By the time she finishes her career, Meyers Taylor may be considered the best American ever at her sport. The path to her fourth Olympics, should she make the team for Beijing in 2022, will be unlike any other. She is navigating the novel coronavirus pandemic and new motherhood at the same time, all while physically recovering from childbirth with an eye on returning to elite performance.
The word Meyers Taylor used to describe mothers: superheroes.
“At the end of the day, whether you’re an Olympic athlete or not, becoming a mother is an Olympic event,” she said.
If not for a new U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee policy, Meyers Taylor said, she might not be pursuing another Olympics.
Before this year, the organization’s support of athletes featured a lapse for those who became pregnant. The USOPC provides health insurance and a monthly stipend to elite athletes, who earn those benefits based on the frequency and success of their performances, with criteria decided on a sport-by-sport basis. Female athletes would lose those benefits as they paused their schedules during pregnancy and childbirth.
Last year, sprinter Allyson Felix, one of the most decorated Olympians in U.S. history, sparked a conversation with her outspokenness regarding the failure of sponsors and organizing bodies to support athletes who become mothers. USOPC Chief of Athlete Services Bahati VanPelt, who joined the organization last year, called Felix a “leading voice” in pushing the USOPC to create its new policy.
Starting Jan. 1, if an athlete qualified for Elite Athlete Health Insurance and a stipend before pregnancy, she would continue to receive them during pregnancy through a full year after giving birth as long as she committed to returning to her sport.
“There’s not an obligation for that athlete to feel like there’s pressure to immediately return back to training,” VanPelt said. “When you talk about the wellness and athletes first and being supportive and serving athletes [in a way] that empowers them to be at their best, it’s obvious to have something in place that allows female athletes to make the decisions from a family standpoint of wanting to have children but also knowing there is some security there if they made that decision.”
For Meyers Taylor, 35, the policy made a pivotal difference. Nico was born early, and he spent eight days in the neonatal intensive care unit. The costs were astronomical. Meyers Taylor believes she may have run out of funds under the old policy and been forced to use her finance degree to find a higher-paying job.
“If we didn’t have health insurance, I highly doubt I’d be able to return to bobsled,” Meyers Taylor said.
At the start of her career, Meyers Taylor envisioned having children after retirement, viewing competition and parenthood as incompatible. At the 2014 Sochi Games, she watched teammate Noelle Pikus-Pace, a skeleton slider, travel with her husband and two children as she won a silver medal. “Oh, my gosh,” Meyers Taylor remembered thinking. “That’s so cool.”
“I always wanted to be a mother and to bobsled as long as I could,” Meyers Taylor said. “To see her firsthand be able to do it, I was like, ‘Maybe we can make this work.’ ”
After Meyers Taylor won a silver medal in PyeongChang in 2018, she launched a new goal: winning two gold medals in Beijing and putting them around the neck of her child. Doctors told her and Nic that they may not be able to have children, but the couple persisted. In September, Meyers Taylor announced she would skip the season because she was pregnant. On Feb. 22, Nico was born.
The Taylors returned from the hospital in early March, just before the coronavirus outbreak caused widespread shutdowns.
“In the beginning, it kind of felt like everybody in the world was on maternity leave with me,” Meyers Taylor said.
Under normal circumstances, the challenge of two parents training at an Olympic level with a newborn would have been monumental. The coronavirus spread meant no day care, no friends coming over to babysit.
While Meyers Taylor juggled her schedule, she also faced the physical toll of childbirth. She had planned to rest for six weeks before inching back toward elite training. She lined up specialists — a chiropractor, a physical therapist, etc. — to transition her body. In the pandemic, all of those appointments and plans vanished. Even her diet was affected. Her Georgia grocery store ran out of chicken, her preferred source of lean protein, so she switched to ground beef.
“Your body is an absolute wreck from giving birth,” Meyers Taylor said. “As an athlete, you’re used to being pretty fine-tuned, and you’re used to your body running like a well-oiled machine. … You’re getting used to getting up at all hours of the night, feeding, breast-feeding, all these different things that come with being a parent on top of, I’m trying to get back to training but I can’t go see the normal people I would go see to try to get my body feeling good to train again.”
Training as a mother has been even harder than Meyers Taylor imagined. She worked out during her pregnancy, but she still faced a radical adjustment when she started training again. She was heavier. Her hips were wider. “This is the body we have now,” she told herself. “This is the new normal.”
Despite the physical challenges, Meyers Taylor believes motherhood will make her a better athlete. The perspective she gained, she said, will allow her to place less pressure on herself. She and Nic bring Nico to the track where they sprint. Even though Nico is too young to know what is going on, Meyers Taylor can feel her son’s eyes on her, and it makes her want every drill to be perfect.
Meyers Taylor has steered bobsleds down icy tracks at three Olympics, and none meant more than when Nic was with her. She can only imagine what it will mean to have Nico beside her, even though she knows it will be a difficult path to get there.
“We’re kind of starting to pave a way to show you don’t have to retire in order to compete in this sport,” Meyers Taylor said. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s going to be challenging. But I’m looking forward to it.”