CHARLOTTE – In September of 2021, Unionville resident and mom of two Madeline Romeo will proudly represent Team USA at the Multisport World Championships in the Netherlands.
Romeo began swimming at a young age but had to switch gears when circumstances forced her to move to a new school without a swim team. What her new school did have was a running team, but there was a problem: Romeo hated running.
The kindness of the runners Romeo met at her new school, however, inspired her to give it a shot. “I was the worst person on the team,” she recalls. “Flat out, hands down, the worst runner on the team, but I stayed. I think it was the camaraderie, just being with kind, down-to-earth people. That was uplifting, even when I came in dead last!”
Romeo kept running, and little by little, she started to improve. In fact, she got fast enough to attract the attention of a coach at a college she was applying to. “I wasn’t fast enough to be getting scholarships or anything like that,” she clarifies, “but I was good enough to where he noticed, and he helped me through the rest of the application process.”
Romeo ran all year long in college: cross country, winter track, spring track. “I just stuck with it, no matter what,” she says. “Even if I wasn’t the best on the team, I got better and better, eventually winning different awards, going to different state championships.”
Romeo continued running after college. She started making a “race bucket list” – making it to the top of Mount Whitney, a triathlon, a half-ironman – and started crossing things off. But Romeo’s life changed drastically when she gave birth to her first daughter. An athlete who was surfing and training nonstop for races, Romeo was unprepared for how the experience of pregnancy and childbirth would change her body. “I felt like I was working with a different body,” recalls Romeo. “I wanted to honor this new body that I had, that was significantly different than what I had before, and I wanted to honor my new role as a mother and a provider. I thought racing time was over.”
For a while, it was. Romeo continued exercising, but she didn’t race. Running laps around her new home in Unionville when her second daughter was just 6 months old, Romeo ran into Team USA Coach Jeff Guara, who lived only a mile from her new home. As Guara tried to get Romeo in the loop about local races, Romeo recalls thinking, “I don’t know what to tell you, I’m not even sleeping yet!”
The pair kept in contact, and eventually, Romeo began to think about racing again. “Something stirred in me when she was almost a year old,” Romeo recalls. “It was that same drive to compete, not against other people, but to see what my new body could do.” She signed up for a 10k race and was shocked at what she was able to accomplish. “It almost seemed like the body I was working with was even better at racing, not because it was more in shape, but because mentally I could overcome little things that would bother me before,” she says.
In May of 2019, Guara told Romeo he felt she was ready for a National Championship. In November of 2019, when her daughters were 7 and 4, Romeo joined Guara’s team at the National Championships in Miami, where Romeo competed in the Aquathlon, a multisport race composed of a 1000-meter open-water swim followed by a 5k run. Romeo finished 10th in her age group, earning her a spot on Team USA’s World Championship team.
In the lead-up to the National Championships, Romeo was determined to qualify for the World Championships, but she was also sure she wasn’t actually going to go. “I was going to put everything down on the line to qualify,” she says, “but I swore up and down that I wasn’t going to go. I felt like this was the ultimate, this was as far as I could go. Going to the World Championships – that was really silly in my mind.”
What started to change her mind was Guara. “When my coach came over to me to confirm that I did qualify, he said, ‘You don’t look tired,’” recalls Romeo. “ I think he was basically saying you could do more, you could give more.”
Romeo considered it: did she have more to give? She kept coming back to her family, her daughters, her responsibilities to them. “In my mind, this was unheard of in the realm of what a mom does,” says Romeo. “You don’t put yourself this far in front of your kids’ needs to do something like this.” But the more she thought about it, the more Romeo realized she hadn’t put her girls aside to train; they’d been with her the whole time. “They stand on the side of the pool and they time me,” says Romeo. “ They stand on the side of the track and run with me. They’re always on the sidelines. They give me all my motivation.”
In September, Romeo will compete with Team USA at the Multisport World Championships. The 10-day event originally scheduled to begin September 4, 2020, was postponed a year due to COVID-related travel restrictions. For Romeo, it was difficult to continue training for a race that might not ultimately happen. “I made a decision to continue training until the very moment I knew it wasn’t happening,” she recalls. “Every day counts for me. I don’t have the option to find time to catch up. I needed to know that I was right on point with my training. Mentally it was draining,” she says, “but I’m thankful that I get to see this dream through. Now, I’m determined to be even more prepared, to be faster, stronger than I would have been in 2020.”
To get better, faster, stronger, Romeo trains for 1-2 hours a day beginning early in the morning before her husband goes to work and her daughters are awake. Her workouts are a mix of strength training, running, sprints and drills, stair training, and swimming. In the Netherlands, Romeo will compete against career athletes for whom the World Championships are a stepping stone to Tokyo. Romeo, on the other hand, does what’s called the “dry swim workout” by hooking resistance bands to various piece of furniture in the room where she homeschools her daughters and ties herself to the side of her above ground pool for swims (a technique she swears is actually ideal training for open-water).
“Most of the women I will be racing against, they are not in the position I’m in. They don’t have any young children,” she continues. “What I rely on is the fact that I know my body from where it was before kids is totally different. What I can get out of it is more amazing than I ever thought I could. That’s what I’ve got. I don’t have a fancy pool to train in. I don’t have all these training facilities to train in. But you don’t need them, and I’ve already proved that.”
Training isn’t the only obstacle Romeo had to overcome. Because Team USA does not cover travel expenses for Aquathlon athletes, Romeo has had to fundraise in order to travel to the Netherlands. “It’s absolutely amazing the amount of people who have supported me on this,” says Romeo, who has already raised $3400 of the $4000 she needs for travel expenses. “It blew me away that people have this much faith in me and wanted to make sure this was going to happen for me.”
Two years ago, Madeline couldn’t have imagined traveling to the Netherlands to represent her country at the Multisport World Championships. Now, when she looks forward to September, her goal keeps shifting. “I want to rank well,” she starts. “I want to see myself as a strong woman in my 40s.” She pauses, considering how to finish. “But I don’t want it to take away from me being able to look up during the race and see it, remember it, be able to come home and describe what I felt at that moment to my girls,” she continues. “I want to be one of the faster women out there on the course, but I don’t want to miss my chance to see something that I’ll probably never see again.”