Over the next four weeks, LockerRoom brings you “From here to Maternity”, a series on the sensitive issue of female athletes’ decisions around pregnancy and motherhood. In the first part, Dame Valerie Adams – our most iconic mum athlete – has a message to share with female athletes who want to have a family.
Dame Valerie Adams knows exactly how fortunate she is.
Sitting in her Christchurch home away from home, during a break in another week of intense training, the four-time world champion shot putter speaks frankly about coming so close to not having children. Just a smidge away, is how she describes it.
“I could have been childless, sitting here bawling my eyes out, and buying six dogs,” she says. “And I don’t even like dogs.”
Instead she’s in a good place. Adams, now 36, is preparing to throw at a remarkable fifth Olympic Games. She has a new attitude, a new coach and a new team – training with other athletes for the first time in two decades.
Her kids – daughter Kimoana, who’s three, and 19-month-old son Kepaleli – are back at home in Auckland with her husband, Gabriel Price, and his mum, Noma.
Adams is eager to talk about sportswomen and pregnancy for this LockerRoom series, because she doesn’t want other female athletes going through what she and Price endured – two rounds of IVF treatment, and a lot of agonising and heartache. She has a sincere message to convey.
“One thing I’ve learned through this journey that I really want to share with female athletes is whether you’re in a relationship or not, but if you one day want to be a mum, go and get some tests done now,” she says.
“You don’t know what’s happening in there. I didn’t realise I had a whole bunch of stuff happening in there. Both my kids were IVF – and I’m very blessed to have been able to afford IVF. But if I’d left it a year later, I would have been done. That would have been it. No kids.”
Adams also wants the highest sporting powers in the country – Sport New Zealand and High Performance Sport New Zealand – to “take ownership” of educating sports women and girls about the importance of menstrual health. Not only in how it affects their performance, but how it can impact their chances of having children.
“Unfortunately, it’s a subject not talked about. You talk about performance, but not a lot about life after performance. You need to plan your sporting career, but also plan your life,” she says. “If I’d known what I know now, I would definitely have changed the way I did things.”
The cycle of life
Today, it’s a different story. Adams is basing her training for next year’s Olympics around her menstrual cycle.
The two-time Olympic and three-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist is making a massive commitment in her campaign for Tokyo next July – more than likely to be her final Olympic Games.
Each month, she spends three weeks living in Christchurch so she can train with her new coach, Dale Stevenson, and a stable of elite throwers, including Olympic shot put bronze medallist Tom Walsh.
On the fourth week, she returns home to her family. Each training block is specifically in sync with her menstrual cycle. It’s something she’s never done before, and she’s loving it.
“It’s so cool, it’s challenging, I’m always pumped. I feel perkier, and every time I go to training, I have purpose; it’s not just box ticking. We are achieving things, making sure every second counts. We don’t have much time left,” Adams says.
The Olympic postponement earlier this year was a hard pill to swallow for Adams, an elite athlete for 20 years. She admits she’s “a bit nutty” to even consider another Olympic campaign as a 36-year-old mother-of-two (her words).
“You know, I’m old. I’m a dinosaur. Having to suck it up for another year is a massive call,” she says.
“Mentally I can do it, it’s just the physical side is my biggest challenge. I don’t have the body of a 23-year-old. My second child has turned one, and both of my kids were born through the sunroof [caesarean section]. All those things take their toll.
“It takes a special kind of person to do it – someone who is very strong mentally to be able to overcome whatever’s put in front of you.
“But if I can qualify for my fifth Olympic Games and haven’t really pushed to my limit yet, why not? I still haven’t been beaten by any other New Zealander. No one is coming to take over the throne. If I had some young buster coming and kicking my arse, I’d be like ‘Ok girl’.”
So far no one has. So Adams continues her reign as one of our greatest athletes – and a mum-athlete to boot.
