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Olympics Spotlight: 5 Stories about the Unique Demands Faced by Athletes who are Mothers

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

In honor of the upcoming Olympics, here are five stories about mothers who happen to be elite athletes and how these identities shape their lives.


Reporting for The New York Times, Molly Hensley-Clancy speaks to several athletes who have balanced athletic training with parenting within their respective league ‘bubbles.’ Amy Rodriguez (NWSL’s Utah Royals), Jessica McDonald (NWSL’s North Carolina Courage), Candace Parker (WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks), and Stepanie Cox (NWSL’s OL Reign) reflect on the challenges that the NWSL and WNBA bubbles presented, as well as ways they’ve felt an increase in support from their leagues. They mention having to pause training to settle sibling arguments, setting up playgrounds within facilities, and struggling to find child care. Hensley-Clancy contrasts this dynamic with the men’s league bubbles where children are banned, drawing a connection between this gap and the enduring widespread assumption that women should bear the brunt of the childrearing burden. Regardless of these challenges, this piece seems to point to this period as an opportunity. Many players remarked that the enhanced support that they received was direly needed but missing pre-pandemic, and the continuation of these pandemic-era programs could enhance these mom-athletes’ quality of life.


NBC’s provides brief profiles of 10 moms who will be competing in Tokyo over the next few weeks. Included are some household names, like Alex Morgan and Allyson Felix, and some new faces. Read this list to learn about their motherhood and sporting journies, and remember to root for these women as they go for gold!


The Lily’s Anne Branigin writes about a program spearheaded by Olympic runner Allyson Felix (who is one of Today’s “10 Moms to Watch”) meant to support athletes who are moms. Felix, partnering with her sponsor, Athleta, and the Women’s Sports Foundation, has created a $200,000 child care fund for women eligible to compete for the US national team. Felix recounts an incident where she was assigned a roommate at a competition despite the fact that she had a 10-month-old, with this reflecting how “athletics ‘isn’t designed for mom athletes to succeed.’” Felix sees this grant program as one step toward systemic change in the design of athletic systems. She recalls feeling as though being an athlete or being a mother was presented to her as a “binary choice” and hopes that future athletes see a more family-friendly system. Branigin concludes the piece by detailing some recent developments when it comes to mothering in athletics, including increased maternity benefits for WNBA players, the IOC being forced to reverse a previous decision and allow children who are nursing at the Olympics, and a previous dispute between Felix and Nike where her former sponsor had slashed her pay after childbirth. The final line of the piece is a quote from a recipient of Felix’s grant who states that she can now afford childcare. This has finally given her “peace of mind,” a reminder of how quality, affordable childcare can have a transformative impact on people’s lives.

Bonus: Here's an update from The New York Times on the IOC decision about breastfeeding children-- The Spanish Swimmer Ona Carbonell Says She is Disappointed to Leave Her Breastfeeding Son at Home


Haley Draznin goes into greater detail for CNN Business about the decline in sponsorship revenue that athletes like Felix can experience during and after pregnancy. While one talent agent remarks that smart brands would recognize that women can become “more dimensional, relatable, and influential” as moms and that this can be leveraged in marketing campaigns, it remains true that women face financial risks when they decide to start a family. One athlete attributes this to “an automatic assumption” that pregnancy leads to retirement. Pro athletes Kimmy Fasani and Kerri Walsh Jennings both state that they feared that pregnancy would cause them to lose endorsements, indicating that this bias against mothers presents an enduring emotional challenge beyond any potential financial consequences. Nevertheless, Draznin ends on an optimistic note, asserting that pregnancy can also lead to endorsement opportunities from mom-friendly companies.


In this piece for SB Nation, Maggie Hendricks documents the sporting/mothering paths of six athletes who, like Felix, rejected the “binary choice” between motherhood and athletics. She speaks to Alexis Davis (UFC), Sheryl Swoopes (WNBA), Dana Vollmer (swimming), Amy Rodriguez (USWNT), Gwen Jorgenson (triathlon), and Jocelyne Lamoureux (hockey) who reflect on how motherhood changed their athletic experiences. They each mention some common challenges--the physical toll of pregnancy, a lack of energy as they deal with young children all day--but also highlight positive factors like universal support from teammates or lessened stress around athletics because of a shift in life priorities. Hendricks closes by stating that each of the athletes profiled have been able to find success after motherhood but also includes a quote from Rodriguez about the difficult balancing act she faces, reminding readers that, while being a mother and an athlete is achievable, it remains “very, very hard.”


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