In the fourth and final part of our From Here to Maternity series, Kiwi athletes talk about how motherhood has made them stronger, smarter and experts at time management.
When Kayla Whitelock discovered a “big hole” where her abs should have been while working out with the Black Sticks before the Rio Olympics, it was just one in a series of curveballs that came hurtling at her after childbirth.
Of course, Whitelock knew returning to international hockey after the arrival of her daughter, Addison, was never going to be easy. It’s just that some of the challenges were not what she’d expected.
Like lasting just 30 seconds running on the treadmill for the first time, six weeks post-baby. “My fitness was horrific,” she says.
Or tripping over her own feet on her first few trainings back on the turf. “I was so clumsy, it was a real eye opener.”
Then on her first tour back with the New Zealand side, her mettle was truly tested travelling with 10-month-old Addison, who was violently ill all the way to Argentina.
And yet, Whitelock survived it all, both as a mum and an athlete. Just over a year after the greatest change in her life, she captained the Black Sticks to reach the semifinals of the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Now as a mum of two, she’s training for Tokyo 2021 and her fifth Olympics – equalling another famous Kiwi mum athlete, boardsailor Barbara Kendall, in Games appearances.
We applaud the swelling number of female athletes now returning to the top of their game – winning world titles and Olympic medals, breaking records – after starting a family. But how smooth is the transition known as ‘The Mumback’?
And is there growing proof that motherhood makes women stronger – if not physically, then certainly mentally?
Whitelock had no intention of returning to elite sport after starting a family with her husband, former All Black George Whitelock, in 2015. That was until coach Mark Hager came to visit her at home in Palmerston North to convince her to make a comeback for Rio.
She realises now it was a “pretty hectic” turnaround, that she would have planned differently. Like seeing a physio before she restarted her fitness regime.
It wasn’t until she was back in a full training session with the New Zealand team doing crunches, that Whitelock “felt this big hole in my tummy”. She asked her physio what was going on with her post-partum body.
“I had ab separation. I had no idea what it was,” she says.
Ab separation – or diastasis recti – occurs in pregnancy when the growing baby pushes apart the abdominal muscles which form the ‘six-pack’. A recent study in Norway found one third of mothers end up with the condition.
Whitelock hadn’t seen a sports physio during her first pregnancy, not really expecting to play at the pinnacle of hockey again. But she knew second time around – after the birth of her son, Maxwell, in June 2018 – that she needed to see a physio first to help close her ab gap quickly.
Again, Whitelock had no plans to return to the Black Sticks – until new NZ coach Graham Shaw approached her last year. A final crack at an elusive Olympic medal was the carrot Whitelock couldn’t refuse.
The 255-test cap veteran has certainly come back wiser as a mum athlete – but she reckons she’s actually fitter, better prepared and mentally stronger than before.
Her story goes some way to help verify the claim that mothers return to sport as better athletes.
While there’s little concrete evidence that childbirth makes women physically faster or stronger, some athletes – in particular long-distance runners and endurance athletes – may be proving it’s not a myth. Nine months after giving birth, Paula Radcliffe won the New York Marathon.
Another Brit, powerhouse Jessica Ennis Hill, won a world title and Olympic silver medal in the heptathlon after having her first child.
But probably even more obvious is the change that takes place inside the heads of mum athletes.
Shotput legend Dame Valerie Adams, who won Commonwealth Games silver six months after giving birth to daughter Kimoana, says she’s more resilient and now works smarter after having her two children in her thirties.
And Sulu Fitzpatrick, a mother of six-year-old twins in her second stint as a Silver Fern, says having children has helped her netball game “100 percent” – mostly because they’ve brought her perspective.
“They remind you they’re the most important thing, which is really good. If you have a loss or a bad performance, you still have your kids to take care of, to feed and keep healthy,” she says. “It also helps you to look after other players – both young and old. I’m very mindful now of making sure everyone is taken care of.”
The risk of rushing
There’s scientific evidence that the surge in hormones and cardiovascular changes to a woman’s body during pregnancy – like increased blood flow and more oxygen-carrying haemoglobin – can continue benefiting women after childbirth.
