Years later, mother and daughter would have a heart-to-heart, and what came pouring out of the mother’s was a lifetime of guilt and regret. In the fall of 1958, Wilma Rudolph had all but abandoned her infant daughter to go off and pursue her Olympic dreams, the child’s mere existence hidden from the world. That was the way it had to happen in the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly for a Black woman whose baby was born out of wedlock.
“They weren’t putting Black women on Wheaties boxes in 1960,” Yolanda Rudolph said recently. And though Wilma Rudolph was successful on the track, winning three gold medals as a sprinter at the 1960 Rome Olympics, it could never be enough to compensate for what she had lost.
“She told me it made her sad because she missed a lot of my milestones,” said Yolanda Rudolph, who spent the first 11 years of her life being raised by her grandmother in Clarksville, Tenn., as Wilma, who died in 1994, became an Olympic icon.
“She missed being with me when I found out there was no Santa Claus — because I saw Grandma bringing all the stuff in that Momma had bought,” she said. “She missed stuff like putting something under my pillow when I lost a tooth. She was sorry I always had to explain to the other kids where my momma and daddy was. She was crying. I said, ‘Momma, why you crying?’ She said, ‘Because I left you in Clarksville too long.’ ”
This summer, at least a dozen moms will compete for Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics, among them some of the most accomplished and famous female athletes of their era: Allyson Felix, Alex Morgan and Diana Taurasi, to name a few. Countless other Olympian moms will compete in Tokyo for other nations.
None, it is safe to assume, will have to hide their motherhood from the world. Quite the opposite: For Olympian moms, that aspect of their lives is an essential part of their stories, their motherhood journeys highlighted in soft-focused television profiles, their triumphs often celebrated with victory laps or podium photo ops with their infants or toddlers in their arms.
“We’re in a powerful moment in time: the female rising,” said beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh Jennings, a mother of three who competed in five Olympics, winning three gold medals.
Walsh Jennings, 42, has been around long enough — her first Olympics was in 2000, and she fell just short of making a sixth team this summer — that she has witnessed that rise firsthand. When she started as a pro, she said, career and motherhood was an “either/or” proposition.
“You had a choice: either put off having babies or wait until you’re done competing,” she said. “When I started, women were mostly waiting.”
For as long as they have been letting women in the Olympics, there have been moms in the Olympics. In the 1900 Paris Olympics, the first to include women, American Mary Abbott tied for seventh place in women’s golf — with Margaret Abbott, her daughter, winning gold. In London in 1948, Fanny Blankers-Koen, a 30-year-old mother of two, gained worldwide fame by winning four golds in track, later earning the title of female athlete of the century from track’s international governing body.
And statistical website Olympedia.org lists 22 women who have competed in an Olympics while pregnant, including Malaysian shooter Nur Suryani Mohd Taibi, who was eight months pregnant at the 2012 London Olympics.
But it has taken decades for motherhood to be considered a normal part of a female athlete’s journey and for the public — and more importantly, corporate America — to regard it as something more than a liability for a woman’s career.
In 2019, U.S. Olympians Felix, Kara Goucher and Alysia Montaño began speaking out about Nike reducing their sponsorship compensation after they became pregnant and had babies. It became a watershed moment, with Nike leading a parade of companies that changed their policies regarding maternity pay and benefits.
“The sporting industry is a male-dominated industry, and [becoming] a mother was sort of looked down on, like, ‘Ugh, great, there goes her career,’ ” Goucher recalled recently. “I remember trying to downplay it and not acknowledge it. Whereas now I feel like we’re acknowledging [it]. … But at the time? We weren’t there yet.”
For American marathoner Aliphine Tuliamuk — who will compete in Tokyo as the mother of a nearly 7-month-old daughter, Zoe — her own, overwhelmingly positive experiences with sponsors in the past couple of years are a product of that fight, for which she considers herself a direct beneficiary.
“I cannot believe someone like Allyson Felix, who is the best of the U.S. Olympic movement, couldn’t keep her sponsorships because she got pregnant,” said Tuliamuk, 32. “Thankfully, Allyson Felix, Kara Goucher and Alysia Montaño talked about their stories because it changed the conversation and made things possible for me.”
Even as the acceptance and support for Olympian moms have grown, one issue that can never be fully solved, perhaps because it is an emotional as opposed to a material concern, is the internal tug-of-war — commonplace among mothers of young children — between career and family. In the case of Olympians, whose prime years as athletes overlap almost exactly with their prime years as child-bearers, the difficult choices and painful sacrifices are perhaps doubly so.
