Mum’s The Word – how elite mothers are shaking up the sporting world
Prominent sportswomen who have chosen to be parents mid-career include Olympian and world champion 400m runner Allyson Felix, the decorated track and road cyclist Laura Kenny, and world number-1 tennis player Serena Williams to name just a few. This is not to say that balancing motherhood and a career in elite competitive sports is plain sailing though. According to a study conducted by the University of the West of England, all athletes experienced a cut in or removal of funding or a loss of sponsorship during pregnancy, forcing them to return quickly after childbirth. In athletics, becoming pregnant has been called ‘the kiss of death’ for a woman’s career.
In 2019, The New York Times investigated the maternity policy of world-famous brand and athletics sponsor, Nike, with three runners – Alysia Montaño, Allyson Felix and Kara Goucher – breaking their nondisclosure agreements in an effort to show the discrimination athlete mothers were facing. Wavering their anonymity, the athletes revealed that their sponsorship incomes and even health insurance were to be heavily cut, or even entirely stopped, surrounding their pregnancies.
Due to the protests of the athletes Nike changed their maternity policy, writing into the contracts that Nike-sponsored female athletes would be supported before and after their pregnancy. Issuing a statement on their website, it stated: ‘We want to make it clear today that we support women as they decide how to be both great mothers and great athletes. We recognize we can do more and that there is an important opportunity for the sports industry to evolve to support female athletes.’ Perhaps this is reflected by Nike’s new maternity clothing range which launched in the last week.
What seems to be overlooked by many sponsors and the media is how there are stark benefits for athletes to have children mid-career, compared to waiting until their competitive careers have finished. Although pregnancy will often hinder performance, it doesn’t necessarily require the athlete to stop altogether. Montaño famously ran races whilst pregnant and was actively encouraged by her midwife and physician: “What I found out mostly was that exercising during pregnancy is actually much better for the mom and the baby. I did all the things I normally do, I just happened to be pregnant. This is my normal this year.”
AMG recently interviewed Olympic snowboarder and snowboard-cross athlete Zoe Gillings-Brier on her thoughts about being a mother in sport. Despite always wanting to be a parent, Zoe didn’t immediately see her sporting profession and being a mother as compatible until she talked to friend and Olympic skeleton bobsleigh athlete Shelly Rudman. Rudman advised her on motherhood as a snow sport athlete “from getting fit after pregnancy to what push chair works in 1-foot deep snow.” This was not to say that motherhood was an easy feat: balancing training, eating, sleeping and caring for a baby needed “about an extra 3 hours” per day according to Zoe, who accredited her grandparents for an extra helping hand.
Some athletes also prefer the benefits of being younger parents. Speaking to the BBC, Laura Kenny stated “I always wanted to have a baby in the middle of my career, I wanted to be a young mum and so I was willing to hang up my wheels for a year”. Not only does the feat show that it can be done, the sporting lifestyle of a professional athlete allows women to positively influence their children. Zoe also supports this sentiment, adding that the physical and mental health benefits are key to parental influence, adding “This doesn’t have to be high level sport though, just joining in on a football game with friends twice a week would be fine.” Admittedly the balance is tricky, but Kenny says that the addition of her children changes her perspective and “it shows that you do not have to be as completely wrapped up in it to be successful”.
Though the toll of pregnancy can be tough on many women, some professional athletes have found that with the inclusion of rest and physiotherapy, their performances have been just as strong post-partum compared to prenatal performance. In 2019, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won the 100m at the IAAF World Athletics Championships with a world-leading time of 10.71s, becoming the oldest woman ever and first mother in 24 years to win a 100m global title. You could say she bounced back pretty hard. Fathers have seen a bounce-back too, particularly in golf. A book published known as the ‘The Golf Form Book 1996’ stated that ‘Becoming a father, especially for the first time…can really have a profound effect on any sportsman’. As Rory McIlroy welcomes a new born daughter, he may be able to add himself to the list of those who have benefitted from the aforementioned Diaper Dimension. A study in 2017 also suggested becoming a father in elite golf increases sporting performance, with earnings rising by at least 10% during the infant years of the child.
Progress for sporting parents, particularly sporting mothers, is beginning to gain momentum. Three mothers have reached the US Open final sixteen out of the nine which started the women’s singles draw. In The Telegraph, former world number 1 tennis player Victoria Azarenka was quoted “Even when I was No.1, when I was winning grand slams. I was never able to reach such a level of happiness on the court”. There is inevitable pressure for parents in sport, not only to balance childcare duties but also to show that having a child doesn’t need to bifurcate one’s career into ‘pre childbirth’ and ‘post childbirth’. Female parental visibility is something which needs greater advocacy in sport. As Zoe Gillings-Brier rightly commented, “If we want more young girls to get into sport we need them to know it’s not sport or motherhood, that you can do both”.