For top female athletes, pregnancy no longer a career roadblock

Article by Shannon Ryan in the Chicago Tribune
Photo courtesy of Matt Marzahl

For top female athletes, pregnancy no longer a career roadblock

As Sarah Gorden headed to Chicago Red Stars practice last week, her 3-year-old son, Caiden, toddled behind her in a baggy white jersey.

It was a scene many told her she would never experience.

“When people started to find out I was pregnant, they told me, ‘Realistically, you’re not going to be on the field again,'” said Gorden, who took a medical redshirt while pregnant on scholarship at DePaul. “Professional soccer wasn’t in the conversation.

“When I heard those things, I thought, ‘No, absolutely not.’ My first responsibility is to my child, but I wanted to show him, you can represent possibility. You can fulfill your dream and be head over heels in love with your child. It motivated me.”

Like many elite female athletes, Gorden returned to playing at her sport’s highest level after giving birth.

When tennis star Serena Williams, 35, announced her pregnancy last month, skeptics wondered if this was the end of her decorated career. Critics pondering her future quickly dismissed her dominance — 23 Grand Slam singles titles, second all time — and even the probability that she won the Australian Open in January in the early months of her pregnancy.

Never mind a long list of athletes who have successfully returned to competition:

• World champion British runner Paula Radcliffe won the 2007 New York City Marathon less than 10 months after giving birth to a daughter. She repeated the victory the following year.

• Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker, who played at Naperville Central, missed the first eight games of the 2009 WNBA season after delivering a daughter but came back to lead the league in rebounding. In 2010, she scored a career-best 20.6 points per game. In 2013, she was the league’s most valuable player.

• Scottish golfer Catriona Matthew won the Brazil Cup on the LPGA Tour when she was five months pregnant. Less than three months after delivering her second daughter, she won the Women’s British Open.

• Swimmer Dara Torres won the 100-meter freestyle at the U.S. Nationals just 16 months after having her first child in 2007 and went on to become the oldest swimmer to represent the U.S. at the Olympics in 2008 at 41.

• Runner Sarah Brown made a bid for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team four months after delivering a daughter, running 1,500 meters in 4 minutes, 24.97 seconds at the trials but not making the team.

• British heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill won the gold medal at the IAAF World Championships in 2015, nine months after delivering a son. She won silver at the 2016 Olympics.

Despite the evidence, some still view pregnancy, motherhood and competitive athletics as an unrealistic combination. Experts say that antiquated view has been disproved.

“What makes news is not 99 1/2 percent of pregnant women in the world,” said Dr. James Pivarnik, a kinesiology and epidemiology professor at Michigan State University who studies pregnancy and sports.”It’s the Serena Williamses and Paula Radcliffes. They’re different to start with, not only because of their talent in their sports but because their bodies can withstand intense training without breaking down. They recover very well. If anybody can do it, they can.”

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