“Our sacrifice is our family,” Russian artistic swimming legend and five-time Olympic champion Svetlana Romashina said in a heartbreaking interview posted in April on the website of FINA, the international governing body for aquatic sports. During training for Tokyo, she said, she saw her daughter, Alexandra, who was born in 2017, just two days each month.
“How shall I explain to my child that we are to see each other just two days a month for the whole year? Not possible,” she said. “My child is small, but she understands a lot. … My heart breaks, and I feel I am a bad mother.”
As Tuliamuk found out this summer, the fight for protections and considerations for Olympian moms is still being fought. For months, she was told she would be unable to bring Zoe with her to Tokyo, despite the fact she is breastfeeding, because of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee’s strict ban on foreign spectators, including family members, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
She petitioned for an exception, but every indication was the ban was ironclad. The prospect of a forced separation was unfathomable, Tuliamuk said, and made her question whether to compete in Tokyo at all. Only in late June, less than a month before the Opening Ceremonies, did word arrive that Zoe and other nursing babies of Olympians would be permitted.
It was one more inflection point in the larger fight for rights for female athletes. And, ultimately, it was one more victory.
“In a way, I feel like I’m that turning point,” Tuliamuk said of her own place in the ongoing struggle. “I’m the point between the past, where female athletes wouldn’t talk about their pregnancies because they were afraid they would lose their sponsorships, and the future. Now other athletes will be able to look at my story and say if she did it, I can do it, too. It’s a new era.”
An Olympic athlete’s schedule is highly regimented, from the long cycle of the Olympic quad to the daily training routine. Having a baby amid that takes planning — and maybe some luck.
In March 2020, when the Tokyo Olympics were postponed a year by the pandemic, Aliphine Tuliamuk started counting months, working backward from July 2021. When she finished counting, the number she landed on gave her both a flicker of hope and a new sense of purpose. Two months. That was the window.
It was time to start trying to have a baby.
Having qualified for Tokyo by winning the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in February 2020, Tuliamuk, along with now-fiance Tim Gannon, had been planning to start a family afterward. When the Games were postponed, Tuliamuk the marathoner was willing to wait another year to compete. But Tuliamuk the hopeful mother was not willing to put off starting a family.
“We were like, ‘You know what, what if we decided to have a family now?’ ” Tuliamuk, now 32, recalled. “We thought it might not be possible. It’s a really short time frame. But let’s give it a try.”
They figured they had a two-month window in which to get pregnant, to leave herself enough time after the birth to prepare to compete in the Olympic marathon on the second-to-last day of the Tokyo Games. As it happened, they wouldn’t need the full two months: Tuliamuk got pregnant almost immediately.
“Looking back now, I realize I was a very lucky person,” she said. “Because pregnancy is one of those things you can’t really plan for.”
Zoe Cherotich Gannon was born Jan. 13, and Tuliamuk will compete for Team USA in Japan as the mother of a nearly 7-month-old baby.
Typically, there is a baby boom among Olympic athletes in the first two years following a Games, with athletes targeting the lowest-stakes years of the quad to start families, leaving themselves plenty of time to revel in parenthood, then ramp up training.
“We literally sat down with a calendar and said, ‘Okay, if I’m going to make it to Rio, I have to have the baby by the end of 2014 — so I need to be pregnant somewhere between November  and March ,’ ” said Paralympic triathlete Melissa Stockwell, who won bronze in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, two years after giving birth to son Dallas, the first of her two children. Daughter Millie came in 2017, the year after Rio.
“There was definitely a post-Rio baby boom,” said Stockwell, now 41. “I feel like everyone — athletes, officials, everybody — was waiting to have babies until after we came back.”
Sometimes the post-Olympics effort to get pregnant doesn’t even wait until the Closing Ceremonies.
“We got pregnant in Beijing after the gold medal match,” said beach volleyball superstar and mother of three Kerri Walsh Jennings, who won gold medals for Team USA in 2004, 2008 and 2012, plus a bronze in 2016. “Literally, probably that night.”
But needless to say, it doesn’t always happen so expediently. Gwen Jorgensen, a two-time U.S. Olympian in triathlon and the gold medalist in 2016, recalled being advised after leaving the Rio de Janeiro Olympics to wait three months before trying to get pregnant because of concerns over the Zika virus.