Many of those physiological effects on a woman’s body can last up to a year after pregnancy and can naturally enhance a female athlete’s performance. (Rumours abound that some Eastern European athletes were ‘abortion doping’ for that reason in the 1970s and 1980s).
“Usually there’s an aerobic improvement with pregnancy, and you often see women coming back stronger,” says sports and exercise physician Dr Sarah Beable.
“Apart from some labour complications and medical complications during pregnancy, there’s absolutely no reason why women can’t come back to really top-level competition and be even better – if they get things right like energy balance and have the right support team around them.
“I absolutely love seeing women come back. But I don’t like seeing it if it feels like it’s been rushed or it doesn’t look safe. But when I see when the right teams wrapped around them, it can be done beautifully. With athletes like Val [Adams], we have fantastic role models in New Zealand showing us that it’s not easy, but it’s rewarding.”
There are dangers in returning to high intensity exercise too early – straining pelvic floor muscles and suffering stress fractures.
Beable says there is no definitive timeline for when women can return to training or competing after having a baby, because every athlete’s pregnancy and delivery is different.
“You hear of women who after 10 days are running for an hour and a half,” she says. “But what’s most important is taking time – that’s when you have better outcomes. We usually say the first six weeks are all about getting used to your new life changes, then ticking off milestones so it’s safe to exercise again.”
Elite athletes are encouraged to work with a team of specialists – including physios, nutritionists and physiologists – at High Performance Sport NZ to draw up an individualised plan for their comeback.
Former Black Ferns captain Les Elder has worked with experts at Bay of Plenty Rugby for her return to the rugby field six months after the birth of her first child, Mihiterena. But she admits she’s struggled to get her body back to her ‘normal’.
“People would say ‘You’re looking so good’, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘But I’m in so much pain’. I’ve had some pretty big injuries, but this is full body pain,” says Elder, who captained the Bay of Plenty Volcanix in the Farah Palmer Cup. “I have a newfound respect for mum athletes.
“I returned to training four weeks post-baby. But now I think to myself was that too early? Did I need to give my body a bit more time? My body has changed so much, but me being me, I’m chasing what I used to be able to do quite quickly. Where I really need to say: ‘Look you’ve just gone through this, take your time and ease back into it’.
“With breastfeeding there’s a lot more laxity in your ligaments, so you’re a bit more prone to injury. So not only am I trying to build my strength and my base fitness again, I’m rehabbing all my ligaments and joints to avoid injury.”
Returning to the full contact of rugby wasn’t an issue for Elder – “I’ve been hit hard and it hasn’t hurt”. But what had suffered was her technique. “My timing was a little bit out, not wrapping completely in a tackle. It’s all those micro-skills I need to build back up again.”
The Covid-19 lockdown was a “blessing in disguise” in White Fern Amy Satterthwaite’s recovery after the birth of her daughter, Grace, in January.
The former New Zealand cricket captain started her rehab with 30 second jogs and bodyweight exercises “trying to slowly ease my body back in”, she says. “I was running at about two-and-a-half months and then we hit lockdown. Being stuck at home without much gym equipment and stuff meant I was able to take my time to build back up.”
She successfully returned to the White Ferns for their Australian tour in September – taking baby Grace with her, as part of New Zealand Cricket’s maternity policy.
Not all mum athletes try to get back to where they were. Some look for new challenges – like former off-road triathlon and Xterra world champion, Sarah Backler. She’s been running up and down Mt Maunganui with her 10-month-old son, Otto, in a backpack, in training for next year’s Coast to Coast – her first time attempting the gruelling multisport event.
After taking it easy for the first six months, Backler is back on her bike building up to some big mileage. Last month, she did the 3D Rotorua 50km multisport race and was happy to be the second woman home.
She’s been able to do it, she says, with a supportive husband (Matt is also a multisport athlete) and a change in mindset.
“My husband and I had come to an agreement that I’d give my body up for a year with pregnancy, then I’d get a year afterwards to focus on getting back to sport,” says Backler, who’s also put her career as a ceramicist on hold. “I’ve been fortunate he goes to work later in the morning so I can get a training session in.
“I have new priorities with my time – if I do a bike session, I want to be pretty tired by the time I get off. Being sleep deprived, I’m balancing life fatigue issues with training fatigue.
