Natasha Van Der Merwe
Photography by Weston Carls
We all know those women who appear to possess mystical magical powers. They raise perfect children, they have stellar jobs, and they excel at every sport they pursue. How in the world do they do it and where can the rest of us pick up these powers? Ironically, most of these women will also be the first to tell you that they can’t do it alone. Yes, it’s possible to look like a Super Mom, but what’s underneath the cape isn’t a super secret. It’s a highly structured routine, unwavering discipline, and a huge support system that helps them shine. Here are three Austin “SuperMoms” that shine while raising children and doing what they love.
Natasha Van Der Merwe
How exactly does one balance motherhood, a full-time day job, and training as a professional triathlete? “Focus,” says Natasha Van Der Merwe. “When I show up here at work, I try to focus on what I have to do and, as best I can, focus on every single athlete. I do the same when I get home as well. Everything else goes away and I try to give 100 percent of my effort to my daughter, Nadine.”
Sometimes the superpower of a mom is being able to compartmentalize priorities and still have the discipline for real self-care. This lifelong athlete was a former tennis pro before switching to the sport of triathlon less than 10 years ago. She still trains for triathlons because she loves it, but has realized that raising a 10-month-old, being a wife, and working a full-time job does require self-sacrifice on the training side. “In the past, I would push through when I was exhausted,” she says, “but now I won’t do that. I’ll take a much-needed rest so that I can be the best mom I can be.” While she may not be putting in the quantity of training that she used to, Van Der Merwe has no doubt that the quality of her training has improved, which has also improved the quality of her life. “During my pregnancy, when I had to step away from training, I really missed it and I really missed how good the sport makes you feel,” she recalls. “I had the least amount of energy when I wasn’t training. Now, I just feel like I’ve got a great quality of life. It gives me energy to put that back out to the people I love.”
Putting energy out there is the thing she does best, especially to her team of 120+ athletes that she coaches on a daily basis at Austin Aquatics and Sports Academy. While she used to let this enormous priority bury her, becoming a parent has actually given her a more healthy perspective on her daily full-time job, as well. “Funny enough, it’s made me more relaxed since so much is really out of our control. Priorities change and you realize how foolish it was to obsess or get upset about small things like not responding to an e-mail right away or not nailing a workout. It’s really no big deal. You just make adaptations when you realize your baby is the most important priority.”
Sure, she’s definitely made adaptations to her training and work life, but she readily admits that she could not succeed without a routine and the support of family and friends. She often coaches classes at 5:30 a.m. and will train along with the team to maximize her time. While she’s working, her husband, Steve, and her mom (who has been visiting from her native South Africa) are at home with Nadine. When she returns home from her morning workout, she’ll spend time with her daughter until she goes down for a nap. At that point, Van Der Merwe will either catch up on work or take her own quick nap since she usually has to go back to the training center in the afternoon to coach evening classes. Most e-mails and work are done in the evening when Nadine goes to bed. Many friends, too, have graciously provided her meals, babysitting time, rides, toys, clothes, and so many other selfless gifts of love.
“I feel so grateful that this is what I get to do and that I have the opportunity to impact and contribute to the success of a bunch of people,” she says. “It’s extremely rewarding and that makes my work fun and fulfilling.”
The other time she feels most worthy and fulfilled? “Watching Nadine respond with a smile or laugh,” she says immediately. “I look at her and think, ‘How did I create that?’ There is such a deep fulfilling love and when I’m fully present and living in the moment with her, nothing makes me happier.”
It’s hard enough to find your way as a normal American teenager, but imagine if you moved to the United States from the Czech Republic as a 16-year-old and had to assimilate immediately into American high school culture. You learn resilience at a pretty young age; in fact, this is the biggest quality that 32-year-old Michele Aubry still credits for being a “SuperMom” in her own right.
She and her mother moved to Austin when Aubry was just 16-years-old, where she finished her last two years at Austin High School. From there, she went to the University of Texas for an undergraduate degree in psychology and then straight to grad school for a master’s in professional counseling with an emphasis in marriage and family counseling. It was during graduate school when she became pregnant with her now five-year-old son, Max.
