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Saturday, August 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 80.0° F  A Few Clouds
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The happy medium
How one athlete strikes the work-life balance
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Woodward: 'Feeling like I'm exploring is what drives me.'
Woodward: 'Feeling like I'm exploring is what drives me.'

Dr. Catherine Woodward is a faculty associate and lecturer in the UW-Madison botany department. She is co-founder and vice president of the Ceiba Foundation for Tropical Conservation. She spends her spring semesters teaching an undergraduate field course in Ecuador - a geographical focus of her research and of the Ceiba Foundation's work.

She also swims, canoes, takes her mountain bike off-road, plays pond hockey, practices yoga, explores caves and goes scuba diving. She finds time to garden, water-ski and lace up her in-line skates.

Amid the demands of the scientific life, Woodward, 40, manages to find balance in the sporting life.

For anyone struggling to fit one or two or three sports into a busy life, Woodward's example provides a lesson in accommodation. It involves the way she approaches recreation, and her willingness to be amenable whenever something's got to give. But to understand it, you have to follow her back to childhood and her gateway sport.

"I grew up ice-skating," she explains. "I have pictures of me when I was 4 years old, skating on figure skates." The joy of this memory registers on her face.

Living on Lake Mendota at Spring Harbor, she remembers, "We'd go right outside my parents' house, and all the neighborhood boys and maybe a girl or two would show up, and we'd just shovel a rink and get out there and play hockey."

She played in figure skates all the way into high school at Madison Memorial. She did not buy her first pair of hockey skates until the mid-1990s. "And still to this day," she says, "when women want to start playing hockey and they only have figure skates, I say go for it. It's fun. Don't trip over those toes."

This reflects her philosophy regarding recreation. The key: She pursues sports for sheer enjoyment, not competition.

That was always true, even when she joined the high school swim team. "That was my first serious sport," she says. She was on the swim team for a year and a half before she decided that waking up at 5 a.m. and staying after school until 5 p.m. "was not really for me."

If she didn't stick with the team, she stayed in the pool. "I've been a recreational swimmer ever since," she says. She now swims a few thousand yards twice a week with a masters-level swim class. "It's fun," she says. Those two words again.

Woodward is adept at finding the fun in recreation. In the late 1980s, a friend suggested mountain biking and introduced her to the trails at Kettle Moraine State Forest. "It was so fun," Woodward remembers, "by '88 I did the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival." Entering the 15-mile short race, she remembers, she did well enough to take pride in her performance. She still carries her trophy from that experience, a scar on her right hip.

After that, she veered away from competitive mountain biking, but she still pursued the sport for recreation. "I'm not a very competitive person by nature," she explains.

More than that, she adds, "One of the things that drives me both professionally and recreationally is adventure." So the same impulse that drives her work in tropical conservation also brings her to cave exploration in places like northern Mexico's Sotano de las Golondrinas, the renowned Pit of the Swallows, one of the deepest pits in the world.

"It's six acres at the base and one acre at the top, so it's bell-shaped," she says. "There are all these birds that live in the walls. And it's 1,400 feet. The Hancock Building could fit inside it. So you rappel down. So we did that for Y2K. It was fantastic."

Caving, she says, challenges her fears of tight places and darkness, and takes her to places few other people go.

"I really like - I really love - nature," she says. "I love being outdoors and expending energy, exploring. Feeling like I'm exploring is what drives me."

Still, although she has found ways to combine work and play, sometimes work comes first. Last winter, for example, work requirements trumped her greatest passion, pond hockey. The sport is "what I live for," says Woodward, who is drawn to it by the camaraderie.

When she moved back to Madison in the mid-1990s to be close to her mother and stepfather and pursue her doctorate, "I started playing immediately." Once again, she laced up her figure skates. The next week, she bought that used pair of hockey skates.

She missed out on pond hockey this season, though, because she was teaching in Ecuador. Missing the season only boosted her enthusiasm for the sport.

"It's not about how fast you are, how strong you are, how good you are," Woodward explains. "It's more about getting outside, being with people, enjoying yourself and staying in shape, and not so much about competition - for me, anyway. There are so many things to do."

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