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Moms in the Fast Lane

More and more women athletes are performing as well as they did before having children—and in some cases even better

On May 7, the eve of Mother's Day, Mary Decker Slaney made her 1988 racing debut at the Oregon Twilight Meet in Eugene. The race was also Slaney's first on a track since the birth of her daughter, Ashley Lynn, on May 30, 1986. With her husband, Richard, watching, Slaney led the 1,500 from start to finish. She won by 50 meters, and even though her time of 4:09.14 was 12 seconds off her five-year-old American record, after the race she said, "I did exactly what I should have done tonight. People don't want to peak too early this year, because the Olympics are so late."

For the 29-year-old Slaney, the world-record holder in the mile and the U.S.-record holder at every distance from 800 to 10,000 meters, the Seoul Games may well be her best remaining shot at an Olympic medal. For a lot of other women athletes, Slaney's presence at the Olympics will hold special significance: She'll be joining the ranks of women who have returned to world-class competition after becoming mothers. "Elite runners are constantly asking me questions about pregnancy and the baby," says Slaney.

She hopes to regain and even improve on her prepregnancy form. If she does, she will be in good company. Such track stars as Valerie Brisco, Ingrid Kristiansen and Tatyana Kazankina, golfer Nancy Lopez, speed skater Karen Kania, diver Pat McCormick and luger Steffi Martin Walter all have equaled or exceeded their best feats after giving birth. Many of these women credit motherhood with their continued success. "Carrying little Al definitely made me stronger," says Brisco, who won gold medals in the 200, 400 and 4 X 400 relay at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, two years after having her son. "Motherhood [made] me a better runner."

If motherhood does have a positive effect on sports performance, part of the reason is probably psychological. Many of today's top female athletes began their careers when competitiveness was considered less than feminine. Pat Connolly, the U.S. pentathlon champion from 1961 to '67 and again in 1970, won the '66 nationals three months after having a child. Now a coach with the Puma Track Club in Los Angeles, Connolly says that when she began competing. "If you were an athlete in anything other than synchronized swimming, people figured you were either a lesbian or a tramp." Psychologists suspect that having a baby allows some women to reach their athletic potential by reassuring them of their femininity.

Of course, not everyone races right from the delivery room to the victory stand. Though she's healthy now, Slaney, who was often injured before becoming pregnant, had difficulty coming back after Ashley's birth. She ran a mile six days later and within a month had resumed rigorous training. But then a tailbone fracture, apparently suffered during delivery and aggravated by exercise, forced her to lay off. That injury was the first of several that kept Slaney out of serious competition before the Twilight Meet. Back and hip injuries prevented Joan Benoit Samuelson, winner of the women's marathon at the Los Angeles Games, from training hard enough to enter the 1988 Olympic marathon trials earlier this month. She may have hurt herself because she began working out too soon after the birth of her daughter, Abby, last October. Two weeks ago Samuelson was healthy enough to finish second in the 7½-mile Bay to Breakers Race in San Francisco.

Still, a look at the record books shows a surprising number of top athletes have given stellar performances after bearing children. Margaret Smith Court won three legs of tennis's Grand Slam in 1973, a year after having her first child, and Evonne Goolagong Cawley won the Australian Open in December 1977, seven months after giving birth. Then in 1980 Cawley became the first mom to win Wimbledon since Dorothy Chalmers in 1914.

Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands was a 30-year-old mother of two when she won all four women's track events (the 100, 200, 80-meter hurdles and 4 x 100 relay) at the London Olympics in 1948. Dubbed the "Flying Housewife" by the press, Blankers-Koen was alternately praised for her achievements and pilloried for neglecting her son, Jan, and daughter, Fanny, even though she had the support of her husband-coach, Jan. In 1960 Wilma Rudolph, then 20, won the 100 and 200 and anchored the winning 4 X 100 relay at the Rome Olympics. What few people knew at the time was that two years earlier she had had a baby, a daughter, Yolanda. Current Olympians with children include Walter of East Germany, who won the luge at this year's Winter Games, and her countrywoman Kania, who took home three speed-skating medals from Calgary. All told, mothers claimed eight medals in Calgary.

At the 1984 Summer Games, Brisco, who was married to Alvin Hooks, from whom she is now divorced, won her three gold medals when Alvin Jr. was two. Soviet runner Kazankina had her first child in 1978, two years after winning the Olympic 1,500 in Montreal and two years before successfully defending her championship at the 1980 Moscow Games. Kazankina had another child in 1982, and in 1984 she set world records in the 2,000 and 3,000 meters. Her 3,000 mark of 8:22.63 shattered the previous record by four seconds. Evelyn Ashford delivered Raina Ashley Washington (her husband is named Ray Washington) in May 1985, less than 10 months after winning the 100 meters and anchoring the winning 4 X 100 relay team at the L.A. Olympics. The next year Ashford was ranked No. 1 in the world in the 100 for the fourth time and ran a 10.88, the best time in the world for 1986.

