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A Baby Didn't Bump These Moms Out Of Competition

Malaysian shooting athlete Nur Suryani Taibi was eight months pregnant in 2012 as she prepared for the Summer Olympics in London.
Rebecca Blackwell
Malaysian shooting athlete Nur Suryani Taibi was eight months pregnant in 2012 as she prepared for the Summer Olympics in London.

Let's be clear: Olympians handle the physical challenges of childbirth differently than most of the rest of us.

Aretha Thurmond is a discus thrower who'd already competed in two Olympics when she went to the hospital in labor.

"So I get there and they're like, 'Yeah, whatever, you're 4 centimeters dilated. Go walk around the hospital and come back,' " she says.

Thurmond's hospital was part of a university, so she headed straight for its track, where she power-walked for the next two hours. Then the school's discus throwers came out.

"They were starting to have practice, and I'm out there, and I'm helping coach, and all of a sudden then I have one of these contractions that just took my breath away. And then I thought: I think it's time to go back to the hospital," Thurmond says.

Two hours later, her son was born. Two weeks later, Thurmond was back on the field, competing in the U.S. championships. She threw the discus in the next Olympics and captained her team in the one after that, in 2012. And moms like Thurmond are not uncommon in this superathletic world.

"You give the little head nod when you see them at a meet. It's like, 'Girl, I know what you're going through,' " says Amy Acuff, a high jumper and Olympics veteran who competed in one after having her daughter.

She never knew of any mothers who were also elite athletes until she competed against one in the 1996 games. The woman was Russian, she'd just had a baby, and she was rail thin — except for the giant flap of loose skin where her pregnant belly had been.

"She would pull up the skin and tuck it into the top of her jog bra, and then sometimes she would pull it down and tuck it into the bottom," she says. "It was that much that she would grab it and tuck it in."

As recently as the 1990s, Acuff says, female elite athletes often thought they had to retire if they wanted to have kids. Now they time them around the Olympics — or they try to. Dr. James Pivarnik says monitoring fertility is one of the few complicating factors that come when you're incredibly fit.

"Many women who are very athletic have very irregular if any menstrual periods, so they might not even know that they're pregnant," he says.

Pivarnik studies exercise and pregnancy. He says that back in the 1980s, doctors routinely told pregnant women never to get their heart rates above 140 beats per minute. Now he says most doctors know that when it comes to pregnant athletes, the only real issues are overheating and balance. Pregnant athletes can even have an edge.

"During pregnancy, a woman's blood volume expands about 60 percent," he says.

That gives your body more oxygen. Pivarnik, though, emphasizes that each pregnancy is different. Plenty of athletes need to rest through their pregnancies; some train right through them. During the last Olympics in London, Nur Suryani Taibi, a markswoman from Malaysia, competed when she was eight months pregnant. She told the network ITV that a kicking baby is distracting, so she had to coach her unborn child: Please behave yourself. Please be calm. Support Mommy.

'I Thought A Lot About Quitting'

Shooting and high jumping are individual sports, but team players' pregnancies affect everyone. Field hockey champion Keli Smith Puzo, who competed in the 2008 Olympics, found out she was pregnant right before her team was about to play a major tournament.

"I just didn't want to tell them because I was afraid that it would impact the important tour we were about to go on. I didn't want the focus to be on me," Smith Puzo says. She had two children before she qualified for the 2012 Olympics. To train with her team, she had to stop breast-feeding and bring her baby and toddler across the country.

"The first week was very, very challenging. I thought a lot about quitting that first week," she says.

So did Acuff. After the birth of her daughter, she'd get up at dawn, park her car by the track and turn on the headlights for illumination while she practiced in the dark and the cold.

"I remember thinking, 'What am I doing out here?' Like, I'd just have horrible high jump session after horrible session, and it looked awful," Acuff says.

But Olympians are queens of positive thinking. Acuff would put her baby in a stroller and sprint her up and down a hill until her legs were wobbly and weak.

Bodies change after pregnancy — and not always in the ways elite athletes expect. For example, many women experience urinary incontinence after childbirth. "Any time you really increase that intra-abdominal pressure there's issues, and you know, definitely explosive jumping," Acuff says.

Another problem is not physical but financial. Olympic marathoner Deena Kastor found out about a certain clause in many sports sponsorship deals.

"They don't have a name for it, but obviously it's some sort of pregnancy clause — if you're not competing for nine months, that your contract would be reduced by a third of its value," Kastor says.

Still, savvy companies are beginning to see how elite athlete moms can be brand assets. Noelle Pikus Pace is competing in Sochi this year. She's a skeleton slider and a mother of two — and one of her biggest sponsors is Pampers.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.