“When we got the okay and we tried, thankfully I was pretty lucky,” said Jorgensen, now 35. She got pregnant within two months of trying, and she and husband Patrick Lemieux welcomed son Stanley on Aug. 16, 2017. After switching to distance running, she attempted to qualify for Tokyo in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters but fell short at the Olympic trials.
British hurdler Tiffany Porter, an Olympian in 2012 and 2016, suffered a pair of miscarriages in 2017, but she and husband Jeff decided to keep trying, ultimately getting pregnant again late in 2018 with a due date in July 2019 — about a year before the originally scheduled Tokyo Olympics.
“It was a very calculated decision. My husband and I had a very honest conversation,” said Porter, now 33. “The thing for me is, I went into it by asking myself, ‘If for some reason I don’t ever get back to being my best, am I okay with that?’ And the answer was yes. I had accomplished a lot in sports, and I wouldn’t have had any regrets. That was the first question: Yeah, I’d be okay walking away [if] I needed to. After that, let’s see how it goes.”
This is how it went: Daughter Chidera was born July 25, 2019. It was about eight months until the qualifying meet for Tokyo 2020.
We will never know whether she could have made the British Olympic team a year earlier. But in June 2021, undoubtedly aided by the year-long delay of the Tokyo Games, she won the 100-meter hurdles at the British Athletic Championships to secure her place in Tokyo. It will be her third Olympics but, as she pointed out in an Instagram post, her first since becoming #MamaChidera.
“Y’all just don’t understand what this means to me,” she wrote. “… We are going to TOKYO!!”
Olympian moms are not much different than others. Some have difficult pregnancies. Some have laborious labors. Some have C-sections.
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce had it all mapped out, from a childbirth that would be perfect and uneventful to the first time she would step back on the track to resume training. It was the summer of 2017, just a year after the star Jamaican sprinter secured her fifth and sixth career Olympic medals in Rio de Janeiro, and her due date was approaching.
She pictured the post-birth moment when she would hold her son in her arms for the first time. She looked at a calendar and circled a day five weeks beyond her due date when she planned to be running again. As an athlete, she was always motivated by goals. As an expectant mother, she was the same way.
“And then,” Fraser-Pryce recalled recently, “I had to have a C-section.”
Nearly four years after delivering son Zyon via Caesarean on Aug. 7, 2017, Fraser-Pryce will head to Tokyo with a chance, at 34, to become the oldest woman to win individual gold in an Olympic sprint. Among the most decorated sprinters ever, she won the 100 and 200 meters at the Jamaican trials to qualify for her fourth Olympic Games.
But the story of Zyon’s birth is illustrative of a universal truth: Childbirth doesn’t always go according to plan.
Fraser-Pryce’s OB/GYN had warned she was a strong candidate to require a C-section because of her small frame and pelvis.
“I ignored him,” said Fraser-Pryce, who learned only after her own experience that her mother had delivered her and her two brothers by Caesarean. “I was already set in my mind: I was going back to practice after five weeks. I was going to have my baby on my chest right after the birth. I was planning my moment.”
Fraser-Pryce isn’t the only track superstar to deliver a baby via C-section. U.S. sprint legend Allyson Felix was 32 weeks pregnant with daughter Camryn when doctors ordered an emergency Caesarean, stemming from a dangerous case of preeclampsia. Camryn spent weeks in the neonatal ICU.
Olympic athletes are master planners by necessity, their lives a patchwork of schedules, from the long cycle of the Olympic quad to the meticulously plotted daily training regimens. But planning for childbirth tends to be futile.
Natasha Hastings, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 4x400-meter relay, recalled sitting on her couch four weeks before her due date in 2019 and feeling what she figured were Braxton Hicks contractions — only to realize she was about to give birth.
“I almost had my son on my couch. I didn’t even realize I was in labor,” said Hastings, who gave birth to son Liam on Aug. 6, 2019. “I literally had him within two hours of getting to hospital. … The first time I realized I was in labor was when the doctor told me I was eight centimeters dilated. I went from very calm to completely losing it. I went through a moment where I literally told myself, ‘You have to pull it together.’ I even tapped into: ‘You’ve been to the Olympics. You can do anything.’ ”
American marathoner Aliphine Tuliamuk, who qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, her first, by winning the U.S. Olympic trials in February 2020, had the opposite problem: Her labor with daughter Zoe in January 2021 lasted 50 hours.
“In a marathon, you have a finish line and you know how far away it is. In [childbirth], there is no finish line,” Tuliamuk said. “As a runner you train to keep your effort manageable until a certain point because you just need to get through 42.2 kilometers. That’s it. After that, you can crash. But here you can’t crash. You don’t know where the finish line is.”
