Then finishing more than 250 endurance events. Four IRONMAN triathlons. Medaling in multiple world championships as a member of Team USA. Three Race Across America events, which is considered the world’s toughest bicycle race. And much more.

One of her most memorable multisport experiences is the Women’s Masters Breakfast at the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona. Celeste said the event began with a woman inviting women over 40 to her home for breakfast.

“Being a woman over 40, that was the most important thing—having friends,” she said.

After the loss of her friend and fellow triathlete Judy Flannery, Celeste was inspired to create Team CWW. Since 1997, the Colorado-based team has empowered more than 5,000 women to finish their first triathlon.

“When I see you bravely head toward that first buoy at the pond on your virgin voyage through cold, dark, murky water, I am redeemed for all the times I dared not try something new, something hard, because I was not allowed to,” she wrote in her coaching bio.

In addition to being a USA Triathlon Level II coach and race director, Celeste has served on the USA Triathlon Board of Directors and is a charter member of the USA Triathlon Women’s Committee.  

Celeste is an active member of the Team CWW’s grandmasters, which she says is the “biggest and most enthusiastic part of our group.” In addition to training together, women hike, participate in book club and try new things.

When Celeste began racing, it was rare to see women over 50 at events. Today, seeing the 80-plus podiums filling up at Age Group National Championships is “extraordinary,” Celeste said.

“As I age and see other people still keeping up, and women coming into the sport who haven’t done it before, I’m impressed by that,” she said. “We still keep trying, and we don’t give up.”

She turns 80 this year and isn’t planning to take it easy anytime soon. Despite a serious bike crash a year and a half ago that caused a concussion and impacted her eyesight—and recently breaking her hand and leg—Celeste has her sight set on Age Group National Championships. She’s been able to continue training, swimming with the help of a pull buoy and running in deep water with a belt.

As for her injuries, she said they’re just “like mile 18 of the marathon.” Instead of dropping out after hitting “the wall,” she’s hopeful her current challenges will allow her to help other older people in the future.

Not only is Celeste a trailblazer, but her passion for the sport has led her to give back to the triathlon community philanthropically.

Her tenacity is reflected in the new Celeste Callahan Women’s Great Grand Masters Triathlete of the Year award, which is now presented annually.  

“I’m very complimented,” Celeste said of her namesake award, which is in honor of her achievements in the sport and for her support of the USA Triathlon Foundation. “I may not have been the greatest athlete out there—there’s the people who plug along and do the best they can. That’s me.”

Her support also makes it possible to add an amenity for female great grand masters athletes at Age Group Nationals. These athletes will have a VIP tent where they can relax and chat as they wait for awards.

Celeste strives to be an inspiration for younger people, especially her grandchildren. Her granddaughter tried out for the swim team, following advice from “pro triathlete Nana” to warm up slowly and then speed up. That advice earned her a spot on the team.

“I see what it’s done for my grandchildren,” she said of her involvement in triathlon. “They see someone old is trying something.”

In the meantime, she’s continuing to push boundaries. That includes pursuing a doctorate in theology. “I’m writing my dissertation now so I can be alive when I graduate,” Celeste said, as she chuckled.

The USA Triathlon Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and the charitable arm of USA Triathlon. With its mission to transform lives through sport by providing opportunities to swim, bike and run, the Foundation serves to generate a greater impact on the multisport community through charitable giveback and grants that advance the Foundation’s three pillars: (1) Encourage youth participation; (2) Inspire adaptive athletes; and (3) Ignite Olympic/Paralympic dreams. Since the Foundation was established in 2014, it has provided millions of dollars in grants to organizations and individuals in pursuit of its mission and pillars to create a healthier United States through triathlon.