Background: Motherhood has been deemed incompatible with an athletic career, with women encouraged to end their involvement in sport to have children. However, there are a growing number of women who achieve both personal and high-performance sport goals. For these women, having a child during the course of a sport career can be viewed as an athletic career transition – one that causes a significant interruption to their career trajectory, bringing with it a unique set of demands that requires coping processes to allow a return to elite sport.
Aims: Our qualitative investigation focuses on three successful Olympians who have balanced motherhood with the highest level of training and performance. We aimed to uncover the experiences of the participants during this unique transition.
Methods: The participants all decided to have a child during their athletic career and to return to Olympic-level training and competition. Data were gathered qualitatively via the participants’ compilation of a memory book containing pictures, cards, cuttings, notes and drawings representing this time of their lives, which generated discussion with the researchers during an interview. The interview transcriptions were analysed inductively using thematic analysis.
Results: Participants cited examples of the injustice of biology as a female athlete. Nevertheless, in their quest to become mothers, participants reported combining pregnancy with a lengthy period of injury rehabilitation to use their downtime effectively. During pregnancy, all athletes experienced a cut in or removal of funding or a loss of sponsorship, forcing them to return quickly after childbirth. Postpartum, there were expectations of enhanced physiological performance as a result of increased blood volume and greater range of movement in joints. This advantage was counterbalanced by the scheduling of training and competitions which were incompatible with motherhood. Yet, motherhood brought psychological benefits of a broader identity and an opportunity to disconnect from poor performances.
Conclusion: Much more work is needed to understand how best to support pregnant and nursing athletes in elite sport.