Mother’s Day is taking on a new meaning for several Olympians who are still competing. In addition to celebrating their own mothers, they have become — or are soon becoming — moms themselves.
In the past few months, Olympic and Paralympic medalists Gwen Jorgensen, Kaleo Maclay, Melissa Stockwell, Dana Vollmer, Serena Williams and Mariel Zagunis have announced pregnancies — Stockwell and Vollmer with their second babies. And many of them are following in Alysia Montaño’s shoes and have competed while pregnant. Montaño famously raced the 800-meter at the 2014 USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships while eight months pregnant.
Last November, Jorgensen, 31, raced the New York City Marathon after learning that she was pregnant. She finished 14th. Williams, 35, won her record 23rd Grand Slam title in January after learning that she was pregnant. While two months pregnant in March, Zagunis, 32, won a bronze medal at a world cup in Yangzhou, China, in her first fencing competition since the Olympic Games Rio 2016, then fenced in a grand prix in South Korea the following week. Sitting volleyball player Maclay will compete while pregnant at next week’s World Super 6 Tournament in China. In April, Vollmer, 29, raced the 50-meter freestyle in the Arena Pro Swim Series in Mesa, Arizona, while six months pregnant.
With her tagline “Momma On A Mission,” Vollmer came back after the birth of her son Arlen to qualify for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team and win three medals in Rio. Her gold medal in the 4x100 medley is USA Swimming’s first-ever Olympic gold won by a mother.
And leading up to the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, cross-country skier and four-time Olympian Kikkan Randall, 34, has returned after the birth of her son, Breck. Ten months after giving birth, Randall won her third world championship medal — a bronze in the sprint in February 2017.
Until recently, athletes who wanted to start a family typically retired from their sports first — although there are exceptions, including Andrea Mead Lawrence, who had three children between the 1952 and 1956 Olympic Winter Games, and Kerri Walsh Jennings, who had two children after winning gold medals at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games in beach volleyball, then won her third gold at the London Games while five weeks pregnant with her third child.
In 2010, marathon runner Kara Goucher showed that it was possible for endurance athletes to have children, maintain fitness during pregnancy, then successfully return to their athletic careers. Goucher, 38, relied on information from marathon world-record holder Paula Radcliffe, from Great Britain, who was pregnant with her second child at the same time as Goucher, as well as her doctor, Robin Barrett, a marathon runner herself. Both Barrett and Radcliffe encouraged Goucher to train throughout her pregnancy, and a monthly ultrasound assured Goucher that baby Colt was developing properly.
“Between [Dr. Barrett] and Paula, I had no fear in maintaining a training program throughout my pregnancy,” said Goucher via email. “The day I went into labor, I ran 50 minutes and lifted weights.”
Just over a year after Colt was born, Goucher — a two-time Olympian — finished third in the New York City Marathon.
With so many athletes now continuing to compete into their thirties, more and more women are following in Goucher’s — and Mead Lawrence’s and Walsh Jenning’s, etc. — footsteps, balancing a family with their athletic careers. And contrary to the many old wives’ tales about pregnancy and exercise, these women are showing what’s possible during pregnancy.
First and foremost, exercise during pregnancy is safe and encouraged. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity for women with uncomplicated pregnancies (although contact sports, scuba diving, sky diving, hot yoga or activities with risk of falling should be avoided, reads the organization’s opinion). Exercise has minimal risks and helps prevent some risks of pregnancy, including gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia, and hypertension. It can also help mitigate weight gain and improve post-partem recovery.
Yet only 20 percent of pregnant women exercise, said Dr. Raul Artal, who pioneered research in pregnancy and exercise and co-authored a report commissioned by the International Olympic Committee in 2015 to study elite athletes and pregnancy.
“Pregnancy should not be a state of confinement but rather an opportunity for women to continue an active lifestyle or to adopt an active lifestyle if they were not active before,” he said by phone from a conference in Israel.
For elite athletes, Dr. Artal has no concerns about continued training and competing. He recommends that they keep their heart rates around 145-160 beats per minute for women aged 20-29 and 140-156 bpm for ages 30-39. These rates are based on 80 percent of an athlete’s VO2 max (a measure of oxygen uptake) and vary depending on baseline fitness level. Athletes should consult with their obstetricians.
Kikkan Randall’s OB was encouraging, telling the cross-country skier that her body was accustomed to a lot of activity. But she advised her to let her body be the guide — a strict guideline that most elite athletes abide by.
“[She said] don’t put yourself in a situation where you’re overstressing your body because that’s when you can start to damage your own body,” said Randall.
Randall, whose goal was to have a healthy pregnancy and maintain fitness, made few changes to her training program initially. She continued interval training, but rather than doing 40 minutes per week of intervals at 90 percent of her max heart rate, she did 20 to 30 minutes at 75 to 80 percent. In the weight room, she backed off strength exercises for maximum power and “stuck to good, basic strength things, squats, pullups, core exercises.”
But every athlete — like every pregnancy — is different. Gwen Jorgensen, who won Team USA’s first Olympic gold medal in triathlon in 2016, is running more miles per week than she did in the lead-up to the Rio Olympic Games. Why? Because running makes her feel best during her pregnancy.
“My longest run has been 18 miles, which is longer than my longest run before I ran the NYC Marathon,” she wrote via email. “I am often running twice a day.”
Jorgensen wants to inspire moms-to-be to stay active and healthy. “It not only keeps your baby healthy, but also keeps you sane and happy,” she said.
Athlete To Athlete: What To Expect When You’re Expecting
For elite athletes who are considering pregnancy, those who have gone before them can offer advice.
“I would give them the confidence to feel like they can do a lot,” said Randall. But she cautioned that they should let their bodies be the guide, and if they do not feel good after warming up, to turn around and go home.
“As an athlete, that can be hard to do because you’ve already gotten all your stuff on, you’ve committed to getting out there, and you’re used to working through discomfort,” she said.
Randall would also encourage them to be creative with workouts. When running got tough on her joints, she found an anti-gravity treadmill that allowed her to continue running. She also trained in the pool and on a bike, even mountain biking with her mom the day before Breck was born.
Randall also would remind athletic women to have confidence in their fitness foundations.
“If you’ve been training at a pretty good level for a while, that has given you a foundation that is not going to go away overnight,” she said.
“And enjoy your pregnancy,” she added. “In a sense, it’s your maternity leave. Once you have the baby, then you’re back to work. When you’re back in your next racing season, your body will come around in miraculous ways.”
Competing While Pregnant
“Pregnancy is not a contraindication to competition,” said Dr. Artal. Additionally, changes to blood composition and volume can even enhance exercise (although fatigue and nausea can often negate any feelings of increased blood cells). And he advises elite athletes to be aware of overtraining during pregnancy, which can lead to lack of weight gain and increased risk of musculoskeletal injuries because the pregnancy hormone relaxin affects joints and ligaments.
Alysia Montaño famously competed in the 800-meter at the 2014 U.S. championships while she was 34 weeks pregnant with her first child, “just to have fun and advocate for fit pregnancies,” says her bio on her website.
“If you think about it, primal-ly, people had to continue working, they had to live on the land, and, I like to joke around and say, run from saber-tooth tigers,” Montaño told HLNTV with a laugh, after nationals.
Montaño’s daughter, Linnea, was born in August 2014. She is now pregnant with her second child, but she will not compete. Montaño, her husband Louis and Linnea announced the pregnancy and due date (November 2017) on Twitter on April 26 with a cute video.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games, and she rode her bike, skied and hiked throughout her pregnancy in 2000. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.