DU Alumni / Magazine Feature / People

Alum finds peace in triathlons

Celeste Callahan

DU alumna Celeste Callahan has founded a nonprofit designed to help support women's athletic training.

Celeste Callahan has a lengthy list of accolades and accomplishments that would impress most anyone. Such a list, however, likely wouldn’t capture Callahan’s winsome personality: her welcoming manner, the energy she brings to a conversation, and her habit of peppering her monologues with knowing bon mots.

That list is her calling card, however, and it has attracted plenty of attention. Callahan (MA ’92), has climbed Mount Rainer. She trains others for and competes in triathlons, including three Ironman competitions. Within the past 15 years, she has raced in Israel, Hawaii, Cancun, Hungary and England. Budapest is on this fall’s agenda.

She turns 68 later this month.

Callahan — married for 40 years with children and grandchildren — is a latecomer to athletics. She grew up pre-Title IX, the 1972 amendment that banned excluding females from federally funded education programs and activities. Even had Title IX been in place, however, it would have been hard to overcome the culture of the time, she says.

“I was told early not to be smarter or faster than boys, because they won’t like you, and if they don’t like you they won’t marry you, and then what will you do?” she asks. “I don’t identify myself as a feminist, because it’s a bit of a pejorative term, but I will say it was interesting to be on the ground floor.”

During her time as a teacher, writer and corporate wife, Callahan became interested in running. It took her two weeks’ worth of attempts to run one mile, but eventually it took. She liked the isolation, which gave her an escape from other stresses.

“Sometimes I felt like I was living someone else’s life,” she says. “I told my husband once that I felt like running away. He told me, ‘Just make sure you have some good running shoes.’”

Callahan would lose herself in her exercise, pushing further and testing her limitations. She found the experience so empowering (a term she’s careful not to overuse) that she converted her hobby to outreach.

In 1997, Callahan co-founded Team CWW, a multi-sport organization for women that has seen its ranks swell to 500. The circumstances of its founding were fraught with tragedy, however, as Callahan’s friend and fellow founder, Judy Flannery, died shortly after forming CWW.

Flannery, then 57 and a triathlon champion, was killed in 1997 when, while bicycling in Maryland, she was run over by a car driven by an unlicensed 16-year-old.

Callahan was devastated by her friend’s death, but it served to reinforce the mission of CWW, which not only involves multi-sport training but serves as a kind of support organization for women, whether they’re facing bad relationships or health problems.

“She’s incredible in how giving she is,” says Lark Birdsong, a friend of Callahan’s. “Her dedication to helping other women achieve any goal they want around running or training, it doesn’t matter if they’ve never tried it in their lives and they’re in their 80s.”

Another friend, Gay Burke, is involved with the CWW and has witnessed firsthand Callahan’s dedication to its members.

“She wants to help these women overcome obstacles,” Burke said. “She uses triathlons as a vehicle to reach these women, to build a drive they can use on other areas of their lives.”

The connection is not a stretch, Callahan insists. She sees multi-sport training as a jumping-off point for other aspects of life.

“Every movie, every TV show has a protagonist with a goal and an obstacle to that goal,” Callahan says. “It’s a metaphor. It reduces itself so well to a life lesson.”

Given the obstacles she has overcome — be they stifling cultural norms or the death of a close friend — Callahan recognizes that dissatisfaction and tragedy can be converted to energy, and a grasp at change for the better.

Although she admits she uses the occasional cliché, Callahan also displays a self-awareness about the attention she receives. Yes, she’s 67 and competes in triathlons. She understands the novelty (she calls herself the Ronald McDonald of the CWW), and while it can sometimes be annoying, she sees it as a means to an end.

“The focus on my age can sometimes make me seem like a dancing monkey, or one-dimensional, which I don’t think I am,” she says. “But I’ll serve any way I can. If I can inspire by racing at this age, then that’s good.”


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