“I grew up with a lot of discipline and I thrive on structure,” emphasizes Aubry. “This was how I was able to finish grad school on time and still raise a young son.” Structure and routine are vital, but so is having a support system. Aubry’s mom was and still is a vital part of her team. “I’d have to leave for work so early in the morning and my mom would take him to school for me. Often, she would also pick him up since I wouldn’t get home in time.”
She admits that she harbored guilt about being away from her young son, but her full-time jobs working as a counselor in nursing homes and then later working with Parkinson’s patients were extremely fulfilling, while arming her with a plethora of lessons she still carries with her on a daily basis.
“You cannot underestimate the importance of self-care and not being afraid to ask for help,” Aubry stresses. “These are things I would advise my clients and they’re equally important for me, as well.” It’s difficult to foster relationships as a single mom, but she encourages seeking out a close-knit tribe of support. “Find a person you’re comfortable with and talk to them if you’re struggling,” she stresses. “It’s not always clinically necessary, but it is vital to have that sounding board when you need it.”
Another vital element of fulfillment for Aubry is her daily fitness routine. She works out at Pure Austin during lunch for the mental, physical, and social break. She also knows it will help with her energy and keep her from getting depressed or overwhelmed. “The more you stick with your routine,” she says, “the better you feel. It’s not just about looking good. It’s also about feeling good.”
These days, Aubry has a lot to feel good about. Max is a well-adjusted, loving, and athletic boy. He’s played soccer since he was two and he even attends Stronghorn boot camp classes with her on the weekends. “He is just such a happy kid. Because of my schedule, I was worried we might not have a close connection, but we do. He’s very loving and happy.”
She’s also recently taken a new full-time position that allows her to work from home, a blessing and luxury she doesn’t take for granted. “You’ve got to learn to be grateful and realize there’s always something good in every situation. A lot of times we will dwell on the past or worry about the future and it takes away from being present and experiencing life right now.”
What does a First Sergeant in the Army National Guard, a wife, and mother of two young sons do to relax? She trains for IRONMANs, of course! Such is the life of Shelley Horner who is also the branch chief for the Master Fitness Trainer Course at Camp Mabry.
The Master Fitness Trainer course trains soldiers from the Reserves, National Guard, and Active Duty from all across the country and U.S. Territories on exercise science, anatomy, physiology, performance nutrition, and injury prevention. “Essentially,” says Horner, “we are training soldiers to become personal trainers for the Army. There are five training sites in the country and Texas is one of them.”
Training soldiers is certainly rewarding in itself, but the bigger picture is definitely not lost on her, either. “We’ve worked with thousands of soldiers across all our locations to train smarter and hopefully help them maintain their physical wellness into retirement and beyond. Each soldier that leaves our doors will affect countless people and thinking about that ripple effect is pretty awesome.” It’s a position that holds high esteem for her, especially since physical fitness and health plays such a huge role in her personal life as well.
Horner started running in 2004 and attributes her father as her main inspiration. Since then, she has done five stand alone marathons, countless shorter races, and was even on the Army 10-Miler Team at Ft. Carson in Colorado. Horner also races triathlons and is currently gearing up for this July’s IRONMAN Lake Placid. Horner, no doubt, credits her career military background for the discipline, structure, hard work, and dedication that has bled over into her training, whether it be for triathlons, schooling, or training other people—even if it’s come with a few sacrifices.
“I’ve had to sacrifice some family time and precious sleep, but it has also made me realize that I can also be more effective and efficient with my training.” Fortunately, there is also family nearby to help with her two sons (Gabriel, 5 and Isaiah, 1) along with her wonderfully supportive husband. “He is definitely my biggest supporter and fan and I couldn’t do half of what I do without him,” she stresses emphatically. “Having my family out there keeps it fun for me. I want to set a good example for the boys and to test my own limits, but if I’m not having fun, what’s the point?”
This is a huge lesson she wants to instill in her young sons. Work hard, but have fun. “My family is, by far, my biggest joy. Looking into those little faces brightens my day and makes every ounce of hard work and sacrifice totally worth it.”