Seven months after having her twin boys, Sam Child is running back onto an international hockey pitch in the black dress.
It’s a remarkable feat, especially after she needed an emergency caesarean and felt like “a potato” following the birth of Louie and Freddie.
But what’s just as remarkable is that the twins are even here – after their parents took the advice of double Olympic champion Dame Valerie Adams.
Child, like Adams, is part of a growing movement where top female athletes are being proactive about their fertility before it’s too late.
One of the most-capped Black Sticks in history, this comeback from Child (nee Charlton) is not quite as she envisaged. She wasn’t planning to return to the top echelon of the sport so soon, but then craved to be back – returning just in time for the Oceania qualifying series for next year’s Paris Olympics.
The baby boys, on the verge of crawling, will be on the sideline in Whangārei with their dad, former Black Stick Marcus Child, as Mum plays Australia in the three-test series this week.
The couple went through some stressful times after the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, when the three-time Olympian took a simple blood test revealing her fertility levels were scarily low.
“It’s a life-changing thing,” Child says. “From being really stressed about whether we could have kids to then having twins was quite a big jump.
“We were incredibly lucky to have conceived them naturally. And we’re damn lucky to have our little squad already.”
Child is grateful she’d read advice from Adams, after the two-time Olympic champion shot putter urged female athletes wanting to have children to take an anti-mullerian hormone (AMH) test – giving an insight into a woman’s quantity of eggs and number of fertile years remaining.
Adams opened up about her fertility struggles to LockerRoom in our From Here to Maternity series, and having to go through IVF to have her two children.
“After Tokyo I just had this intuitive feeling,” 31-year-old Child says. “I’d heard Dame Val talk about checking your AMH for the quantity of eggs, to just see where it’s at.
“It was something I needed to do to help make my decision about whether I wanted to play the following year, which was the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games. Maybe I’d play six more months and stop after that.
“But knowing we wanted to have kids in the near future, I decided to do the test. And it ended up being really quite crap – I was in the lowest fifth percentile for my age. So it meant decisions had to be made a bit quicker.”
So Child stopped playing and went through one round of egg retrieval, in case the couple needed IVF to conceive. Then, before the second round, she became pregnant with the twins.
“We got so lucky,” she says. “I’m so grateful we didn’t have to go further down that track – it definitely caused us a lot of stress for a few months while we were going through it.
“Only by someone else talking about it did I decide to do [the test], so I’ve been quite open about it. It’s not a definitive test, and obviously in my case, it was low, but it was still fine.
“It’s important to know there’s an opportunity to find out more about your body, especially when you’re an elite athlete who’s been putting your body under stress for, like, 10 years. It’s probably not surprising that maybe something wasn’t going right in there.”
Child had also been ill leading into the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
Coming back from knee surgery in 2020, she developed a “cascade” of auto-immune disorders – including ulcerative colitis and psoriatic arthritis. “It was wild – my build-up to Tokyo was literally trying to keep my body in one piece,” Child says.
“A lot of it is induced by stress, and before Tokyo, I was trying to work full time and train full time. Sleeping only six hours… which is probably what I do now with two babies!
“Now I know my triggers and I know how to settle it. And even though I’m probably sleeping less and busier during the day, I feel healthier now than I did back then.”
Louie and Freddie were born on December 30 last year by emergency caesarean. Child struggled after the delivery, when her auto-immune conditions meant she couldn’t take a lot of pain relief.
“I couldn’t get out of bed after three days, I was like a potato. For someone who thinks they’ve got a reasonably high pain threshold, I really struggled,” she admits.
“So the first part of my recovery was really slow, which was frustrating because I just wanted to go for a run again. But once I felt better, and made sure everything was fine, I got going again.”
When the twins were three-and-a-half months old, Child went to a club training session. “I fiddled around with my stick and the next training, I fiddled around a bit more. Then all of a sudden, we didn’t have enough players for a game on Saturday,” she says.
“I wasn’t even thinking about the Black Sticks. I was just enjoying having a physical activity that was also social and it was my first time away from the boys, which I didn’t realise I needed.”
But Child, who’s amassed 262 caps for New Zealand in 13 years, kept in contact with the Black Sticks coaches during and after her pregnancy – including assistant coach Shea McAleese, who became a dad to twin girls three weeks after her boys were born.
She went to some Black Sticks training sessions before the team toured Europe in June, and used the time they were away to focus on lifting her fitness and speed again. “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind,” she laughs.
“I always thought I’d be someone who once I had kids would be ‘That’s the next chapter… I’m moving on’. But the fact I didn’t retire, probably said to me I wanted to just leave it open and see how it went.
“Those three years before Tokyo were so up and down with injury and illness and Covid, and it was a difficult time to really enjoy hockey. So I was just craving the opportunity to come back, play and enjoy it… without any leadership roles.
“Having twins has been very good for my A-type personality because everything goes out the window when you’re at the mercy of what they need and want. I just find it way easier to let the small things go now.”
She wouldn’t be a mum athlete if she hadn’t seen other Black Sticks, like Kayla Whitelock, Gemma McCaw and Aniwaka Haumaha, a mum of two who played at last year’s Commonwealth Games.
“Even Alana Millington playing as a mum at the London Olympics – I was 20 then so I had no concept of how incredible it was,” Child says.
The African proverb ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ has been amended by Child to ‘three villages’ in the case of raising Freddie (“he’s a real people person and very chill”) and Louie (“he’s a little more sensitive but gives us more smiles and laughs”).
The Childs have their parents and siblings helping with the twins every week, and even Black Sticks Megan Hull and Fran Davies have been enthusiastic babysitters.
“Honestly I couldn’t do this without them all,” she says. “My mum comes up from Tauranga every second week for two nights, which has been such a game-changer. Marcus’ parents have them every Thursday morning and my dad comes round every weekend. We’re very lucky.”
And then there’s Child’s husband, who played 172 tests for New Zealand, and understands the needs of an elite athlete.
“There have been a lot of late nights in the garage on a bike or early morning runs while Marcus feeds the boys,” Child says. “You’ve got to have a supportive partner.
“Marcus always knew I wasn’t quite finished [with hockey]. When we were talking about how this week would work, I said ‘Maybe these are the only games I’ll play’. And he said ‘Darls, come on, don’t be ridiculous’. He knows me very well. How competitive I am.”
This series is New Zealand’s first opportunity to qualify for Paris. If they lose to Australia, there are second-chance Olympic qualifiers in January, in either China or Spain (depending on rankings).
A fourth Olympics is a goal Child is storing in the back of her mind, for now.
“It’s hard to know with kids – things can change really quickly, and they might need you more than they do now,” she says.
“What’s going to be best for my family is the most important thing. And if that’s me continuing to play, because it makes me a happy and satisfied person, then that’s really cool. And if it’s not, I have to reassess. But I’d be lying if I said I’m not thinking about Paris.”
And she’s thriving being back in a high-pressure, competitive environment. “Don’t get me wrong – twins are high pressure in another way. But I love competition,” she says. “So I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in out there again.”
* The Black Sticks women and men play in the Oceania Cup against Australia in Whangārei this Thursday (from 5pm), Saturday and Sunday (from 2pm). All games will be live and on demand on TVNZ+.