When Olympic champion cyclist Elinor Barker announced her pregnancy last year, she summed up the changing attitudes to elite female athletes starting families: “It’s pretty close to being normal – you don’t have to fit in your whole career before you have children.”
Emphasising this point was UK Sport’s publication of its ‘pregnancy guidance’ – recommendations for both athletes and sports on a ‘responsible and reasonable approach’ to pregnancy in elite sport – late last year.
BAC ambassador Nekoda Smythe-Davis gave birth to her first child in August 2021, and has since returned to training, balancing her judo career with being mother to daughter Ryia. Here, she explains how she has found the last few months, and passes on her advice to athletes considering starting a family whilst still competing.
“As an elite athlete you work in Olympic four-year cycles, I had always planned (if lucky enough) to start a family after Tokyo 2020.
“However, my plan didn’t go as such and in fact I was 36 weeks pregnant when the rescheduled games took place in 2021. A long-term concussion injury and the pandemic changed my course of action. So initially I had never planned to have a child and then consider coming back to elite sport. I always thought I would close one chapter before beginning the next. I didn’t know anyone personally who had done that before either.
“I had already been planning for a life after sport prior to 2020, knowing that I would likely be without funding or NGB support. I did not know coming back and receiving any kind of support was an option with pregnancy.
“I had seen some negative press surrounding a pregnant athlete in the US, and a fellow Great Britain athlete and friend of mine had also been dropped from funding the year after she gave birth, just over a year prior to me having my daughter.
“I will not lie in saying I had no expectations of how much support I would receive. I was preparing for a worst-case scenario. I also had never heard of or seen any females in my sport even considering pregnancy while on the World Class Performance Programme.
“Coaches would always say ‘after you retire’ when the topic of starting a family was brought up, but I guess this was just to the female athletes. It was no big deal if one of the guys had a pregnancy announcement while still competing.
“However, Bianca Williams – a friend of mine, Jess Ennis and Serena Williams are just a few of the sportswomen who I had seen start families mid-career, successfully and wholeheartedly.
“On social media, I would see Bianca take her son to the park with him in the pram and do training with him in the earlier post-partum days during the pandemic. I loved following her journey while I was pregnant, still not really knowing what I would do. I loved training while pregnant and as I got closer to the end, I was surer that I wanted to try and come back.
“I found it more difficult to draw inspiration from the bigger celebrities though, as while I do not doubt they would have run into the same challenges as me, I cannot see how I can relate when I do not have the same access to opportunity or financial revenue as them.
“Managing my sporting commitments and motherhood is a minefield, from the moment I wake up until I fall asleep, I never stop juggling all the moving parts of my life to make this happen.
“Any mother will know the phrase ‘mum guilt’. It creeps into every corner of any room and in every decision you make. It’s the devil on your shoulder telling you that you are doing it all wrong.
“Finding the balance is super challenging. I want to spend as much time with my little one as possible but know I need a few hours each day to go training for me. I am a better mum for it: the perfect recipe is if I can still chase my goals and be the best mum to my little one.
“Things like juggling childcare so I can train is a huge stress of mine. My partner works full time so it’s a constant juggle for me as I don’t have family close by. I will be honest in saying it all weighs heavy on me at times but I take a deep breath and I always come back to my ‘why’. I’d take the stress any day to reap the rewards this lifestyle can bring.
“My little one by my side gives me all the extra strength and motivation I need to keep going. I know she will be proud when I’m standing on that podium in Paris 2024.
“Sport is 100% shifting its attitude towards athlete mothers in particular. There is so much talk around it, so much positivity and so much great change already happening.
“But many still only see what is potentially lost when you take this much time away from your sporting career. The way I see it, as a woman, you are told you have a body clock, as an athlete you have a clock too, when you are no longer able to perform at your peak.
“What if those clash – should you wait four years longer than you want to start a family to continue to chase your sporting dreams instead? What if that is four years too late? I think this is a real conundrum for many female athletes and they should have the choice to do both without judgement.
“As athletes we like to control every detail of our lives, to know what we are doing and when the perfect time to do it is. This huge decision should be no different. I would say plan it for when you are willing to sacrifice time from your career.
“Getting pregnant should be on purpose but it can take any amount of time to actually fall pregnant. Additionally, pregnancy and recovery for every woman is different. Expect to be out of competition for at least 18 months from conception – anything sooner is a bonus in my opinion.
“Gather your support network as early as you are willing to share your news. Never feel pressure at any point to not do things the way you want to do it. Know your rights both as a mother and an athlete. Educate yourself in pregnancy – it will be your focus and your lifeline during birth and postpartum.
“Find mum friends, whether they are within sport or not; they will be your sounding board. For me, when I told my sport that I was expecting after my 12-week scan – as the first athlete in my sport to get pregnant while on the WCP – I was shocked at how positive and happy they all were.
“They have supported me every step of the way and I think that has made a huge impact on my mental health surrounding motherhood and my new athlete identity. There is still such a long way to go but I am excited and I am determined at a second chance to fulfil my Olympic dream.”