Cheryl Woodworth

Ironman World Champion

Why She’s Amazing

Cheryl Woodworth doesn’t want to be a princess. She wants to be more.

Ever since she was young, Cheryl has been drawn to athletics. Unfortunately, due to societal conventions, Cheryl had no outlet for her talent and passion while growing up. She was told instead that girls should act like girls.

Fast forward seven decades, and you will most likely see Cheryl defying all odds at various Ironman competitions. In fact, she has been to the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, for five consecutive years and achieved a 5th place podium finish for ages 65-69 in 2010, a 1st place podium finish for ages 70-74 in 2013 and a 3rd place podium finish for ages 70-74 in 2014.

Cheryl’s desire to lead a healthier lifestyle in her retirement led to meeting a few people that changed her life forever by unleashing and encouraging the competitive athlete that was always inside of her. Cheryl’s accomplishments also took tremendous dedication to her training regimen, which begins at eight hours per week and peaks at 20 hours per week.

All of this, and she’s a proud grandmother of two as well!

We had a chance to ask Cheryl a few questions. We think you’ll agree that her story is nothing short of remarkable!

“I felt like a misfit in my family and that there was no honor in excelling in athletics.” – Cheryl Woodworth

Q & A

Q: When you were a young girl, what did you want to be when you grew up and why?

A: I grew up in Sterling, Illinois, where my dad lived all his life. His playground was Rock River, where he became an avid canoer, logging many miles on the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. He also loved scouting and became an Eagle Scout. He wanted to share his love of the outdoors with his three daughters even though my mom believed girls should just be girls.

He made us proficient in swimming, canoeing and hiking on Sunday afternoons. I was known as the “tomboy” sister, and it was hard to play the role of princess all the other days of the week when, deep inside, I knew I had a passion for these activities and lived for these times with my dad.

I did dream of being an athlete and going to the Olympics in swimming because my uncle was that caliber of a swimmer.

Q: What did people think when you told them that?

A: I was never on a team or in a competition. My high school had no competitive athletic sports for girls.

Q: Did people call you “princess” when you were a little girl and, if so, how did that make you feel?

A: I was not called “princess”, but I was expected to dress, behave and act like a respected girl. I could have been a trailblazer in my era, but my parents and I did not know how to reconcile my passion for athletics and the outdoors with being a girl. Instead, I felt like a misfit in my family and that there was no honor in excelling in athletics.

Q: How did you become interested in athletic competitions and triathlons?

A: I pursued the joy of continuing these activities with my two daughters and my nieces and nephews. I was known as the activity director at school functions and at all family gatherings. I also had a 26-year career at the YMCA as an aquatic director, even though my major at UW-Madison was mathematics education.

It was not until my retirement from the YMCA at age 58 that I became interested in triathlons. I wanted to lose 20-25 pounds and practice a healthier lifestyle so I could lead an active life in my 70s. I pulled a hamstring and hurt my knee and screamed to my husband that I was too old for this. He replied that this was not the Cheryl he knew and encouraged me to find some instruction. I read about a new triathlon club at the YMCA and thought maybe this was how I could express what I’ve been passionate about all my life.

Q: What did you have to do to accomplish this?

A: I became a charter member of the YMCA triathlon club and learned how to train and prepare for a race. The most defining moment early in the process was when I told Julie Lynch, the running coach, that I was too old to run. That was a mistake. She said never to mention my age again, and I never do. We immediately started to chart out what would be my first running plan. I kept meeting up with people who took me further up the athletic ladder and, the more intense it got, the more training I did.

It was no longer about weight loss, but about what I loved doing. To my absolute surprise, a 125-pound athlete emerged from a 200-pound body in the process. I started to believe that I was created and wired to be an athlete, and that God was taking me somewhere, but I could not imagine where.

Where turned out to be an Ironman athlete. At age 65, I was cycling with a competitive amateur cyclist in the Blue Ridge Mountains in South Carolina for a week, and he asked me if I was interested in doing an Ironman competition. I thought he was crazy. Two weeks later, a friend in Wisconsin asked me the same question. Being asked twice, I decided, at age 65, to sign up for IM AZ.