Being ‘a bit less prideful’
In this series we look at the dilemmas facing sportswomen – finding the right time to start a family, issues around their fertility, the support they get during their pregnancy, how much should they train before and after the birth, and do they come back to sport stronger – and smarter – as mums?
We talk to researchers and medical specialists about the latest science around mum-athletes, and we talk to the athletes themselves.
Adams has learned a lot about the science of fertility – more than she ever wanted to know.
It was only after the 2016 Rio Olympics, where Adams won silver, that she discovered she had very low LH levels. LH – or luteinising hormone – is produced by the pituitary gland and is one of the main hormones controlling the reproductive system. It provides the trigger to release eggs from the ovaries.
“It means I’m going to go into menopause by the time I’m 43, which is really very early,” Adams says.
Before knowing this, Adams and Price been trying to get pregnant after the Rio Games, without any luck. They went through an IVF cycle, but Adams didn’t produce any eggs.
“That’s when the tests found I was absolutely riddled with endometriosis,” she says.
At least one in 10 women around the globe – and around 130,000 Kiwi women – have their quality of life affected, some severely, by endometriosis.
Cells from the lining of the uterus end up in the wrong places around the body, forming thick adhesions and ovarian cysts. The most common symptom of endometriosis is pain, and it can lead to fertility problems.
” You don’t want to get to the end of your career and look back and regret anything. You can’t turn back time” – Dame Valerie Adams
Adams was used to having painful periods. “My pain threshold is through the roof,” she says. “If I had it during a training session, I’d just get on with it.
“Endometriosis is awful. And it’s genetic. My mum had kids when she was in her early 20s; my sister had her four kids early too. But I was diagnosed very late.
“To be honest, I thought it was my husband who had the problem. I didn’t think it was me – I was healthy and strong. I sent Gabriel off to be tested and he was fine. I just had to be a little bit less prideful.”
Adams is passionate about female athletes, as young as their teens, having tests to determine what’s going on with their reproductive cycles.
“Talk to your team, go see your GP. If there’s something wrong, they can give you a plan; it could be a very small fix,” she says. “There are options including freezing your eggs.
“I think HPSNZ or Sport NZ have a responsibility to our female athletes to give them that opportunity. They should ask them: ‘Hey, if you want to start a family, let’s just run some tests. I know you’re not going to have a baby next year, or the year after, but just in case there’s something going on, we can plan for it’.
“It definitely goes through athletes’ minds, that they put off having kids because they don’t want to disappoint people. However, they get to the end of their career and the regret of not having done it is more detrimental to them. Hopefully I can keep pushing and encouraging them.”
Adams went through a second longer, stronger – and more expensive – IVF treatment, which made her nauseous and moody. “It put a lot of strain on our marriage,” she says.
“It was a real time of heartache, and massive financial strain, and these hormones made me feel cranky. We had to dig deep, together as a team, to get through it.”
But it was successful, and of the seven eggs collected, four became embryos. Two were implanted, and Kimoana was born. Of the two embryos frozen and later implanted, one became Kepaleli (which is Tongan for Gabriel).
“There are no more in the fridge. We are done,” Adams laughs. “We are very blessed to even have one child, and beyond grateful to have a boy and a girl. I must admit you see people popping them out, having 14 kids. And that’s their superpower. And that’s okay – we’re all blessed differently.”
Adams is comfortable sharing her IVF story now, but the couple didn’t tell their families they’d gone through the procedure until after Kimoana was born.
“IVF is considered quite taboo in the Pacific Island community,” Adams says. “They almost look at you as if you’re tainted or cursed.
“So I use my platform to reach out to a lot of PI people, and I’ve had a few contact me privately to ask where I’ve gone, what I’ve done, and they share their stories.” Two of those women have since had children through IVF.
‘My body was munted’
Adams has been “extremely lucky” with Athletics New Zealand supporting her through her pregnancies.
“I was probably the first one, but they were so supportive, because they knew what my goal was – where I wanted to go,” she says.