“It’s a different mindset now. I went into having a baby at a point where I was pretty happy with what I’d been able to do competitively, because I’m almost 40. But now I’m not focused on where I once would have liked to have been. I can just so go out and have a good race, and if I do well, it’s an added bonus.”
Finding a balance
That’s another reason some female athletes come back better, Sarah Beable believes – with more balance in their lives.
“They’ve got other things in their life that are prioritised, so they often go really well when the pressure comes off,” she says. “You see women have the courage to say ‘You know what? I wanted to be a mum, rather than an athlete, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have both’.”
When sailor Samantha Norton won the national women’s match racing championships this year, she and most of her crew were mums (including Olympic gold and silver medallist Polly Powrie).
“It was actually just the most magical thing to be out there again and doing what we love,” she said after the victory. “The final was hard work, and we were all comparing it to labour at one point, but it was fun, and we were all smiling and laughing the whole time.”
During her time as the Silver Ferns doctor, Beable saw Netball New Zealand were ahead of their time in embracing family. “Babies would come to the team hotel and the mums would have time just with their family, and then return to being a top-level female athlete. It was an amazing environment to be part of,” she says.
Victorious Central Pulse coach Yvette McCausland-Durie knows all about coming back to elite netball – she’s had mum players like Sulu Fitzpatrick and Ameliaranne Ekenasio in her side, and she did it herself 20 years ago, returning to the court after having her own children.
“When you’re a coach it’s about trying to keep the holistic perspective around the player as a person and their bubba,” McCausland-Durie says. “It’s finding a balance – you don’t want it to be a daycare, because you’re coming to do your job. But how do we help you at times when babysitting doesn’t quite work out? You should feel comfortable that your family is part of our family.”
With Ekenasio, it meant taking her son, Ocean, with the team if they were away from Wellington for more than one night.
“You find a way to make sure that the person is comfortable and you eliminate the challenges. Because if they’re comfortable, their performance will be at its best,” McCausland-Durie says.
She also believes Ekenasio, now the Silver Ferns captain, is stronger and better organised for having Ocean.
“Ameliaranne is hugely present at training because she knows how precious that time is, and that other people have made a commitment that’s allowed her to do that,” she says. “So you work a lot harder to do the best you can.
“We know how incredibly frustrated she was in her first season back, when she sat on the bench behind Tiana [Metuarau] and didn’t get a lot of court time. But I kept telling her ‘You’re not ready yet; you’re going to get fitter’. And now she’s the fittest she’s been in her life.
“One of the big things for our mums is making sure they don’t beat themselves up for not being there all the time with their children. There’s no such thing as a perfect mother.
“But being a mum gives perspective, a layer of appreciation, and realising it’s not just about you anymore. It’s a really empowering value mums bring to a team.”
All mum athletes will admit they couldn’t play sport again with a support crew around them. Some sports now have maternity policies allowing a support person to accompany the player and her baby on tour during the child’s first year.
Whitelock’s mum, Jan Sharland, travelled with her to Argentina (when baby Addison had a stomach bug on the long-distance flight).
Sharland also took leave from her job as a dental assistant to move to Auckland with Whitelock and her two children while she was part of the Black Sticks’ centralised programme training toward Tokyo (that was pre-Covid).
“When you’re not based in your hometown, it’s hard. I couldn’t have left two kids at home and gone to Auckland. But Mum offered to come with us, so I was pretty lucky,” Whitelock says.
When Satterthwaite goes on tour, her wife Lea Tahuhu, is right beside her – but as a crucial member of the White Ferns bowling attack. So when it came to weighing up whether to have children, the two cricketers knew they were going to need help from their families.
“We went into it with our eyes wide open,” Tahuhu says. “We had a lot of conversations with our families and we knew we were going to need a lot of support, obviously both playing cricket for a living and travelling means one of us can’t just be following and watching Grace.”
On their recent stint in Australia, they felt they couldn’t ask a family member to spend a month in managed isolation on top of being on tour, so they hired nannies in Brisbane and Melbourne. The family will no doubt get their turn babysitting this summer.
“To have their support is huge,” Tahuhu says. “It really gave us the confidence that Amy would be able to come back and continue playing for as long as she wants to.”