There are Olympians, just as there are moms everywhere, who look back at their childbirths with nothing but beautiful memories. “I loved delivering my babies. It was the most beautiful and empowering thing,” Olympic beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh Jennings said. “After each one I felt like Wonder Woman.”
But there are also those, such as Fraser-Pryce, for whom the process requires an unexpected and painful detour, followed by a coming-to-grips period that presents its own challenges. All the preparation she did before childbirth only made it harder when things didn’t go according to plan.
“I wanted to have that experience of having my baby on my chest,” Fraser-Pryce recalled. “Not having that messed with my head for a couple of weeks. I was crying. I wanted to hold my baby. … The Caesarean scarred me mentally. I didn’t go in prepared for that, having my stomach cut open to have my baby. I wish I could have had it the normal way.”
Instead of five weeks off, Fraser-Pryce wound up taking 10. She had to ease back into training, starting with yoga and Pilates. She was back competing by the spring of 2018, less than a year after her C-section childbirth, and in the 2019 world championships, less than two years after Zyon was born, she won gold in the 100 meters at 10.71 seconds, her fastest time in six years — a win she celebrated with a victory lap while holding Zyon in her arms.
“That moment showed me that everything is possible when we believe and allow God to do his work,” she said. “Sometimes we worry about nothing. Where we are in life is where we’re supposed to be. We have to continue to believe in the impossible.”
For a new Olympic mom, the road back to world-class performance is not always pretty or painless.
Melissa Stockwell knows how this sentiment is going to sound, but she says it anyway: “Trying to get back in shape after having a baby was harder than getting back after losing my leg.”
Stockwell, a former Army first lieutenant and a bronze medal-winning Paralympic triathlete who lost her left leg in combat during the Iraq War, is only being honest about a reality many elite female athletes experience after childbirth: The return to training can be agonizing.
For Stockwell, now 41 and a gold medal hopeful in the Tokyo Paralympic Games, that reality included a twist: Because of postpartum swelling, she struggled just to get her prosthetic leg to fit.
“Having a baby just wreaked havoc on my body,” she recalled of her return to training following the birth of her first child, son Dallas, in November 2014. She estimated it was seven or eight months postpartum before she began to feel like herself again while training. “At first, I couldn’t even run. I had to start out by walking, which killed me on the inside. I should have been running eight-minute miles, but I couldn’t even run for two minutes at a time.
“The first time I jogged a mile, I was ecstatic. It was super slow, but I was so happy.”
For an elite athlete, the questions of when and how (and in some cases, whether) to return to training require a complicated calculus, the variables for which include physiology, emotional state and the upcoming competition calendar.
“My first taste of it [was] wanting to train like crazy and stay really fit, while maybe what my body actually needed was for me to back off and take care of this baby more,” said Kara Goucher, a two-time Olympic distance runner who had a son, Colton, between the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Games. Now 43, Goucher recalled pushing herself to an actual panic attack during that period.
“There were certainly alarm bells in my mind, like, ‘I know I’m pushing to the edge,’ ” she said. “… I love being one of the best in the world, and I want to make sure I can come back as soon as possible. And then there was also a part of me that was like, ‘I just want to be connected to this baby,’ and, ‘I don’t want to do anything to mess this up.’ It was this constant back-and-forth.”
For many, the mental challenges of returning to training are at least as harrowing as the physical ones. Many new mothers experience “mom guilt” in trying to balance work and motherhood, but Olympians, whose careers require mental and physical sharpness at elite levels, perhaps experience it in a singular way.
When American hammer thrower Gwen Berry, at 15, had a son, Derrick, she hid it from all but her closest circle — because, she said: “I feel like people are more judgmental of mothers than of anything. And that’s one reason why I was really uncomfortable with telling the world that I had a child at the young age because I immediately felt like I was going to be judged. [You] step on the track … they’ll ask you, ‘Why aren’t you with your child?’ ”
For much of her career, Berry, now 32, has lived in Houston, where she has access to the facilities and coaching she needs, while Derrick, now 17, has lived in St. Louis with family members.
“It’s strenuous. You’re tired. You’re lonely. You’re missing your child. … One year, I cried myself to sleep for three months straight because I was so unhappy in the situation that I was in,” said Berry, who made the U.S. Olympic team in 2016 and will compete again in Tokyo. “I was saying to myself: ‘I could be home with my child. … Why am I doing these things and sacrificing my time for the sport that does not pay athletes well and does not care?’ ”
There also can be a feeling of helplessness during the earliest stages of motherhood. American marathoner Aliphine Tuliamuk, who will be a first-time Olympian in Tokyo, recalled the mental distress of being told her daughter, Zoe, born in January, was undersized for the first few months of her life.
“As a professional athlete, I’m a perfectionist. I like to be able to control a lot of things. And not being able to control how my daughter was growing was very hard for me,” Tuliamuk, 32, said. “That really worried me. I couldn’t handle any bad news. The more I went to the doctor, the more they told me my baby was small. It really got to me. There were a couple of times I came home crying, just not knowing what was going to happen.”
But by Zoe’s four-month appointment, she had gained enough weight to be considered above normal.
“It’s funny,” Tuliamuk said. “Now she’s on the chunky side. She eats like a marathoner. So she’s good.”
For Stockwell, the return to training after having a baby eventually sparked an epiphany, one undoubtedly shared by other new moms.
“There’s a strength to moms that I don’t think people realize until you’re a mom. ‘Mom strong’ is a thing,” she said. “You have to be, especially at the elite level. There is no downtime. You’re on your feet. It is go, go, go, and until you’re in that situation, you don’t know how difficult it can be. You walk through an airport and see another mom with kids in a stroller, and you give this head nod because you understand.
“It’s almost like after losing the leg: People said I could never [recover from] that. But you never know until you’re faced with it.”
When your body is your livelihood, the big changes brought on by motherhood can produce unexpected complications.
On the September 2019 day when she returned to the track, roughly two months after giving birth to daughter Chidera, British Olympic hurdler Tiffany Porter was still 40 pounds over her race weight.
“I remember my first run,” she recalled. “I remember saying, ‘Whoa, this is going to be an uphill battle.’ ”
Nearly two years later, Porter, now 33, is back in running shape. After winning the 100-meter hurdles at the British Athletic Championships, she will head to Tokyo to compete in her third Olympic Games but her first as a mom.
“I have a new respect for the human body and especially the female body and what it’s capable of doing,” she said.
Of the many ways pregnancy and childbirth can change the body, Porter, a dual American and British citizen who competed collegiately at Michigan, dealt primarily with the most obvious of them: weight gain. By the end of her pregnancy, she had added 55 pounds, which her doctor warned her was double what is recommended. Two months later, when she returned to training, she had dropped just 15 of them.
“I’d never been this heavy in my life. … But I was also nursing, so I couldn’t crash-diet, since my body was nourishing my baby,” Porter said. “So I had to start from ground zero.”
Like many mothers, elite female athletes experience all sorts of odd pains, curious changes and in some cases debilitating conditions before, during and after childbirth. But unlike those of most mothers, an athlete’s body is her livelihood — her engine — which means each new ache or alteration can feel concerning.
Distance runner Kara Goucher, a U.S. Olympian in 2008 and 2012, recalled trying to train all the way through the later stages of her pregnancy with son Colton, who was born in September 2010.
“Then my back started to get really sore,” said Goucher, now 43. “And at that point I was like: ‘I’ll see you when this baby is born. I can’t do this.’ ”
Still determined to maintain her running shape, Goucher tried resuming running a week after giving birth, recalling: “It wasn’t pretty. … I felt like everything was going to fall out. My body was so foreign, and it was just so loose.”
“Seeing my body change was really wild,” she added. “I didn’t have boobs before, and all of a sudden, a bra was absolutely necessary. Everything being kind of bouncy — it was just very, very different. …
“My hip has been a chronic issue since he was born, and I think it suffered a bit during the delivery and it never really could heal. … It was crazy. I was wearing a diaper for four months. I had to sit on a doughnut in my car for almost a year after my son was born. I just didn’t allow myself to heal.”
The physiological changes from pregnancy and childbirth aren’t all negative. In some senses, the athlete’s engine can feel supercharged in the months that follow.
“I felt empowered,” said American middle-distance runner Alysia Montaño, a 2012 Olympian at 800 meters who gave birth to a daughter, Linnea, in August 2014. “I felt like, ‘Wow, my body is incredible.’ ”
But more common is the experience of sprinter Natasha Hastings, a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose return to training after giving birth to son Liam in 2019 at times got a little messy.
“There are some things I took for granted before, like my core strength and my pelvic wall. That first week back, I peed myself in a couple of workouts,” said Hastings, now 34. “People warned me things would be different, but nobody warned me about peeing myself.”
“I would have to pee myself four to five times on a five-mile run,” said American distance runner Stephanie Bruce, a mother of two whose 2018 postpartum Instagram photo of her diastasis recti, or separation of the ab muscles, went viral. “It felt like my entire pelvic floor and the insides of me were falling out of me.”
Kim Rhode, a six-time Olympic medalist in double trap and skeet shooting, suffered from symphysis pubis dysfunction (SPD) — or severe pelvic pain, the result of her body overproducing the hormone relaxin — after giving birth to son Carter in May 2013.
“I was having a hard time walking and standing more than anything. I was in a wheelchair around the grocery store. I had a handicapped placard,” she recalled. “… Even now, I still do physical therapy to overcome the injuries that I had or sustained in that. I think as an Olympian, when you get pregnant, it’s just: ‘Oh, I’m super healthy. This is going to be no problem. I’ll be back to my old self like instantly.’ And I think the reality really kicks in that, ‘Oh no, this is not what I expected.’ ”
The body typically responds better in subsequent pregnancies and childbirths, in part because of the learning experience of earlier pregnancies. Beach volleyball superstar Kerri Walsh Jennings, a five-time Olympian and three-time gold medalist, recalled trying to run on a treadmill late in her pregnancy with firstborn son Joseph in 2009.
“My arches almost collapsed. I said, ‘Maybe I’m not meant to do this,’ ” Walsh Jennings, 42, said.
But with son Sundance in 2010 and daughter Scout in 2013 — Walsh Jennings was five weeks pregnant with the latter while competing in the London Olympics — the learning curve kicked in.
“I trained better and ate better with each one,” she said. “… My body certainly has changed since I had my babies, but overall I feel stronger than ever. I feel more grounded in my body. My soul is full, and my body knows who I am.”
THE NEW YOU
You’re a different human being after giving birth than you were before. You may find you’re a different athlete, too.
Gwen Berry barely can recall her life before becoming a mom. It was three weeks after her 15th birthday when she gave birth to son Derrick. There is no before and after to her time as a world-class hammer thrower: She completed the entirety of her collegiate career and embarked on a professional career now well into its 11th year while doubling as a mom.
As a result, her perspective on motherhood is different from those of elite athletes who had babies in their 20s or 30s. It’s not so much a gained perspective as a lived one. But Berry’s is a powerful perspective nonetheless.
“Most athletes don’t understand that when you have a child, you have a lot of responsibilities that go along with having a child,” said Berry, who at 32 is heading to her second Olympics this summer in Tokyo. “When I step in a ring, it’s a thousand things that I have to do right. Because I have somebody to provide for. I have a family. I have to do good.”
Growing up in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Berry said, her neighborhood was all she knew of the world. She was determined that Derrick, now 17, would know what else is out there.
“I didn’t have anybody that experienced the world or got to gain that knowledge from going to different countries, living in different areas,” she said. “All I knew and all my family knew was St. Louis, Missouri. As a person and as a mother, that will be one main thing that I can give my child: a sense of security to know what the world is, how to maneuver in the world.”
Most elite athletes who become moms see their lives and careers as having a before and an after, the latter of which includes a gained perspective.
“If you’re fulfilled personally as a human, as an athlete you’re going to kick ass. I was so sick of thinking only about myself,” said five-time Olympic volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings, a mother of three. “They have made my career feel so much more rewarding.”
For British cyclist Lizzie Deignan, who will compete in Tokyo in the women’s road race, the mere act of discussing her motherhood is a strange notion — because it makes it sound like something extraordinary as opposed to something commonplace that she always envisioned for herself.
“It wasn’t this kind of shocking moment that it seemed to be for other people,” Deignan, 32, said of the decision to have a baby. Daughter Orla was born in September 2018. “I’m just another woman, and it’s my right to have a baby. It kind of shocked me how shocked other people were that I decided to have a baby. … I come from a family of working mothers, so I didn’t see it as any different from any of the other women in my family, I suppose.
“It makes you realize that in other people’s eyes you’ve become a professional cyclist and that’s all that you are. Whereas from my personal perspective, I’d always dreamed of becoming a mum.”
When two-time Olympic medalist Corey Cogdell Unrein had a baby boy, Lane, in April 2019, she found her experience as an athlete helped her in motherhood at least as much as the converse. A trap shooter, she competed at nationals two months after giving birth and had hoped to make a third Olympic team in Tokyo but fell short.
