How Becky Lavelle turned tragedy into hope and inspiration

Becky, Caitlin, and Brian Lavelle. photo by Mary Bernsen

Dear Izzy, Max, and Kate,
I want to introduce you to some awesome Moms and Dads as I write these letters to you. I’m doing my best to balance being a husband to your mom, a good dad to you kids, and an athlete, but there are some amazing people in the world who are doing these things too. I think it’s important for you to meet them.
Becky Lavelle is one of the best triathletes in the world. Among her many accomplishments are:
  • NCAA All American swimmer at LSU and SEC champion
  • NCAA Academic All American and Suma Cum Laude graduate from LSU
  • 1997 NCAA Woman of the Year
  • Triathlon national champion
  • Pan Am Games bronze medalist
  • 70.3 Worlds bronze medalist
  • USAT Multisport Athlete of the Year
  • Olympic team alternate
  • Wildflower Triathlon Champion

Those honors only tell a small part of Becky Lavelle’s story though. Becky Gibbs was born a fraternal twin with her sister Jenny. Being the father of twin’s I know how close that bond is. The two were inseparable growing up. Both girls, along with their older brother Randy, were gifted athletes from the beginning. The sisters dominated swimming in the state of Minnesota while Randy shifted his focus to Nordic Skiing. Becky’s athletic success carried her on to LSU and eventually to her current career as a professional triathlete.

But in December of 2007 Becky Lavelle’s entire world stopped. Her twin sister and best friend Jenny, suffering from postpartum depression/ psychosis, committed suicide – taking her own life and the life of her 6 week old new baby Graham Gibbs Bankston in the families backyard. She had always been a happy-go-lucky girl, so full of life and enthusiasm, making the tragedy seemingly out of the blue.

The family was devastated and Becky, especially, had a huge void in her life that had never existed before. Part of her was gone. Life without her twin sister had never even crossed her mind. She had always been there. The tragedy seemed senseless and the Gibbs family and Becky and Brian Lavelle (Becky’s husband) were left searching for answers. But Becky Lavelle has always been a fighter and so she immediately set about establishing a non-profit foundation with her family to help struggling new mothers. She had to do something to get through her own pain and to help other women before it was too late.

Along with her family she founded the non-profit Jenny’s Light (jennyslight.org) to serve as a source of information and resources for new mothers and their families who may be struggling with perinatal mood disorders, such as postpartum depression.

In the years since Jenny and Graham’s death Becky has moved on with her racing career – dedicating her efforts to her sister, who may have been helped had an organization like Jenny’s Light existed. In 2010 Becky took perhaps the bravest step of all and became a mother herself, giving birth to her daughter Caitlin Jenny Lavelle. One can only imagine how scary that must have been for Becky after living through her twin sister’s tragic death after becoming a new mother.

Now two years later Becky recently won both 5150 New Orleans and 5150 Columbus triathlons this summer.

I had a chance to catch up with Becky Lavelle to ask her about marriage, being a mom,  Jenny’s Light and a few other light hearted subjects.