As impressive as these accomplishments are, though, they remain isolated examples. "From a research point of view, there's not much evidence that there is a pregnancy effect," says Valerie Lee, a psychologist at the Melpomene Institute for Women's Health Research in Minneapolis. Problem is, what happens to a woman physiologically during pregnancy is surprisingly poorly understood. Almost every study involving pregnant women and exercise has examined whether physical exertion can hurt the mother or fetus rather than how gravidity affects athletic performance. Early studies, which indicated that exercise could harm the fetus by depriving it of blood and oxygen, have been overturned by more recent research.

For example, in the early '80s James Clapp, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the University of Vermont, and his colleagues monitored 35 pregnant women who exercised to varying degrees—from those who remained virtually sedentary to women who ran till late in their third trimesters—until they delivered. The researchers found that the runners had smaller babies, but the babies were perfectly healthy. And a five-year study at Madison (Wis.) General Hospital demonstrated that most pregnant women not only can exercise safely but also can actually improve their fitness level over what it was before they conceived.

This research, says Clapp, suggests that pregnancy improves cardiovascular and metabolic function. "I think a woman's body undergoes some fundamental changes when she's pregnant that could change her body's response to exercise," he says. Many of these changes parallel what happens to an athlete who works out with weights or who does endurance training in hot weather. For instance:

•Women find their legs feel stronger after pregnancy, possibly because they were carrying an average of 25 additional pounds.

•During pregnancy a woman's heart rate increases, as does her stroke volume, which is the amount of blood the heart pumps with each beat. Both phenomena improve fitness.

•Her blood volume increases by as much as 40%. Her red-blood-cell count rises slightly, but plasma accounts for most of the increase in volume.

Additional plasma allows athletes who train in hot weather to sweat more profusely. Their blood also circulates near the surface of the body more easily because the smaller ratio of red blood cells to plasma means that the blood flows more freely in the tiny capillaries near the skin. As a result, the athlete's body can dissipate heat more effectively. Similarly, Clapp discovered that pregnant women begin to sweat when their bodies are at a lower temperature than women who aren't pregnant. "I figure that pregnant women are about 33 percent more efficient at getting rid of heat," says Clapp.

All other factors being equal, such physiological changes could enhance performance. Rumors have been circulating in the track world that some Eastern European athletes take advantage of these apparent benefits by becoming pregnant just before crucial competitions. Such unconfirmed stories are difficult to believe, because these women would have to abort after big meets. However, Der Spiegel, the West German news magazine, reported that top women athletes commonly take high doses of birth control pills, which contain hormones that stimulate physiological changes that mimic the early stages of pregnancy.

So far, though, scientists are just guessing that the physiological changes brought on by pregnancy improve performance and that they persist after the baby is born. In theory, finding out how pregnancy affects world-class athletic performance ought to be simple. All that's required are tests before, during and after the pregnancies of elite athletes. Such tests have probably been performed in East Germany and the Soviet Union, where accumulating data is easier because athletes live together in training centers. In this country, only one such study has been done, and it focuses on just one subject, champion triathlete Liz Applegate.

In 1982 Applegate, a lecturer in the nutrition department at UC Davis, won the U.S. Triathlon Series event in San Francisco and the California Championship Triathlon in Folsom. At that time Bob Holly, a sports physiologist and assistant professor of physical education at Davis, did tests on Applegate similar to those performed in the famous 1975 Dallas study of elite male runners. Before she conceived, he tested Apple-gate's VO2max, which is a measure of the body's ability to absorb and use oxygen during all-out exertion. Holly also checked her body fat and maximum heart rate, both of which were consistent with those of an elite athlete.

Applegate continued exercising throughout her pregnancy before having a 7-pound, 2-ounce baby boy in December 1983. Two days after delivering, Applegate was running again. Holly continued to test her at regular intervals. Within 5½ months Applegate had returned to competition, having regained her prepregnancy levels of fitness.

Seven months after Applegate had given birth, she and Holly were astonished to see that her VO2max had increased by 5%. This is a phenomenal improvement for a highly conditioned athlete. A woman who goes from being an overweight couch potato to being able to run a 10K might expect a dramatic jump, perhaps as much as 25%, but such an increment is rare for someone already high on the fitness scale. Applegate cautions that her results don't prove the existence of a pregnancy effect. "This is just one case study," she says.