“It’s so much like sport to me,” Cogdell Unrein said of motherhood. “It’s so much a mental attitude and how you approach every day. And there’s good days and there’s bad days, just like in training. Going through that experience made me appreciate how tough I am.”
A career spent dealing with the ramifications of winning and losing at high-level competitions is excellent preparation for parenthood, which is nothing if not a daily series of small victories and small losses, underpinned by a larger mission of survival.
“It makes me sad that some days I come home and I really, really want to play with him but I’m too tired. And other days I want to be by myself out on track,” said American sprinter Natasha Hastings, a two-time Olympian. “A couple months ago I came to the realization that some days I’m going to be a great athlete, some days I’m going to be a great mom, and some days I’m going to be a great friend. But if I fall short some days in one of those areas, it’s okay.”
THE BALANCING ACT
Being an elite athlete takes enormous amounts of time and focus. So does being a mom. Juggling both is an Olympian task.
There are days when everything runs smoothly for Mariel Zagunis, where the perfect balance is struck between being an Olympic fencer and a first-time mom, and then there are nights when she is thankful for merely getting through another day. On those occasions, she feels like neither a mom nor an athlete but something else entirely.
“Oh, my gosh, I feel like an air traffic controller sometimes,” said Zagunis, a two-time gold medalist in saber for whom Tokyo will be her fifth Olympics but her first since the birth of daughter Sunday in October 2017. “I feel like I have to make sure every minute of my day is accounted for — not necessarily to feel in control but to make sure my daughter’s needs are taken care of.”
Even without another human being to care for, being an Olympic athlete requires consummate time-management skills. Calendars are filled out months if not years in advance. Training schedules are sacrosanct. Sleep is critical. But all of them are subject to constant flux once a baby is introduced into the equation.
“It’s challenging in the beginning, overcoming the mom guilt,” Zagunis, 36, said. “The sacrifices you’re making also impact a growing family. … You have to be cognizant of how you’re sleeping, how you’re eating. That doesn’t change. But you have to be even more conscious of time management. Every decision also impacts this tiny little human you’re trying to protect and cultivate.”
Zagunis has been helped by the fact her parents live close to her home in Beaverton, Ore., giving her and husband Michael Swehla four extra hands. There are days when all of them have been needed, particularly in the early months of Sunday’s life — such as April 2018, when Zagunis, six months after giving birth, won the gold medal in saber at the U.S. championships.
“It literally takes a village,” she said. “I had a fantastic experience with pregnancy and in giving birth. But trying to come back to physical shape and especially mental shape — our sport is a very mental sport. When you’re not getting a full night’s sleep for a full year or so, it can take its toll.”
When it comes to traveling to competitions or even making a trip down the street for training, there are moms who want their young children with them at all times. “My daughter is literally a track baby,” said British hurdler Tiffany Porter, who gave birth to daughter Chidera in July 2019 and who trains at the University of Michigan. “She’s been coming to the track with us since my first day [back in training].”
But that isn’t a universal sentiment. British cyclist Lizzie Deignan, who had daughter Orla in September 2018, said she prefers to leave the baby home with husband Philip.
“To be honest, when I’m at races, I don’t want them to be there because it’s hard enough to travel with a toddler,” said Deignan, who will compete in the women’s road race in Tokyo. “It’s just easier. It’s better for Orla if she stays home and I fly in and out.”
Corey Cogdell Unrein, a three-time Olympian and two-time medalist in trap shooting, recalled the “mental distress” of hearing son Lane, born in April 2019, crying in the stands during a competition.
That “was difficult,” she said, “because I’m trying to breastfeed, and I’m trying to compete, and I’m a new mom and all these crazy hormones are still going on. It brought a whole different level of just mental distress to competing. Not only are you dealing with all the mental stress of actually competing, but then you hear your baby cry. [You know] he’s fine — he’s just got a dirty diaper or fussy or whatever it is. But immediately all your attention goes to that baby, and you’re out there trying to compete.”
The issue of mothers being able to travel with their infants became a controversy ahead of this summer’s Olympics, when Tokyo 2020 organizers, as part of a blanket ban on foreign spectators, initially said they would not permit an exception for athletes who are also nursing mothers. However, in late June, mere weeks before the Opening Ceremonies, Tokyo 2020 relented and said it would permit the infant children of nursing mothers into the country.