I completed my first half-marathon, first marathon, first half-Ironman, first Ironman and qualified for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. I have been to Kona for five consecutive years and have achieved a 5th place podium finish for ages 65-69 in 2010, a 1st place podium finish for ages 70-74 in 2013 and a 3rd place podium finish for ages 70-74 in 2014.

Q: Did you have a mentor or role model who inspired you?

A: My dad was my role model to make some lifestyle changes that would keep me as active as he was in his 70s and 80s, such as participating in all activities with his grandchildren, promoting family lake vacations, hosting family holidays, maintaining a 5-acre property until 90 years old and playing a competitive game of golf until 97.

My Ironman mentor was a co-worker who was small in stature but was a dynamite woman who raced multiple Ironmans and marathons every year. She is the friend who asked if I might be interested in doing an Ironman. She guided me through my training, and she helped me to believe in my ability to grow and improve as a woman athlete. We still stay in close contact today. She changed my life from being ordinary to extraordinary.

Q: Did your family and friends support your aspirations?

A: My husband is my staunchest supporter, a great member of my team and a fan of the sport. Family members were impacted by the tremendous amount of training time (begins at eight hours per week and peaks at 20 hours per week), dedication, emotion and strength that an Ironman requires. Since I started after I retired, however, it gave me more freedom to give priority to both my dream and my family. Immediate and extended family members have grown to see my journey as becoming a great piece of our family history.

Q: Did you think about being called a “trailblazer” for choosing this path?

A: I did not think of myself as a trailblazer. I do think of myself as possibly carrying on the legacy of two wonderful Ironman women who preceded me – Sister Madonna Buder (oldest Ironman finisher at age 82) and Harriett Anderson (oldest Kona Ironman finisher at age 78). At the moment, I am preparing for the 2016 World Ironman Championships in Kona, Hawaii, on October 8, 2016.

Photo Gallery

Q: What motivates you?

A: I am motivated to be a catalyst to help others make lifestyle changes. I hope that my presence in training and races encourages and lifts up other people to train and perform to the best of their ability. I hope that my performance can set new standards for people who follow me.

Q: Of what are you most proud?

A: I am most proud of being able to show and inspire all ages that it is possible to reinvent yourself regardless of your age, your circumstances or your limitations. I am proud to show that you can live life to your fullest.

Q: What would you like people to learn from you?

A: There are many kinds of athletes – some are the greatest endurance athletes in the world, some are an inspiration that they simply finish, some have overcome addictions and others prove that loss of limb or paralysis cannot defeat the human spirit. I represent the athlete who can inspire others to accomplish feats that seemingly only the young can do. I want to push back the perceived limitations of age.

Q: What three words would you like people to use to describe you?

A: Determined. Motivated. Free Spirited.

Q: What do you want people to know about you outside of your accomplishments?

A: I also love to be in God’s world, hiking in the wilderness and the mountains. Ironman triathlons keep me fit for these adventures, and these adventures inspire and rejuvenate me so that I am able to keep competing. Both complement each other perfectly.

Q: Given the choice, would you do it all again?

A: Absolutely!!! I always say I wish I would have done it earlier in my life, but God planned it for my life exactly at the age it was supposed to be. This part makes my story unique.

Q: If you could eat lunch with one person, whom would it be?

A: I would like to have a conversation with Gwen Jorgensen to gain her perspective of a stellar athletic career early in life.

Q: What advice would you give to a girl who right now wants to be just like you?

A: Listen to how you feel within. If you feel a nudge, take the risk and be your authentic self!

Bonus Question: What question would you ask the next Modern Day Trailblazer we interview?

A: What is the best lesson you have learned?

Fun Facts:

  • Cheryl likes to read at night and train in the morning…
    sometimes these two are in conflict.
  • Cheryl loves the change of seasons in Wisconsin. She likes summer for lake activities and open water swimming, and she likes fall for
    hiking in the beauty of the trees.
  • In terms of being late, early or right on time, Cheryl says that doing Ironman events have taught her to be an organized and right-on-time person. However, in casual situations, she enjoys the ease of not watching the clock so closely.
  • Her favorite quote is “You can’t help someone get up a hill without getting closer to the top yourself.” by Gen. H. Norman Schwartzkopf.