A woman of power and altruism, this is the story of Leanda Cave, a professional triathlete and four-time World Triathlon Champion. A native of South Florida, Cave just finished third at the Ultraman World Championship, an athletic odyssey of self-discovery that took place in November 2022 on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Cave, an extreme athlete, and superwoman, entered her first triathlon in 1993 at the tender age of 14. She has won many major events throughout her career, including the Escape from Alcatraz (4 times), the Florida 70.3 (3 times), the Miami 70.3 (3 times), the Wildflower Long Distance Triathlon, Ironman Sweden, and Ironman Arizona. Cave won a record-tying three titles at the 2012 Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, and the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Las Vegas. Due to this accomplishment, CNN named her one of the "10 Fittest Women in the World" and made history as the first female triathlete to complete both challenges in the same calendar year.
She is not only an extreme athlete but a generous person as well. So far, she and the Miami Design District have raised $27,000 for the Dolphins Cancer Challenge and Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Research Center. The Dolphins Challenge Cancer and the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center will receive one hundred percent of the proceeds.
We had the opportunity to talk to Cave to get an insight into her life as a renowned athlete, her philanthropic endeavors, and why she chose South Florida as her home. Cave is truly an inspiration that as long as you put your mind, body and soul into it, you will get it.
What got you into triathlon at such a young age?
Leanda Cave: My sister, Melissa. She is 2 years older than me and was 13 at the time. Melissa was the first to try out different sports, and I had an opportunity to see what it was all about before giving it a shot myself. At the time, I was already doing a lot of swimming and running, so when Melissa did a triathlon, naturally, I thought I could too. It wasn't long before I was beating my sister!
Did you ever face any challenges/obstacles as a woman competing in triathlon?
Leanda Cave: Early on, not at all. I often found myself beating the boys, which gave me a lot of confidence and respect among my peers. But through my teens, I began to follow the sport of triathlon, and I would watch it on TV or read about it in print media whenever I could. This was when I noticed significantly less coverage of female triathletes, and I found it hard to keep track of my female role models in the sport. As I entered the world of professional racing, I quickly realized that the dollar value of my sponsorship contracts was drastically less than those of males. I was also not considered a viable athlete to represent certain products or brands. This made me feel inferior and undervalued. As long as I can remember, both men and women had equal prize money at races, but the men's races would always pay deeper than the women's. It made it difficult being a young female athlete trying to work their way up the ranks, as all the prize money was going to accomplished women in triathlon at the time. I had to work three jobs in my early 20s to make enough money to fund myself to do the sport and make it to events. Thankfully today, the prize purse pays down equally in men's and women's fields, and there are many more racing opportunities to earn money as a female triathlete.
From all the races you've competed in, what has been the most exciting and challenging, and why?
Leanda Cave: Definitely the Ironman World Championships in Kona. I had competed in the event six time before I finally won it on my seventh attempt. The Ironman World Champs in Kona was the toughest triathlon I'd ever competed in due to the extreme temperatures, high winds, challenging course, and the star studded field of the best athletes on the planet. In many ways, it intimidated me, but at the same time, I found these elements of racing very exciting. I loved competition, and being able to dominate under such conditions made me very proud of myself.
In such challenging competitions, have you ever felt like giving up, and what do you do to keep pushing forward?
Leanda Cave: Many times! But actually, giving up rarely ever happened. I've learned that the feeling you have after you quit is way worse than the feeling at the moment you want to quit. So I would always persevere and ride the emotional roller coaster when one minute you are feeling like a rockstar and the next like a fish out of water. The best way to overcome moments of self-doubt, pain and fatigue during an event is to simply slow down and reset. By lowering the heart rate, you begin to feel that making it to the finish line is manageable. At the end of the day, one foot in front of the other is the only way to make progress no matter what the speed. There were times when I would find myself walking during a triathlon.
In 2012 you secured your 3rd and 4th world titles at the Championships in Las Vegas and the Ironman World Championships in Kona, the first female triathlete in history to accomplish both feats in a single year.