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1.  How long have you and Brian been been married now? 
Becky: 9 years (10 years in December!)
2. How did you two meet?
Becky: Brian and I met at a “live high/train low” triathlon camp in Kona, Hawaii in 2000. I moved from Minnesota to California shortly after that.
3. What part does Brian play in your success as an athlete?
Becky: We both motivate, support, and encourage each other to train and compete to the best of our ability.
racing at Escape from Alcatraz
4. The time commitment it takes to excel in triathlon is often a source of stress for a lot of couples. How do you two deal with the time commitment and discipline it requires to compete at the pro level, especially with both of you training while raising Caitlin? Do the two of you find time for just the two of you?
Becky: It’s tricky! It’s a constant juggling act, but somehow we work it out. It helps that Brian’s real job is flexible so if he’s working from home and Caitlin is napping I can get out for a ride or a run. One of us always trains early morning before she gets up or in the evening.
Time for the two of us is hard to come by, but we do try to train at least once on the weekends together and leave Caitlin with Brian’s parents. It’s important to plan “date nights” too.
We actually don’t have regular day care or a nanny so I have Caitlin full time during the week (except maybe 2-3 hours on some Fridays), so that can be hard. But I love the fact that I get to spend so much time with her and not miss out on all of the new things she says, does, and learns!
5. How did your triathlon life change when Caitlin was born? 
Becky: We train less! ha. And it’s harder to do the same races with Brian, unless we have a babysitter….and we get by on far less sleep. ha.
6. What measures do you take to keep family time your top priority amid all of the training and travel?
Becky: We always eat breakfast and dinner together and we both hang out with Caitlin after dinner before she goes to bed. On the weekends I am in town, we try to all go to the beach, the park, the farmer’s market, or some other kid-friendly place or event together.
7. Does Caitlin travel with you to races?
Becky: She has a few times, but it’s tough! Brian has  full-time daddy duty when I travel, which is about 15 weekends a year. Sometimes we get our parents to watch her so we can both travel to races.
8. Is that stressful or has your family learned to enjoy the journey?
Becky: Yes, traveling, staying in a hotel, etc is stressful at the time, but we always look back and remember the fun we had.
9. Does your family play a role in your race selection? 
Becky: Not really, although I don’t travel internationally anymore. I do quick trips: I leave Saturday, race Sunday morning, head home Sunday afternoon.
10. I recently saw you at Rev3 Knoxville. Does the family aspect of their events draw you to their races?
Becky: I love the “family” atmosphere at Rev3 races! Caitlin came to Portland Rev3 and had a blast at the expo!
11. Do you have any advice on how to involve your kids in your love for the outdoors?
Becky: Just get your kids outside anytime you can! Living in California makes that easy for us. Fresh air and activity are essential everyday for kids.
12. Away from triathlon what does your family do for fun?
Becky: We go to the beach, take day trips to parks, do yard work, hang out with friends and family.
13. You have to eat a clean diet most of the year.  Does your family follow your diet as well or do they do their own thing part of the time?
Becky: We all eat the same. I love to cook so I do all of that. I just try to keep it healthy and balanced. Eggs, avocado, peanut butter, and fruit are staples in our house.
14. What life lessons do you hope Caitlin takes away from your career as a professional triathlete?
Becky: I hope she learns that with discipline, determination, and hard work you can be successful and achieve what you believe you can achieve.
15. What do you hope she will remember about growing up with a pro triathletes as her parents?
Becky: We hope she remembers going to races and someday, biking, running along side of us. And also the hard work we put in, but more importantly also the fun and rewards we got from it.
Becky and Caitlin at the Pacific Grove triathlon finish
16. Becky, after losing your twin sister Jenny and nephew Graham in 2007 you helped start the 501c3 nonprofit Jenny’s Light to serve as a resource for those suffering from perinatal mood disorders and postpartum depression. What is your day to day involvement  with Jenny’s Light now?
Becky: My main involvement is putting on a 5k/10k and kids fun run in March every year in Los Gatos, CA. The event usually raises over $10-$15k and attracts over 500 runners.
Day to day I respond to any emails that come my way and help promote and spread the word any way I can about jennyslight.org
17. What do you want new parents to know about perinatal mood disorders? What can new parents do to avoid the dangers?
Becky: I want parents to  know that perinatal mood disorders are very common. Up to 1 in 7 can suffer from them. But they are treatable and women shouldn’t be afraid to speak up if they don’t feel “right” and get the help that they need. It could save theirs and their babies life.
It’s very important that both moms and dads, and the people around them, know the symptoms and warning signs to look for as well …sadness, frequent crying, loss of interest in hobbies, anxiety, feeling hopeless/guilty/worthless, lack of energy or motivation to do things, showing little interest in the baby, etc.
18. How has your involvement with Jenny’s Light been received and supported by the triathlon community?
Becky: I have been amazed at how many people have wanted to race or raise money through racing for Jenny’s Light. Many events and companies have also donated a percentage of proceeds: Kemah Triathlon (TX), Threshold Racing, Inc. (CA), Marin Triathlon (CA), Avalon Beach Triathlon (NJ), Skirtsports, Sports Basement, Twin Six. Many individual amateur and pro triathletes have also graciously donated to Jenny’s Light…Sarah Haskins, Julie Dibbens, Andy Potts, TJ Tollaksen, Kelly Williamson, and many more. I can’t thank them enough!
19. How can people support and raise awareness of Jenny’s Light?
Becky: Help spread the word about jennyslight.org, donate to our cause, keep a close eye on friends and family having babies, give them support, and respond if you need to, join our cause on Facebook, follow us on twitter at @jennyslight
20.. Caitlin’s favorite race destination?
Becky: Minneapolis! She gets to hang out with her grandparents and uncle.
photo by Mary Bernsen
21.. What is your typical prerace meal?
Becky: usually chicken and some sort of pasta or lasagna, but I’m not too picky. I eat anything!
22.. If you weren’t a pro triathlete what would you be doing?
Becky: Opening a bakery or a bed and breakfast.
23.. Three people you’d love to hang out with for a day?
Becky: Kate Middleton, Faith Hill, and Katie Couric. They all seem like very cool women!
24. Favorite band/artist?
Becky: Hard to pick a favorite…Jack Johnson, U2, Sarah McLachlan.
25. Favorite sports team?
Becky: LSU Tigers! My alma mater.
26. One song that gets you fired up to race?
Becky: Foo Fighters – any song!
27. Final word of advice for average age groupers with limited time who are juggling family, triathlon, and a full time job…what’s the most important thing that we can do to progress as triathletes without taking away from our families?
Becky: Make your workouts count, focus on quality not quantity, and try to train before your kids get up, while they nap or after they go to bed.
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I hope you kids enjoyed reading about Becky as much I enjoyed talking with her. You can keep up with Becky and Brian Lavelle on their website HERE>
I love  you,
– Daddy