When I watch the Olympics, winter or summer, I’m always a bit of a basket case. Without fail, when an athlete steps up on the platform to receive a medal, I’m reduced to a puddle of tears.
My children look at me quizzically when this happens.
“Mommy, why are you crying?”
“Because,” I say, sniffling, “that’s somebody’s baby up there. Every single Olympian is somebody’s baby.”
But these Olympics are different. In these Games, I’m crying not only because of the “babies” — the incomparable young men and women who run faster, jump higher and stick the landings better than the best-of-the-best at the tender ages of 16 and 18 and 20. This time, I’m crying because of a group of unsung heroes who traded in their “baby” cards years ago. During these Olympics, I’m positively bawling because of the growing number of mom Olympians.
Not so long ago, when a woman became a mom, it was assumed her days of Olympic glory were behind her. For years, commentators told television audiences in somber tones that an athlete really needed to ‘nail’ a particular event because this was her “last shot” and that after this, she was going home to focus on her personal life (“personal life” being code for “starting a family”).
Swimmers, volleyball players, track and field stars — it was the same for all of them. Being a top-tier athlete was one thing, and being a mother was another thing entirely. The two were mutually exclusive. There was rarely talk of a female athlete coming back to an Olympics after getting pregnant, to start training anew after giving birth.
The commentators never, of course, spoke like this about male athletes, who could become husbands and fathers without much thought given to their need to retire. If anything, becoming a parent has always seemed to add to the level of respect a male Olympian commands, in much the same way becoming a father has traditionally added to the level of respect a man receives in the corporate world. (The latest example of this: Boomer Phelps, Michael Phelps’s newborn son, is arguably the breakout star of the Rio Games and has only added to Phelps’s popularity and marketability.)
For years, it’s been insinuated that giving birthmarks the end of female athletes’ careers. It’s not that some female athletes didn’t try to come back. But when they did, they were more often than not dismissed — as if their maternal status made them less of a serious competitor.
These Games are different. In Rio, mom athletes, as never before, are showing the world there’s a reason the most formidable creature in nature isn’t a daddy — it’s a mama with young cubs.
Of note: Dana Vollmer, the U.S. swimmer who won the bronze medal in the 100-meter butterfly, 17 months after giving birth to her son. She was also part of the 4×100 freestyle relay team that took silver and the 4×100 medley team that claimed gold. After the London Games, it had been announced that she was retiring. But Vollmer’s pregnancy was a difficult one, requiring weeks of bed rest. Vollmer says she needed something to make her feel balanced again. That “something” was returning to what she’d always loved: swimming. On the first weekend of the Rio Games, she surprised the naysayers by medaling. Her motto-turned-frequent-hashtag these days: #MommaOnAMission.
Vollmer is joined at these Olympic Games by Kerri Walsh Jennings — a five-time Olympian who’s won three gold medals in beach volleyball. She’s the mom to three little ones. Her former beach volleyball partner, Misty May-Treanor, retired four years ago to focus on family but Jennings is still actively competing.
Then there’s cyclist Kristin Armstrong, who won her third consecutive gold medal in cycling one day shy of turning 43. She’s mom to a 5-year-old son. Armstrong twice thought she was going to retire in recent years — once specifically to concentrate on her family. But she never lost her love of cycling — or, apparently, her ability to win. So back she came.
Sadly, the interviews with Armstrong following her latest Olympic victory buried the fact that she’s the first cyclist — male or female — from any country to win the gold in the same discipline in cycling in three consecutive Olympics. Instead of asking about her athletic prowess, interviewers have concentrated on her age and maternal status.
Armstrong has been good-natured about all of it, embracing the opportunity to send a message. “I think that for so long we’ve been told that we should be finished at a certain age, “ she told NPR. “And I think that there’s a lot of athletes out there that are actually showing that that’s not true. For all the moms out there, I hope that this was a very inspiring day.”
As much as I adore all of these women, my favorite mom athlete to compete in these Summer Games has to be Oksana Chusovitina, 41, who represented Uzbekistan in the gymnastics.
It’s not Chusovitina’s age that I’m most in awe of. It’s not that she can still execute a vault that most of us were never ever able to attempt, even as teens. And it’s not that she seems completely at ease in a leotard, standing alongside a roomful of women young enough to be her daughters, in a sport notorious for judging women just as much by their appearance as by their skill.
No, I admire Chusovitina most for something far weightier. In 2002, her son was diagnosed with leukemia. Chusovitina sought treatment for her son in Germany, working to scrape together the money for his medical care.
Today Chusovitina’s son is cancer-free. But the idea that this woman — this mom — had to balance all of that tumbling and training with helping her son through the fight of his life? In a word, wow. I had to laugh when the commentators oohed and aahed over how she had the “courage” to execute a vault at age 41 in front of a room full of women less than half her age. After going through hell with her son, I’m guessing donning a leotard to hurl herself through the air felt like a walk in the park.
So just as these Summer Games have shown us what a diverse group of young women can do for U.S. gymnastics — and what Michael Phelps can (continue) to do in the pool — I hope they serve as a reminder, too, of what moms can do. Contrary to popular belief, pregnancy has never been a disease. Giving birth doesn’t mean a woman has lost her edge. And approaching, or even passing, 40 doesn’t mean a woman’s best days are behind her. In many cases, it means she’s just hitting her stride.
Ask any number of us working moms and we’ll tell you that it wasn’t until we became moms that we really understood how to multitask and manage our time. That we figured out ways to knock endless lists of tasks off our to-do lists in just 24 hours that would typically take non-moms 48 hours (or more) to complete. It wasn’t until so many of us balanced babies with careers and other life demands that we finally got what it means to have discipline and focus and grace under pressure. That’s when we unearthed a sort of superhero strength we never knew we had.
So this year, I’m watching the Games, armed with a remote in one hand and a box of tissues in the other.
During these Olympics, when my kids ask me why I’m crying, I’m telling them — between sobs — “Because you see that athlete up there? That’s somebody’s mom.”
Mary Pflum Peterson is TV journalist and author of “White Dresses: A Memoir of Love and Secrets, Mothers and Daughters.” She is also the mother of four children.
You might also be interested in: