"I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set her free."
That was Chelsea Sodaro's motivational message in the PTO's 'Daily Up' series, designed to support, encourage and inspire triathlon fans early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Based on a quote from Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo, it also perfectly encapsulates Chelsea's journey in triathlon, rediscovering herself after transitioning from running in what she calls "a second chance to pursue my potential through sport".
"To me this is all about finding the greatness within ourselves," she explains. "Triathlon for me is about seeing what I'm capable of and finding out what's possible. It's not about comparing myself to anyone else. Or trying to be like anyone else. It's trying to be the best version of me."
Sodaro didn't take part in her first triathlon until 2017, aged 27, but she's wasted little time since creating an impressive list of achievements at the top level.
Not much more than a year after that first sprint triathlon, she'd moved up to long-distance triathlon, finishing on the podium at her first 70.3 race.
And 'eyecatching' doesn't come close to describing her maiden 70.3 win a few weeks later at Indian Wells - a dominant display which saw her cross the line nearly three minutes clear of the runner-up.
She's since added victories at Santa Rosa (with a half marathon run split of 1:16), Augusta and Buenos Aires to vault up the rankings.
Indeed the only time she's not been on the podium in a 70.3 race was at the 2019 World Championship in Nice when she was a superb fourth and the first American home.
Instant impact in a new sphere
Chelsea's running career saw success at every stage - her high-school campaign meant she was in big demand, and she chose UC Berkeley for the next step.
She became a four-time All-American and was captain of the cross-country team before a pro career beckoned.
Two national titles followed (2012 Road 10k and 2013 Indoor 3k) and the Rio Olympics in 2016 were the big target, with the trials that year the way onto Team USA.
But as Sodaro herself admits: "I had the worst race of my life on the most important day of my running career."
Injuries had played a part, and another one followed soon after. But what appeared at first to be a hammer blow proved to be a turning point and launchpad.
Unable to run, she started cross-training with some swimming and road cycling and her husband Steve "told me he thought I'd be good at triathlon."
Sodaro had been following the build-up to the Olympics and been inspired by the likes of Gwen Jorgensen (who would become the first American to win triathlon gold).
"I'd laughed [at Steve's comment] and brushed him off initially, but then got completely obsessed from there!"
A week before her 28th birthday in May 2017, she took part in her first triathlon - the Clermont Draft Legal Challenge - and by the end of that weekend, she'd bagged gold and silver medals in the elite development sprint events as well as her professional license in triathlon. And it snowballed from there.
Before the season was out, she'd registered her first ITU World Cup podium.
In 2018, she was on the very top step as she won the Huatulco ITU World Cup race, but all the while she felt that moving up from short course to long course was the way to go.
And that was validated in no uncertain terms as she put together an incredible sequence of results. First Chelsea made her 70.3 debut in October with an impressive third place at Waco, Texas.
The swim had been cancelled that day meaning Indian Wells a few weeks later was her first full 70.3 and she could hardly have made a bigger splash, blitzing the field by nearly three minutes to announce her arrival in spectacular style.
Indeed her first seven 70.3 events have generated four wins, two third places and a fourth (and top American) in her first World Championships in Nice in 2019.
The run part was always going to be a massive strength - she already had PRs of 15:10 for 5k and 32:05 for 10K to her name - but she quickly made significant gains in the swimming and cycling elements.
But don't be fooled into thinking it was easy.
Chelsea’s training load increased massively - though injury issues declined dramatically too, thanks to the use of different muscle groups for the three disciplines.
There were challenges aplenty to overcome along the way - such as the physicality of the swimming.
"Everyone is such a strong swimmer and they're all wanting to be in the same place at the same time - it's a real battle," Sodaro admits.
And while she still says the swim is her least favourite part of triathlon, it's a challenge she's tackled head-on.
"I always feel a little bit of relief when I'm out of the water. But that's something I'm working on. I think it's really important that we don't put limits on ourselves and bring an attitude of excitement to all aspects of any race.
"I'm super competitive, and I love the process of getting better and improving."
"When I have a setback, it just makes me super fired up for my next opportunity."
Dancing her way to the top
When asked what she's most proud of in life, Chelsea has little hesitation: "My marriage."
And husband Steve, a top-quality runner in his own right, has proved a guiding light - including that initial suggestion that she could be a real force in triathlon.
And it's a sport she's so happy to be part of, as she explains: "I'm still a runner, but now I'm part of the triathlon community which I love."
She volunteers with IronKids at many of her races as well as working with local track programs in the San Francisco Bay Area where she trains with fellow pro Sarah Piampiano.
Away from swim, bike, run she's a classically trained vocalist who "only sings in the shower now!" and a mad-keen dancer.
"I'm dancing all the time at home. I think it drives my husband nuts. I'll randomly break out into a floss while we're making dinner! And I actually want to learn how to dance on pointe shoes when I retire from triathlon."
Long before then, there's an event she's especially looking forward to when triathlon resumes - the Collins Cup.
"I was really excited about what should have been the first one in 2020 - I love the head-to-head battles, that's fun to me - and it will be when we're able to do it again.”
* Recalculated values from 2022 based on new ranking system.
* New PTO World Ranking System implemented.
|PTO European Open|
|Ironman 70.3 Oceanside|
|PTO Canadian Open|
|Ironman 70.3 Mallorca|
|Ironman 70.3 Oceanside|
|Ironman 70.3 Boulder|
|Ironman 70.3 Indian Wells|
|Ironman 70.3 Buenos Aires|
|Ironman 70.3 Augusta|
|Ironman 70.3 World Championship|
|Ironman 70.3 Santa Rosa|
|Ironman 70.3 Indian Wells|
|Ironman 70.3 Waco|