Dr. Rachel Jastrebsky: Scientist, Triathlete, Advocate

Greg Kwasnik
A big part of what makes Holderness School so special are the teachers. This summer, we’re taking the time to get to know just a few of the amazing educators who call Holderness home.
Dr. Rachel Jastrebsky is pretty busy these days. In addition to teaching first-year Biology and AP Environmental Science classes, she also coaches the school’s cross-country and cycling teams, competes as an elite-level triathlete, and parents her two young children, Annabelle and Corben. We recently sat down with Dr. Jastrebsky to talk about how she balances it all - and how, through her recent advocacy efforts, female triathletes are finding it easier to both start a family and compete at an elite level.
 
How did you become a teacher?
I originally was going to graduate school to be a researcher. I was doing my Ph.D, and my whole plan was I was going to run a lab someday. What really excites me about being in the sciences and doing research in that way is that when you’re collecting data it’s kind of monotonous, this collection of data, this processing of data. But then that data comes together and it tells a story, and it’s really exciting to watch that story come together. When I was in graduate school, and I was doing this research, I started teaching, and teaching other students how to tell a story with your data. I just found that a lot more exciting and rewarding. So now I want to use my experience in that to teach these students.
 
What do you like about teaching at Holderness?
I really like being a teacher at Holderness because it gives me this freedom to find these innovative ways to interact with students in the sciences. I can do really unique labs, I can develop labs on my own, and I get to work with students in small groups. I engage with them a lot more and get them to engage with each other a lot more. One of the really great things about being in this school, in this place, is we get to do a lot of stuff outdoors. I try to get them outdoors as much as I can in the fall and in the spring when the weather’s nice. It’s just a really great place to use the area around us to learn from.
 
You’re also an elite triathlete, and you recently advocated on behalf of elite female triathletes who become pregnant. Could you tell us about the work you’ve done on that?
I’ve been racing triathlons since 2006. I got my elite triathlete license in 2013, and I currently have my elite license. I’m not racing as much as I used to because I have two very young children, which makes it a little bit harder to train 20-plus hours a week like I used to (laughs).
 
When you have your elite license, you have it for three years before you have to requalify. So previously the last time I had requalified was in 2016. My elite license was scheduled to expire at the end of 2019. In those three years, I was pregnant twice – I had my daughter Annabelle in 2017 and my son, Corben, in 2019 – and I also had a broken leg and broken hand, a bunch of injuries during that time. It was tough to get back on the racing circuit in those three years. I did do an Ironman in Lake Placid in 2018 where I finished eighth. I didn’t realize that race had requalified me – apparently it did – but I was under the impression that I wasn’t requalified for my elite license, and it was going to expire in 2019, and I kind of made peace with it. But it also occurred to me that there are other elite athletes – elite female athletes – that were going to have this problem where they were picking between family and sport. As females, our best times for these endurance sports are often also our best times for making a family. So those two can be sort of pitted against each other. I know that I felt like I needed to put off having a family - I needed to always look for that best time to have a family based on athletics, and I didn’t want other women to have to feel like they had to make this choice.
 
So that’s when you contacted USA Triathlon?
So I wrote USAT (USA Triathlon) an email sort of addressing this problem and talking about what return to sport looks like for an athlete that has been pregnant, what that timeline looks like if you’re trying to breastfeed, if you’re trying to avoid injuries. That first year back you can have a lot of problems with injuries because of nursing, and because of how you have to come back slowly. And also the mental aspect of coming back after a baby. I didn’t expect to hear anything back, and they emailed me right away. The General Manager of High Performance for USAT called me up and he was like “You know, we’re really glad you brought this to our attention. We really want to make sure that we’re addressing this and keeping more women in the sport,” because there are fewer elite women than there are elite men. They want to grow the elite female side of the sport. So he talked to me about what an extension policy should look like for athletes that get pregnant within those three years. I had been hoping for a 12-month extension. They wanted to give an 18-month extension. So now in the qualifying criteria, there is a clause that says if an athlete becomes pregnant in their three-year eligibility period, they can be eligible for up to an 18-month extension, based on the circumstances. So that was really exciting because I think now women won’t feel this pressure to get back too soon, to try to race really well so soon after having a baby, or feel like they need to time it right with having a family.
 
How do you balance being a parent with teaching, coaching, and training?
The balance of coaching, teaching, and family can be really difficult. I used to train 20-plus hours a week when I was really going for it. I look back on that now and go ‘When did I have the time to do that?!’ So I definitely don’t train even close to that now. I probably do maybe a half to two-thirds of that at the best, at my highest weeks. It’s a lot of getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning, getting on my bike in our downstairs area, and just pedaling away on the trainer while the kids are still sleeping. I take advantage of some lunchtime runs during the week… Rather than do a lot of hours of training, the training that I do I just try to make it really quality training.
 
Teaching, training, coaching, parenting. How do you do it?
I think with the three years of having a baby and coming back from baby, having another baby, breaking my leg – with all of those setbacks I was really impressed with how the Holderness community rallied around me, especially after our son was born. I had a broken leg when I had him. So we had a newborn, broken leg, and the community just wrapped their arms around us and really supported us. I had people offering to move my car for me, I had people coming and bringing us food, even before he was born. It really touched me to see people that didn’t even know us extremely well just coming and helping us that way.
 
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