How does it feel to push yourself mentally and physically to do such championships in a year? How did you prioritize resting?
Leanda Cave: Coffee helped….lol! Back when I was racing as a professional, the harder I pushed, the better it made me feel. I enjoyed discovering my limits, and the only way to do this was not to set expectations. I was very good at shutting out the pain my body was going through and focusing on the goal of getting to the finish line as fast as I could. I had many failures along the way, so I don't want people to think that I was this unstoppable machine. I learned more from failure than I did from success. I also understood that unless I failed, I would never know how to race to my full potential. Everyone is hurting at some point when you race at a professional level. You train for this. There is no successful athlete who wake up in the morning and feels thrilled about the idea of pushing their bodies to exhaustion. They just go and do it knowing that it will prepare them for the day they need to do it in a race. Rest and recovery is important in this process. Eating right, getting in good quality sleep, and getting massage is part of a professional athletes daily routine. I didn't go out much. In my 20's and 30's I missed out on a lot of fun night life so I could go to bed by 9pm to be able to wake up at 5am. If this routine was disrupted, training would suffer. It came down to discipline and saying no to many enticing invitations.
Being in 3rd place in the Ultraman World Championship must be a fantastic achievement; congratulations! What makes this competition so unique and special? Did you have to go into special training for this championship? What is the biggest challenge of the tournament?
Leanda Cave: Thank you. I was more relieved to finish this event than anything else! I was racing in partnership with the Miami Design District to raise money for cancer research at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. It was the first time I'd raced for a cause, and honestly, it was how I made it to the finish line. Ultraman is a three-day triathlon event, starting out on day one with a 6-mile ocean swim and a 90-mile cycle with 8,000 feet of elevation gain. Day two is a 170-mile cycle with 7,000ft of elevation gain. And day three is a 52-mile run. Each day took me roughly nine horus to compete, adding up to 27hrs of total time after the 3 days. I was the 3rd female and I finished 8th overall including men and women. I was beyond exhausted after each day and I went to some dark places in my head as I pushed through pain and fatigue. Thankfully we had to have a crew for support and supplies along the way, and they became my cheerleaders. The female winner, Dede Griesbauer was very impressive as she is 52 years old, still racing professionally and in the best shape of her life! Beating Dede was my biggest challenge, and that I could not do. Finishing ended up being my main goal as I soon realized I was extremely tired and overtrained coming into the event, resulting in poor performance. Training for an event of this distance is a balancing act. More training is not necessarily better, and I lost that balance whilst serving the needs of the athletes I coach and managing the necessary training I needed to do in order to prepare for this event. One of the biggest challenges during the event was getting in enough calories. I raced with my favorite sports nutrition products from Neversecond, which were fine during training. But after day one of the events, I had flavor fatigue, which led to a decline in consumption and a calorie deficit. I ended up switching to everyday food so I could feel full and replenished.
I read online that you are British, so what made you choose South Florida as your home? What are your favorite things about living in the area?
Leanda Cave: At the end of 2012, I suffered a bad injury off the back after one of the most successful years of my racing career. In early 2013 I found myself scrambling to find anyone who was able to diagnose and fix the issue. I was also on tour as the current female Ironman World Champion winner and travelling a lot for sponsorship commitments and appearances at events. This made it hard to be in one place long enough to get help. Finally, a friend told me to stop and see a doctor who had great recommendations at the University of Miami Sports Medicine Institute. Dr. Kaplan diagnosed me with a torn hamstring, and I temporarily moved to Miami to get treatment. By early 2014 I was finally healed and back to normal training and racing and at this point I decided to live and train in Miami during the winters and head to Colorado for the summers. Now I have lived here for roughly 10 years!!!
How does it feel to be recognized as one of the world's fittest women?
Leanda Cave: I freaking love this accolade!!! It wasn't ever a goal of mine to be one of the world's fittest women, but it's an added bonus that tangibly embodies what it feels like to achieve the results I have throughout my career of racing as a professional triathlete. I feel fit and strong, and this empowers me and gives me so much confidence!!!
Do you think triathlon is an excellent way of entering a fitness journey?
Leanda Cave: What I feel triathlon has is it's multi-sport concept that very few sports can match. It offers an all-body workout giving an all-over tone and definition while enhancing aerobic capacity. Triathlon also has a thriving community of athletes who spend time working out and racing together, formulating incredible friendships alongside a healthy camaraderie. It never gets boring, and the fact that any age group athlete can race at the same event as professionals at the same time makes it fundamentally unique. I've seen more first-timers (male and female) start triathlon in their late 30's to early 40's, perhaps because of burnout in other sports. So there are many reasons why triathlon would be a wonderful fitness journey for anyone who is looking to try it.
Any tips for people who want to get into triathlon?
Leanda Cave: I think it is important o watch an event, either in person or online and talk to someone who already does triathlon to get a feel for what they are signing up for. I always tell beginners to start with a sprint race and work up to something longer, like a half or full Ironman. The most intimidating part of triathlon for most is the swim, as it involves physical contact with other athletes in the water, often causing much anxiety. This is worth practicing a lot before they do their first race. If the beginner is new to cycling or has only been riding indoors, it is also very important that they become confident riding outside and learn cycling etiquette, road rules as well as bike skills. And most importantly, get a coach who can help guide them through a training plan and teach them good technique and nutrition strategies for training and racing.
Everyone would like to know your fitness routine. Is it something extraordinary or something simple that helps you achieve your fitness goals?
Leanda Cave: I'm not training as such these days. As part of my job as a coach/trainer, I take clients out on their workouts daily. I could be working out with clients up to 5hrs a day, so I try not to do any additional cardio but rather incorporate strength and conditioning 2x per week. This helps me to be strong enough to bounce back each day. I try to get 7-8 hours of sleep per night. This sometimes means I need to go to bed at 8:00 p.m. if I have a client that wants to start at 5:00 a.m. I have a very balanced diet and try to consume 20 grams of protein with each meal. I like a glass of wine every other day and I do like eat chocolate and pizza!!! Recovery is important to me, and I see a massage therapist one a week, and I stretch and roll daily.
Now, you are also a philanthropist. Why do you think it's important to help others and to promote health, especially during these times?
Leanda Cave: I'm very fortunate today to be able to afford many luxuries in life. But I've also been on the other end of the scale where I couldn't make ends meet. For this reason, I always give back. It may not be much, but it matters, and if everyone just gave what they could, regardless of how big or small the donation to help others, it goes such a long way. Their generosity may never be acknowledged first hand, but I promise that it is felt by those in need. And being wealthy is not just what is in your bank account, but how you live your life. I see too many people chasing money and not living. It's culturally engrained here in the USA. But I grew up in Australia and it's a different mentality. When I train clients, I try to have a positive impact this way and it's the way I live my life!
How did the partnership with the Miami Design District happen? What made you decide to raise funds for cancer research?
Leanda Cave: Several years ago, I became the cycling coach of Craig Robins, the co-founder, and co-owner of the Miami Design District. Craig has long been a cyclist, and each year he rides in charity events in Miami. Over the years, we have become friends, and when he learned of my ambition to be the Ultraman World Champion, he wanted to help, and we came up with a plan to raise money for Sylvester with the support of the Miami Design District as my sponsor. I also train Dr. Stephen Nimer, who is one of the most highly regarded cancer research doctors working for Sylvester. We are all good friends, so this fundraiser helps so many. I could not have been able to race the Ultraman World Champs without the help of MDD, Craig and Sylvester. Now we are again raising money for the Dolphin Challenge Cancer, a fundraising bike and run event on 02/25 where funds go towards cancer research.
What other initiatives would you like to support?
Leanda Cave: I've already mentioned the Dolphin Challenge Cancer, and I would encourage anyone to sign up. There is a 5km run/walk as well as 3 cycling distances: 35 miles, 55 miles and 100 miles. It's very well organised with police escorts, support cyclists, rest stops and a post ride lunch. All the details can be found clicking here.
Photography by: Courtesy of Miami Design District