When I first thought of writing about Olympian mothers and their experiences returning to their beloved sport after giving birth, I imagined a heartfelt story for all to read. As I began researching though, I soon realized that this is not the case. While the birth of their children brought a new motivation into these mother’s lives, there were many obstacles faced that further split the jobs of motherhood and sport--and the choices that come when participating in both.
You might remember in 2014 when runner Alysia Montano competed in the United States Track and Field Championships while 34 weeks pregnant. Her finish in the 800m race was met with cheer and amazement from everyone in the crowd. However, behind the scenes, the reality of Montano’s experience wasn’t as exciting as the outcome of her race. When she had shared with her then current sponsor Nike that she wished to have a child, Nike responded they would pause her pay and postpone their contract with her. Unfortunately, Montano isn’t the only female runner who has dealt with compensation discrimination due to pregnancy; runner Phoebe Wright, also sponsored by Nike, told the New York Times in 2019 that “Getting pregnant is the kiss of death for a female athlete. There’s no way I’d tell Nike if I were pregnant.”
After speaking out about her maternity experience as an athlete, Montano started a campaign in 2019 called Dream Maternity. While in direct response to Nike’s Dream Crazier campaign, Montano’s movement is focused on supporting moms of all professions in order to change policies, maternity leave, and protect all women. She shares, “The point is to encourage a healthful pregnancy—in mind, body, and spirit—for the mom and the baby.” With the emergence of movements like Dream Maternity, the future is hopeful for mothers who strive to accomplish many goals, work and motherhood included.
Though the scope of their work may be different from that of the average working mom, female athletes also face the choice between caring for their newborn and bouncing right back into the action of their sport in order to maintain their sponsorships. For one, 2008 and 2012 Olympic long distance runner Kara Goucher returned to training only a week after giving birth to her son. She then had to choose whether to keep training at 100+ miles a week or breastfeed him, and to keep training or be with her newborn son in the hospital while he was sick. Because of her sponsorship with Nike and the promise of pay only after she began competing again, she was forced to choose the former in both scenarios.
Five-time Olympian Allyson Felix also had a similar experience as Alysia Montano, Phoebe Wright, Kara Goucher, and many others who faced decreased pay while pregnant and post-birth. After deciding to sign with Nike due to their promotion of women’s and girls’ rights and empowerment, Felix was shocked when they declined to protect her if she didn’t continue to compete at 100% before, during, and after pregnancy. Additionally, they chose to pay her 70% less than her previous salary after giving birth. Felix says in her article in the New York Times:
“But pregnancy is not messing up; for women it can and should be able to be part of a thriving professional athletic career, as my teammates have shown and I hope to show too. And I dream of a day when we don’t have to fight in order to try. Protection during maternity isn’t just limited to Olympians; working women all over the U.S. deserve protection when they have children. We shouldn’t have to rely on companies to do the right thing. Our families depend on it.”
Luckily, due to the outcry of these mothers, many companies started implementing contracts for pregnancy and mothers--including Nike, which will now allow for 8 weeks of paid family leave. However, this isn’t enough. The responses from Nike and other sponsors make clear that their standards regarding their contracts and protections have been focused on men, failing to address the unique situations that women may face as they undergo changes of childbearing. Women have been professional athletes for decades, so it is sincerely surprising that pregnant athletes and mothers are just now being recognized and protected during the four periods of birth.
Alongside maternal leave, mothers faced a new challenge this year: breastfeeding. Amidst the pandemic and protective protocol, many mothers with newborns were originally not able to bring their babies and breastfeed them while residing in Tokyo. Amidst petitions, mothers remained unaware if they could bring their children or not...days before the games began. Due to these athletes sharing their concerns on social media, Tokyo changed their statutes regarding breastfeeding athletes. Though these changes opened the doors for newborns, Ona Carbonell, a synchronized swimmer from the Spanish Olympic team, spoke out about the rules placed on bringing a child to the games. She noted that even though she could bring her child, there were many regulations included with this allowance that continued to make the situation difficult. In the end, she decided to leave her child in the care of her husband at home. In the future years, contracts between athletes and their sponsors need to expand to accommodate and defend all individuals in all situations.
On a lighter note, over a dozen mothers have qualified and have been competing for team USA during this year’s Tokyo Summer Olympics. Across the globe, mothers from other countries have qualified and are competing as well. The setbacks and hurdles regarding pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and breastfeeding that these mothers have gone through to get to where they are is truly extraordinary, and their experiences will make for great stories to tell their children years ahead. The Today Show highlights mothers who are not only in the Olympics, but are also advocates for many social justice issues, including pregnancy protections and rights. Admirably, these moms focus on how inspiring their children are to them and their success. In the face of discrimination and hardship, having their children pushed them to do better and better, even though it may have hindered them in the process. Here are some of these mother’s quotes below:
Mariel Zagunis, Fencing
“Now I have new motivation — doing this for my daughter and trying to make that work. I’m really excited to go to my next Olympics with her to show that anything is possible. If you put your mind to it, you can make your dreams come true. It would be a really awesome experience to have with her and our entire family and to be able to tell her someday that I went to all these Olympics and then had her and we did it together.”
Brittney Reese, Track & Field, Long-Jump
In reference to her adopted godson: “He’s a good motivator. He’s at the end of the runway saying, ‘Let’s go, Brittney!'”
Cat Osterman, Softball
“As an athlete, we always talk about how there are always eyes watching you, but when you're a mom or a stepmom, there really are eyes always watching you. It motivates you to be a good role model, a good example.”
Sally Kipyego, Track & Field, Long-Distance
“Physically I feel a lot has changed. My body is different. My body kind of fell apart after giving birth. But mentally I’m stronger. ... I keep telling myself, ‘You can go through childbirth, you can pretty much go through anything.’ I can take the pain better now.”
Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson, Volleyball
“For the longest time, I dreamt of becoming a mom AND a professional athlete. I’m proud to say that I am now both. Thank you to all the badass mothers who came before me and showed me that it was possible, and here’s to those who will follow in our footsteps.”
Despite their fame and success as Olympic and national athletes, these women’s experiences as mothers are no different than any other mother’s. There are setbacks, postpartum depression, and discrimination. But, their determination and drive are truly inspiring. If they can face both the intensity of motherhood and sport, what can’t they do? Motherhood is hard, and tackling life along with motherhood is harder--but it proves how extraordinary women are, that they can navigate the ups and downs, the highs and lows, birth and raise a child and continue to follow their dreams. This Olympic season, recognize your worth as a mother who has a goal, a mother who has determination, a mother who has aspirations! Because you. are. that. mother.