But the fight for accommodations and considerations for athletes who are also the mothers of young children stretches back well before this summer. American distance runner Kara Goucher, an Olympian in 2008 and 2012, recalls fighting for years to get an extra hotel room on the road and an extra ticket to events so she could bring along husband Adam (himself an Olympian in 2000) and son Colton, born in September 2010.
“I had to fight so hard … so that we could have someone come watch my son and that the night before I didn’t have to sleep with him,” Goucher, 43, recalled. “I trained with a lot of men who were fathers, and we would go away to training camp, and they would leave their children with their wives. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but that was never an option for me. My son was always going to come where I went. …
“Yeah, it eats up a little more budget. But it’s doing the right thing — and it’s allowing [athletes] to perform better.”
Not long ago, sponsors were voiding contracts and sports federations were cutting off funding to athletes who became pregnant. It’s better, but there is a long way still to go.
At some point in the chest-heaving, sweat-soaking, tears-shedding aftermath of the women’s 400-meter final at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials June 20, Quanera Hayes found Allyson Felix, both of them having just qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, and thanked her. She didn’t have to say what for. Felix, six years older than Hayes, already knew.
“You can do it,” Felix said later of the one-two finish of moms, with Hayes winning by about a quarter-second. “I think society tells us a lot of times [when] you have a child your best moments are behind you. But that’s absolutely not the case. I am representation of that. Quanera is. There are so many women across industries who are out here, who are doing it and getting it done. I hope they watch and they see that it’s possible.”
Just moments after the end of the race, Hayes, 29, and Felix, 35, gave the world a photo op that once may have seemed impossible: two moms sharing a triumphant embrace on the track, then their children — Felix’s daughter, Camryn, and Hayes’s son, Demetrius, both 2 — doing the same.
Felix’s past three or so years have more or less encapsulated the long fight for rights and opportunity for elite athlete-moms, paving the way in some regards for women who came after her, including Hayes.
Just 26 months ago, Felix, a nine-time Olympic medalist, took to the New York Times op-ed page to reveal how Nike had proposed a drastic pay cut in negotiations for her new sponsorship contract. At the time, Felix was still recovering from an emergency C-section that came 32 weeks into her pregnancy and that for a time threatened the lives of both mother and child.
Felix wasn’t the only athlete to encounter such treatment. American middle-distance runner Alysia Montaño, a 2012 Olympian who gained fame by running in the 2014 U.S. outdoor championships while eight months pregnant and who is now a mother of three, had similar situations occur with shoe companies Nike and Asics around her own pregnancies and births.
“They said, ‘Because you have a child, we don’t feel you’re as dedicated and have as much value, so we’re not going to renew your contract,’ ” Montaño recalled. “We get kicked out of the sport.”
But Felix was by far the most prominent Olympian to speak out. And largely because of her outspokenness, Nike adopted a new maternity policy that guaranteed full pay for athletes for the 18 months around a pregnancy and birth. It was a move that touched off a wave of similar policies by other sponsors that rewrote the rules for female athletes who want to have babies while still competing.
American sprinter Natasha Hastings, a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose son, Liam, was born in August 2019, recalled being scared as she picked up the phone in April of that year to tell shoe sponsor Under Armour that she was pregnant. But Under Armour remained adamant in its support — perhaps because Hastings’s contact there was a woman. When Felix’s op-ed dropped later that year, the company called her back to talk some more.
“I actually cried when they called back because it was like they really got it,” Hastings, 34, recalled. “They understood better where I was coming from. There was some empathy: ‘You told us you were anxious, but now we get it.’ … Obviously this is a big conversation around athletes, but it’s really a woman problem, not an athlete one. Every woman who has a career is faced with the question of, ‘What does this mean for my career?’ ”
That universality seems obvious now: Working women of all stripes can identify with the journeys of high-profile female athletes. An Olympic athlete who wins medals and raises children is unquestionably a corporate asset.
“There is so much value in being a pro athlete-mom,” said American marathoner Aliphine Tuliamuk, whose sponsorship contracts were all renewed — and in some cases strengthened — before and after the birth of daughter Zoe in January. “I feel like I have so many more fans now who relate to me now that I’ve told my story. I’m an athlete but also a mom. And people relate to that. It’s not like we’re different. We share the same struggles other moms do.”
Like Hayes, Tuliamuk, 32, considers herself one of the beneficiaries of the fight Felix and others took up several years ago.
“Thankfully, those women told their stories because it changed the conversation and made things possible for me,” she said. “So I’m really grateful. And I’m hoping every company is encouraging their female athletes — that if they want to have a family, it’s in their interests to do it.”