Lacking physiological evidence, some researchers have turned to psychological explanations. During labor, for example, many women discover mental and emotional resources they never knew they had. "No marathon has ever been as difficult as labor," says Samuelson, who married Scott Samuelson two months after her victory in Los Angeles and was in labor for nearly two days. "I kind of joked around with the people in the hospital that after this a sub-2:20 marathon was going to be a piece of cake. Having Abby definitely changed me mentally."

Slaney agrees. "I've never experienced pain like I did during labor," she says. "Now I can push myself so much harder. I don't think women have pushed themselves as far as they can physically, which is why I believe women are going to run a four-minute mile."

Having interests outside of sports can also improve performance. Many athletes suffer from overtraining—running or swimming too many miles instead of putting in quality mileage. Having a baby can help a woman avoid this pitfall by forcing her to use her limited time more efficiently. Kristiansen, of Norway, ran the fastest marathon of her career five months after giving birth to her son. Gaute, in August 1983. In May 1984 she improved on that time and a month after that set the world record for 5,000 meters. Since August 1986 she has held the world record in the 5,000, the 10,000 and the marathon. "I am now aware that there are other things in life than winning," says Kristiansen. "And, funnily enough, that has helped me get better at competition."

Lynn McCutcheon, author of Psychology for the Runner, points out that Kristiansen's experience is common. "I've seen [it] with many runners, male and female, who were injured and forced to slow down or stop," says McCutcheon. "Once they got healthy, they showed a strong psychological readiness to return."

Competing as a world-class female athlete can also be psychologically trying. Many of the top women track performers in the U.S.—Samuelson, Ashford, Brisco, Slaney et al.—who are now in their late 20's and early 30's, grew up at a time when girls weren't exactly encouraged to excel in sports. Slaney recalls that when she started running competitively at age 11, "It wasn't openly acceptable for women to race. Men's races were real athletic events and women's races were tokens." Even the Olympics offered no track race longer than 800 meters for women until the 1972 Games.

Women's sports in the U.S. have changed considerably since then, partly because of the Non-Discrimination Act of 1972. Better known as Title IX, the act requires, among other things, that high schools and colleges provide equal opportunities for men and women athletes. But while opportunities may have improved, attitudes have not. A 1985 poll conducted by Miller Lite Beer in conjunction with the Women's Sports Foundation found that 58% of 1,700 respondents thought that women often must choose between being athletes and being feminine.

"We still hear from people who say things that lead you to suspect that they think athletics will impair their ability to bear children," says Lee. "We hear, 'I don't want to lose my period. I still want to have kids.' The reproductive function seems to be so mysterious."

Nonathletes aren't the only ones who are confused. According to Dorothy Harris, a sports psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania Human Performance Laboratory, "Some women athletes think. If I'm this good, I'm not normal. Training is strenuous, it throws their menstrual cycles out of whack. It may be that such psychological stress affects their success. Obviously, being pregnant is very normal."

Having a child seems to have helped Kristiansen on this score. Her husband, Arve, has said that before the birth of Gaute, Ingrid didn't really believe she could be a mother. "She thought her whole hormone system was not working in that way," says Arve. "But now she is more fulfilled. Nothing is missing."

More than 16 Soviet women have won Olympic medals after giving birth, and at least four moms who have won gold medals are scheduled to compete for the U.S.S.R. in Seoul this year, including Kazankina and 100-meter sprinter Lyudmila Kondratyeva. A non-scientific explanation for the large number of East European athletes with children is that their countries have traditionally subsidized these women well into their childbearing years. By contrast, until recently in the U.S., many athletes, particularly those in sports in which there were no postcollegiate financial rewards, dropped those sports when their college scholarships ended. Further, some women who excel after becoming mothers are simply reaching their physical and mental peaks at that point in their lives and would have achieved whatever they did even if they had not had children. These days, however, they are less hesitant to compete after childbirth.

Without empirical studies, it's impossible to know what role pregnancy plays in athletic performance, and before such research is done, motherhood shouldn't be given undue credit for a female athlete's accomplishments. To reach world-class status, a woman has to do more than get pregnant and lace up her spikes. "It's not as if women have never been physically active during and after pregnancy before," says Lee. "Women have had to do heavy physical labor since Adam and Eve, and I don't know if she got to rest or not."



A year after Raina was born, Olympic champion Ashford was ranked No. 1 in the world.



Slaney ran right up until she had Ashley, who just turned two.



Kristiansen believes having Gaute helped her to set the world 10,000-meter record.



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Valerie and Alvin had Alvin Jr. two years before Brisco (364) won three golds in L.A.



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Applegate is the subject of the only U.S. study on how pregnancy affects top athletes.