Riding the motherhood wave

Motherhood is complicated. Sport is complex. And somehow, these two intense activities seem to be complementing each other in more ways than one as female athletes strive to balance both chasing sporting glory and rising a child.
Last Updated : 13 January 2024, 16:46 IST
Last Updated : 13 January 2024, 16:46 IST

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Bengaluru: At eight weeks old, little Olympia was the size of a kidney bean (approximately 1.6 cm, 20 grams). This is the phase when the embryo transitions into a foetus with nerves branching out to connect each other in the brain, tiny fingers and toes sprouting out of newly formed hands and feet… 

While this miracle of life was taking place inside Serena Williams’ womb, the tennis great was busy ripping aces, running down forehands and backhands as she defeated sister Venus in the final of the 2017 Australian Open to capture her 23rd Grand Slam. 

The then 35-year-old won her seventh Daphne Akhurst trophy without losing a set throughout the two-week event in January while being two months pregnant. 

‘It takes nine months to get there and nine months to get over it,’ could be one of those rare old wives’ tales about childbirth that holds true, mostly. The first part especially. 

But it’s the narrative of the second half - taking it easy after bearing a baby - that has been constantly challenged by several elite athletes in a physically and mentally gruelling world.

Serena had daughter Alexis Olympia through an emergency cesarean that year in September, went through postpartum complications, played an exhibition match that she lost to Jelena Ostapenko in December and returned to the tour in early 2018 - all within a mere six-month period of giving birth. 

Her compatriot, Kim Clijsters, went through her own motherhood adventure in 2009. “We tried to plan Jada’s naptime a little bit later so she could be here today. It’s the greatest feeling in the world, being a mother,” a sweaty yet beaming Clijsters had said during her winners’ speech after clinching the US Open in 2009 with her 18-month-old toddler Jada cheering from the players’ box in the stands. 

What began with Margaret Court (who holds the record for most Grand Slams by a woman at 24) and Evonne Goolagong as the pioneers of this change in the 1970s and 80s before Clijsters and Serena, a larger tribe of mother athletes will march through the gates that open today at the National Tennis Centre in Melbourne Park for this year’s Australian Open. 

Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber, Caroline Wozniacki, Elina Svitolina, Victoria Azarenka… making it the ‘Happy Slam of moms’.

Before her comeback match at Brisbane International last week, 26-year-old Osaka, now the mother of 6-month-old daughter Shai, siad: “Giving birth was one of the most painful things I’ve gone through. It’s definitely made me feel like physically I can handle a lot.”

The four-time Grand Slam champion's comments, similar to the several other mother athletes, throws up an interesting question. Does childbirth boost athletic performance? 

Though extensive studies are being done regarding the same, no concrete evidence has emerged to prove it. However, the extreme physiological changes that a woman undergoes during pregnancy and labour could be the reason behind female athletes managing physically demanding sports better post childbirth, suggested Dr Nivedita Jha, obstetrician and gynecologist at Sparsh Hospital in Bengaluru. 

“In a pregnant woman’s body the uterus is touching the diaphragm that forces the entire system to increase its capacity,” reasoned Dr Nivedita. 

“Meaning, hyperventilation leads to higher tidal volume. The metabolic rate increases by 30 per cent because the foetus is growing inside. Cardiac output is more because the heart is supposed to pump two times more blood than it was before. Blood vessels are dilated (vasodilatation) because the uterus needs so much blood supply. 

“Six weeks post-partum everything reverts to normal if not entirely to its original state. In simple words, because the body goes through extremes, post childbirth the system learns to adjust to any kind of physical stress it undergoes thereafter.”

If this is the anatomical explanation, there is the psychological aspect as well. In their quest for sporting excellence, it will be ideal to believe in ‘I have given birth to a child, I’m more powerful now.’  

However, delivering a child is just the beginning of a long tough road with deprived sleep, energy deficiency, body producing milk leading to fatigue 24/7 - all proven nemesis to peak performance.  

According to a study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), urinary incontinence is common in all female athletes. So managing the pelvic floor muscles becomes utmost important post pregnancy and childbirth. 

Though injuries are part and parcel of any sportsperson’s life, another study by NIH says mother athletes are at a higher risk of going through stress fractures, lower back and pelvic pain, abdominal muscle strains, breast pain and lower limb injuries. 

“An athlete's life revolves around a strong core. After delivering a baby, you have no core left. It feels so soft. I could not do one sit up initially,” recalled Sania Mirza, a six-time Grand Slam doubles champion who refused to be stuck at the crossroads of choosing between sporting ambitions and having a child. 

“I had a C-section and I had put on about 23 kgs. It took me four months to shed the excess weight and after that is when I actually started training and becoming stronger. It was very hard. I won't lie. It was harder than any injury or surgery I have ever had,” she told DHoS. 

The 37-year-old, who gave birth to son Izhaan in 2018, won the doubles title in the very first event she entered in January 2020 after nearly a two-year break. 

“I remember, when I won the first match after my comeback, I felt a sense of accomplishment bigger than I had ever felt before, even though I had won so many bigger things prior to that. You feel a sense of satisfaction, pride, relief. It felt amazing,” reminisced Sania. 

Realising the need, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) allows players to freeze their rankings if they are out for a minimum of six months and return to play within three years due to injury, illness or pregnancy. 'If a player is out of competition due to pregnancy or a medical condition, she is allowed 3 years to use her special ranking. In the event of pregnancy, the time period is calculated from the birth of the child,' says the rule.

This difficult journey from childbirth to elite athleticism is not a ‘tennis only phenomenon’. What was once considered the beginning of the end of a female athlete's career, women have quashed such stereotypes in every sport across the world.

British distance runner Paula Radcliffe began training 12 days after welcoming her daughter Isla and won the 2007 New York City Marathon nine months later. Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Frazer-Pryce and American sprinter Allyson Felix - both multiple Olympic champs -, Scottish golfer Catriona Matthews, Pakistan women cricket team’s former captain Bismah Maroof, American footballer Alex Morgan, the list is an ever-growing one. Closer home we have boxing legend MC Mary Kom, squash ace Dipika Pallikal among other athletes.  

Motherhood is complicated. Sport is complex. And somehow, these two intense activities seem to be complementing each other in more ways than one as female athletes strive to balance both chasing sporting glory and rising a child.  

Being a parent might well be preparing better athletes. Or vice versa. Afterall, playing a dual role of scheduling one's training around breast-feeding or brushing aside a gut-wrenching loss to play peek-a-boo was never going to be a simple task. 

Published 13 January 2024, 16:46 IST

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