Internationally, she was preceded by athletes like Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill, who came back from her first child to be the world heptathlon champion, and Alysia Montaño, who ran the 2014 USA track and field championships while eight months pregnant.
As a pregnant Adams kept training, she was provided with the support of physios “trying to work through the changes my body was going through during the pregnancy – and then afterwards, when my body was just munted,” she explains.
“To get your gut cut open to take a baby out then to compete six months later at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games – and win silver – is quite a big call. A lot of females are still recovering a year later.”
Throughout both pregnancies, Adams posted videos of herself working out (like the one above, when she was 20 weeks pregnant with Kepaleli). “I trained on the Friday, then on Saturday I had an emergency C-section to have my son out. Not from training though!” she emphasises.
She received a lot of criticism online: “People telling me I was endangering my baby, that I was going to kill my baby if I continued doing what I was doing,” Adams says.
“But I was like ‘All you people relax; I’m fine, the baby’s fine’. My body was used to doing it, and everything was very modified and very light.”
Without a manual on how an elite athlete should train during pregnancy, Adams says she trusted her instincts.
“At the start I wanted to vomit all the time; then you get this sweet spot where you are unstoppable. So I just went for gold,” she says. “You monitor and modify and have regular scans.”
Coming back from childbirth was tough, she says. But she was fortunate to have her mother-in-law with her when she travelled to compete overseas or train in Switzerland.
“She was the only one I trusted,” Adams says. “While Mum was babysitting the children, I was training away up the mountain. As a family, we thrashed out a plan and just made it work.
“The support from Athletics NZ was phenomenal, and whoever comes through next wanting to have a baby and continue to do sport, they can see that it can be done.”
During her 20-year career, Adams has undergone eight surgeries – not including her C-sections. She’s learned to be kinder to herself, and her body.
While many athlete-mums feel they return to sport stronger, Adams says that’s not so in her case.
“But that could be my age and the timing. I know of rugby players who’ve had kids, like Niall Williams, but they had them young. Niall would probably say she’s come back stronger, because she’s younger,” Adams says.
“But I think it’s definitely made me more resilient and made me work smarter.”
She’s thriving in her new set-up in Christchurch, changing the way she views her training.
“I have to really focus on how I can change and improve as a 36-year-old mother-of-two athlete to be the best version of me come Tokyo,” she says.
“I think we got a little bit comfortable, box-ticked a little bit in the last year or so. Now I put myself into a situation where I am vulnerable, where I have to be comfortable to be uncomfortable. I challenge myself daily. And I like that.”
She admits it was “ballsy” to move to Christchurch, for three weeks at a time, leaving her family behind. Her family has obviously committed to the decision too – and it wasn’t a simple decision, after Kepaleli was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes during Level 4 lockdown.
“We have got a little tight bubble – me, Mum and Gabriel – and at any time we can look after Son,” Adams says.
Are there days when she just wants to go home? “No. When that day comes, it’s time for me to pack up,” she says. “Dale said to me ‘I want you to feel excited when you come down to Christchurch, and I want you to feel excited when you go home’. And so far I do.”
Not just a Dame
Adams wants her story of motherhood to inspire young athletes.
“If I can advocate for female athletes, and their needs and wants to be a mum, I totally will,” she says.
“Plan your sporting career, but also plan your life. Don’t be afraid to make those plans now, and do something about it. You don’t want to get to the end of your career and look back and regret anything. You can’t turn back time.
“It’s a part of life that will take you beyond being an athlete. The thing I’ve learned is that I’m not just Dame Valerie Adams, the athlete that people know. I’m a mum.
“I’ve shown you can have a kid and come back – six months after having Kimoana through the sunroof, I win a medal at the Commonwealth Games. Not a bad effort for this old girl.”
* NEXT WEEK: The right time to think about starting a family, and the fertility issues plaguing our female athletes.