Mum is the word!

Mum is the word!

Spotlight : A challenging and rewarding journey awaits sportspersons who return after embracing motherhood

Mum is the word!

In the odds-defying journey of women athletes, pregnancy continues to be viewed as a major roadblock. This presumption has stuck despite countless sportswomen countering it by staging successful return to action. Yet, when Serena Williams caught the world off-guard with news of her impending motherhood, the reactions ranged from shock, acceptance and elation to scripting a tentative obituary of her exceptional career. Her baby is due in September and she is eyeing a comeback in 2018.

Serena’s agent has made it known that the multiple Grand Slam champion has no intention of discarding her tennis racquet. The fact she was possibly eight-weeks pregnant when she won her 23rd Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open threw the world into a tizzy.  The occurrence, though unusual, is not the first such instance in sports history.

Australian Margaret Court, with a record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, had lost the 1971 Wimbledon final to Evonne Goolagong when pregnant.  She, however, returned to add three more to her collection. In fact, Court, Goolagong and Kim Clijsters are the only women tennis players to land a major title after having children.

The examples of post-natal feats are littered in other sports too. Heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill won the gold at the 2015 World Championships just nine months after returning to training following the birth of her son Reggie. Distance runner Paula Radcliffe went on to win the New York Marathon after giving birth to her daughter Isla; Indian boxer Mary Kom won her fourth world championship gold medal after delivering her twins and Sarita Devi won the 2014 Commonwealth Games silver medal within a year of the birth of her son. India’s trailblazing tennis player Nirupama Sanjeev, too, returned after a seven-year absence, following the birth of her daughter, at the age of 33.

The comeback, though, is not always easy. “Earlier, the focus used to be only on your training — which is a very individualistic process — and matches. But once you have a child, it becomes a lot harder. Because at the back your mind you are constantly thinking about your child. The tennis part always remains, but it is the fitness that becomes a challenge,” said Nirupama, who became the first Indian woman to win a round at a Grand Slam (1999 Australian Open).

“I had absolutely no intention of coming back in 2010 but then India needed a woman player for the doubles in Commonwealth Games and I decided to return. But I remember during the Asian Games, my daughter, who was a premature baby, fell sick. All that travel didn’t do her good. It is then that your responsibilities and your priorities begin to play in your mind. I remember a tennis player who used to travel with her child and husband for all her tournaments. But that is a rare example. The key question, though, remains, whether you have the motivation.”

For Mary Kom, there was no dearth of ambition. Her surprise pregnancy at 24 made her doubt her dream of representing in India at the Olympic Games.  But with rock solid support from her husband Onler, she overcame all hurdles. She even saw through the difficult phase of her three-and-a half year son’s heart surgery, which occurred shortly after she won a gold medal at the 2011 Asian Cup. When the opportunity of the Olympics presented itself to the five-time world champion in 2012, she grabbed it by winning a bronze medal in the 51kg category, higher than her usual 48kg bracket.

Besides quelling the barrier of physical pain, the new mothers often undergo the tribulation of emotional sacrifice. The joy of Sarita Devi on winning her Commonwealth Games title in 2014 was diluted by sorrow when her 11-month-old son Tomthil didn’t recognise her on her return from Glasgow.  Sarita, who became a mother in 2013, had to leave her son to her husband to train. “I was overweight and I needed to be back in shape for the Commonwealth Games. For six months I had to be away from my newborn. I was heartbroken when he didn’t recognise me,” she had said.

Recovery period

The emotional strife aside, women athletes can successfully return to their peak once they complete the recovery period. “The recovery period, however, differs from person to person. It is important you do not hurry into making a comeback as you can risk injury. As long as you understand that pregnancy is not a handicap, the athlete will be able to return to her form in due course of time. A lot of them continue to maintain an exercise regimen well into their pregnancy,” said noted sports medicine expert Dr PSM Chandran.

Ennis-Hill, for instance, ensured she exercised within the safety limits of her and her child during pregnancy. She then slowly returned to her full-blown training after recovering from childbirth. She was well supported by her team that included a coach, a physio and a massage therapist.

“I'd be lying if I said there hadn't been days when I thought: ‘I'm not sure I want to do this’, because it is really hard," Ennis Hill, who garnered 6,669 points in the 2015 World Championships, was quoted as saying in Daily Mail in August 2015.

“I thought: ‘I've already become Olympic champion. Do I want all the stress and hard work again?’”
“But I have to give it a go. I don't want to look back and think: ‘Oh, maybe I could have done it.’ At least if I do it, and I'm successful, fantastic. If I'm not quite where I want to be, then I will have given it my best shot.”

In fact, it is believed that pregnancy can enhance the physical performance of an athlete. In the first three months of pregnancy a woman’s body produces a natural surplus of red blood cells, which are well supplied with oxygen-carrying haemoglobin, in order to support the growing foetus. Studies have shown that the body’s improved ability to carry oxygen has positive effects on aerobic capacity. Other advantages include increase in muscle strength due to an increase in hormone-levels during pregnancy.
“It can benefit long distance runners and other endurance sports since your stamina increases,” Dr Chandran said.

In fact, back in the 1970s and 1980s, there were rumours that such physiological improvements during pregnancy prompted East German athletes to enhance their performance by getting pregnant and then having an abortion. Called, ‘Abortion Doping,’ it was the topic of debate at the First Permanent World Conference on Anti-Doping in Sport held in Ottawa in 1988.

Prince Alexandre de Merode, then vice-president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), had acknowledged that Eastern European athletes do get artificially inseminated and then abort two to three months later in an attempt to boost athletic performance. However, there has been no definitive call on the issue, and the IOC had decided against policing the motherhood.

Regardless, the motherhood issue continues to baffle the sports fraternity. The athletes fear social implications too. Serena took off her picture from Snapchat, where she revealed herself to be 20 weeks pregnant, once the social media went berserk with speculations.

Her publicist confirmed it only after a day of suspense. However, it is also a fact that more and more women athletes are now forthcoming with their decision to start a family.

The question that remains is how long could they continue after their comeback. “I do not doubt that Serena can make a comeback. She has been a path-breaker in many ways. Also, people in the western world plan pregnancies better. But then the comeback is never for 10-15 years. It tends to be shorter in most cases,” Nirupama said.

Still, Serena’s unexpected announcement of pregnancy has opened the less visited chapters on women athletes' journey, one that reveals their grit and willingness to live life at the pace of a thriller.

Some supermoms...

Fanny Blankers-Koen: As a 30-year-old mother of two, the Dutchwoman won four gold medals at the 1948 London Olympics, in the 100M, 200M, 80M hurdles and 4x100M relay. In 1999, she was voted the ‘Female Athlete of the Century’ by the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Jessica Ennis-Hills: The 2012 Olympic heptathlon champion missed the Commonwealth Games in 2014 to give birth to her son Reggie. She returned the following year and won a world title before adding Olympic silver to her collection in Rio Games and retiring from the sport.

Kim Clijsters: Kim Clijsters returned at the age of 25 in 2009, after giving birth to her daughter. She went on to win her second US open, which was only her third tournament on return. She added another US Open in 2010 and an Australian Open in 2011.

Mary Kom: Magnificent Mary went onto add two more World Championship titles to her existing three after the birth of her twins in 2007. She later won the bronze at the 2012 Olympics.

Evonne Goolagong Cawley:  She won the Wimbledon Ladies' Singles in 1980, three years after the birth of her first child, becoming the first champion mom in 66 years at the All England Club.

Paula Radcliffe: Briton Paula Radcliffe (left) made a winning return to distance running two years after the birth of her daughter Isla. She holds the world record in women’s marathon.