Written by Jen Offord

Health

Back on Track

For sportswomen, does the arrival of the pram in the hallway mean hefting the trophy cabinet away into the attic? Not in the slightest, says Jen Offord – despite extra hurdles, having kids can go hand-in-hand with the hunger to win.

Jessica Ennis-Hill at the 2012 Olympics. Photo by Robbie Dale via Wikimedia Commons.

Jessica Ennis-Hill at the 2012 Olympics. Photo by Robbie Dale, via Wikimedia Commons.

When Jessica Ennis-Hill announced her pregnancy back in 2014, I was quick to judge. “Well that’s it – she’s given up on her career, hasn’t she?”

At 27, she had plenty of time for sprogs, but quite possibly only one more shot at an Olympic medal. Why wouldn’t you wait? Why wouldn’t you go to Rio, seal the deal then fuck your body up afterwards? “I dunno,” my flatmate had countered, “maybe because she’s in love?” LOVE? Who cares about love when you could have a gold medal?!

But I’ve been forced to eat my words. In the few short months since Ennis-Hill returned to competition she has secured qualification to be eligible for Team GB selection in the next Olympics, and has been selected for the Athletics World Championships to be held in Beijing later this month. Not bad going since she only gave birth to her son, Reggie, just over a year ago. And she’s not the only one. Who could forget, of course, the magnificent Jo Pavey bringing home the gold medal in the women’s 10,000m from last year’s world championships – just 10 months after giving birth.

I’ve never given birth, but on the basis of anecdotes from friends who have, it’s hard to imagine being at the peak of one’s physical performance in anything less than a year after childbirth – after all, these events are notoriously tough on the body. “My kids were like student tenants,” says one friend, “they just wrecked the place before leaving.” Quite apart from that, I have heard a vicious rumour about crippling sleep deprivation (a friend of mine once told me he hadn’t had a lie in for seven years, since the birth of his eldest son).

But of course, none of my friends are professional athletes and none of them were ever paid to be fit. So perhaps questioning whether or not an elite athlete would ever be able to return to their game is as offensive as questioning whether any of my mates would ever be able to return to their day jobs.

“Not everyone gets to say their parent has won the FA Cup. Even fewer get to say Mummy won the FA Cup. And practically no one apart from Katie Chapman’s kids gets to say their parent won the FA Cup NINE TIMES.”

One woman who knows a thing or two about pregnancy and athleticism is Chelsea Ladies’ captain (also recent winner of her ninth women’s FA Cup title) and England Women’s team member, Katie Chapman. Chapman, who is also a mother of three young boys, gave birth to her eldest aged 20 and her youngest when she was 31. Was she ever worried about returning to her sport after having children?

“I guess I didn’t really worry about it at the time,” she says of her eldest son, “because you don’t really worry about that kind of thing when you’re young.” In terms of her fitness, she was more worried about having her youngest child. Though, Jo Pavey is, again, an excellent example to look to here, having won her gold medal at 40.

Chapman considers herself lucky not to have suffered any major injuries over the course of her quite incredible career, and was able to train up until two weeks before giving birth, returning to training six weeks after. Unlike the average woman on the street, because Chapman already had such a good level of fitness, she says she was able to get back in shape “quite easily”.

“If you’re already fit, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to keep training throughout pregnancy,” she reckons, though obviously all pregnancies are different and the intensity of the training is going to be lower than usual. The problem is when you’re not very fit to start off with: being pregnant probably isn’t the best time to take up a new fitness regime, and a number of the women I spoke to were not even offered any advice by their doctors on how to maintain fitness during pregnancy. Unless you count the ‘FooFoo fitness’ classes (real name) one friend was offered, post-pregnancy. She declined.

There are other advantages of having kids for a sporting career – and any career for that matter – too. Having children gave Chapman the drive to get back out there; she says: “It gave me the space to get the hunger back.” This echoes the thoughts of many of my friends who have had kids: they appreciate their time at work more.

Katie Chapman (right) playing for Chelsea Ladies vs Arsenal Ladies. Photo by joshjdss, via Wikimedia Commons.

Katie Chapman (right) playing for Chelsea Ladies vs Arsenal Ladies. Photo by joshjdss, via Wikimedia Commons.

“The best thing for me,” says Chapman, “is having my kids come and watch me play, and they’re really proud of what I do”. And who wouldn’t be? Not everyone gets to say their parent has won the FA Cup. Even fewer get to say Mummy won the FA Cup. And practically no one apart from Katie’s kids get to say their parent won the FA Cup (I’ll say it again) NINE TIMES.

Perhaps the biggest problem for the average mother getting back into sport is having the time, as well as looking after their kids and potentially fitting all this around having a job. Lest we forget that for many elite female athletes, in the absence of widespread professional contracts, this is a problem for them too. “I’m lucky because I’ve always been paid to play football; it hasn’t always been the best money, but this has always been my job. Perhaps it would’ve been different if I hadn’t been playing professionally,” Chapman considers.

One of the biggest problems for Chapman, and one that saw her out of international duty for a time, was the lack of emotional support she was offered and the feeling that being a mother “wasn’t a good thing.”

“There wasn’t really any understanding that I was a mother, too,” she says, for example, being away from home for long periods of time or receiving financial support with childcare costs, a situation which she believes has improved greatly since then. “I had to make sure my kids were getting what was best for them and if they weren’t happy I couldn’t be happy either.”

So it’s not so different being a sportswoman from being an accountant, and the moral of this story is that there will always be an arsehole like me, judging you, whatever you do (I take it back, Jess). As for Katie’s career trajectory, at 33 years old, what happens next? “While I can keep up with the kids, I’ll keep playing.” Nine FA Cup wins is brilliant “But 10 would be better,” she grins.

@inspireajen

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Written by Jen Offord

Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen