clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Juggling Act

Six pro athletes on how they balanced motherhood without sacrificing athletic success.

Alexis Davis is trying to talk on the phone, but she pauses the conversation for a good reason.

“Mommy, I went potty!” Her two-and-a-half-year-old son runs from the bathroom to tell his mom the good news. They have been working on potty training for some time, so she had to give him her full attention.

“Candy?” He knows the reward that comes with going potty. She keeps talking as she hands over the peanut butter cup, reminding him to unwrap it before eating the chocolate.

Davis has fought in the UFC since 2013, joining the promotion the same weekend Ronda Rousey became the UFC’s first female champion. Since then, she’s won six bouts, lost three, and had one son.

Her story isn’t uncommon. More athletes are finding they don’t have to choose between motherhood and being a professional athlete. Serena Williams’ pregnancy and return to tennis was high profile, but she isn’t alone among women in figuring out how to balance elite athletic careers and motherhood.

Alexis Davis UFC weigh in
Alexis Davis weighing in for UFC Fight Night on July 27, 2018 — two years after the birth of her son.
Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Davis was planning to take time off from fighting to help her family after her niece was diagnosed with cancer, and she decided that would also be the right time to have a child with her then-husband. When she let the UFC know of her plans, she wasn’t sure how they would react.

“I was nervous I’d lose my contract, they’re going to release me. But they were totally supportive,” Davis says. “They said, ‘You know, that’s great. Just let us know when you’re ready to come back to fight.’ There was no rush. You still have a job when you come back.”

Before Sheryl Swoopes took time off to have a baby at the height of her popularity and the very early years of the WNBA, many female athletes didn’t even consider returning to sports after time off to have children. Swoopes believed she was in a supportive environment, but she didn’t fully know how she would be received when she returned to competition just six weeks after giving birth.

The effect of exercise on pregnancy wasn’t well understood, either. Roughly a decade before Swoopes was drafted in 1997, Harper’s Bazaar published a story with a headline that asked, “Can Sports Make You Sterile?” The NCAA didn’t have guidelines on how to deal with pregnant athletes until 2008. Now the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends exercise for pregnant women.

“People who have been athletes, or who have a routine prior to pregnancy should continue to exercise moderately,” says Karen Florio, an assistant professor of maternal fetal medicine at University of Missouri-Kansas City, and an Ironman finisher. “Studies have shown that women who exercise in pregnancy have better outcomes.”

Today, athletes who are mothers know much more about what their physical limits should be. Better understanding doesn’t necessarily make motherhood any easier, however. In fact, as women have been emboldened to be athletes and moms, new challenges have cropped up. Having a child is no longer a compromise to being among the best in the world, but it can alter the path to success.

Training and pregnancy

For Davis, working out was different, because while she could lift weights and hit the heavy bag, the sparring part of MMA was out. She was also traveling back and forth between her home in California and her sister’s home in eastern Canada to help take care of her niece. She followed her routine as best she could.

“I tried yoga, the prenatal yoga. I did one class and then realized I’d rather stick to what I’m used to,” Davis says.

For every woman interviewed for this article, getting back to their sports meant taking things slowly, and learning how to balance the responsibilities of motherhood and their sports. Dana Vollmer won Olympic gold in swimming in 2012, and retired soon after. She decided to return to swimming when she was pregnant with her first child, but she had a different focus when she competed in Rio.

Dana Vollmer USOC press conference
Dana Vollmer celebrating the two-year countdown to the 2020 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Getty Images for USOC

“My whole drive [in 2012] was to win a gold medal, and break that world record. This was so much more about, let’s set up a workout schedule that I loved. Let’s focus more on being a mom, and trying to figure all that out,” Vollmer says. “I wanted to make Rio, I wanted to get a medal, so that drove me in practice. But it wasn’t a big enough goal to sacrifice other parts of my life at that point.”

She had to wait six weeks after giving birth before getting back in the pool to ensure she had properly healed. Davis had to wait a similar amount of time.

“It was probably about two months after. Not full-time, working up to it. I started off slow,” Davis says. “It took me a while to get back to jiu-jitsu, after all the organs shift around, it wasn’t as comfortable for me. But it was about two months or so later that I got into it.”

One of the hardest parts of pregnancy for her was that fights continued to happen in the UFC without her. While the UFC kept its promise she would have a job when she returned, she felt like she was missing out as she watched her opponents compete.

“I wanted to fight while I was pregnant! Watching other females in your division, you’re like, Oh, I can’t wait to get back,” Davis says.

By the time her first son was born, Amy Rodriguez had been with the U.S. women’s national soccer team for five years, and had won two Olympic gold medals. Hard work wasn’t a foreign concept to her, but coming back from having kids required a different level of hard work.

“Nobody really explained to me how hard it was going to be. It wasn’t like I bounced back immediately. It took a ton of hard work. I trained harder than I ever had,” Rodriguez says. “You’re starting from ground zero. You’ve had so many months off, your body is changing such an incredible amount. It was really hard, and I guess I was surprised at how hard it was.”

Amy Rodriguez celebrating a 5-2 win over Japan in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup final with her son, Ryan.
Getty Images

Gwen Jorgensen won gold at the Rio Olympics in the triathlon, dominating the world triathlon series in the years leading up to the 2016 Olympics. She ran up to 100 miles a week during her pregnancy as she considered switching to competing in marathon. She often shared pictures and motivation for other moms-to-be on social media.

”I got pregnant, and I had nine months to ponder what I want to do,” Jorgensen says. “I was thinking of triathlon, and the only reason I wanted to stay in triathlon was because I thought I could make more money. That, I thought, was a very bad reason to stay in a professional sport.”

After childbirth, each of the woman found they had to get to know their bodies again in a different way. Jorgensen has worked with a pelvic floor specialist. For Vollmer, figuring out how to swim at a high level after having her son was a challenge she relished.

“I welcome when I feel strange in the water. It’s an opportunity to look at things in a new way in how my body moves,” Vollmer says. “We’ve worked a lot on getting my spine to move. A lot of swimmers are locked up in their upper backs, just from the amount of yardage people ask themselves to do. Kind of this idea of swimming in a plank. Maybe pregnancy started loosening things up, and I started moving better.”

Many UFC fighters walk around at heavier weights than their fighting weights, then cut down the week of their bouts. Normally this process is agonizing.

“My first weight cut afterwards was probably my easiest weight cut,” Davis says. “It could almost be because I didn’t have as much muscle as I did before.”

A new lifestyle

No parent of a newborn gets enough sleep, but sleep isn’t something elite athletes can sacrifice. According to the journal Fatigue Science, sleep deprivation hampers reaction times, recovery, and decision-making ability. Athletes who are mothers have to be creative about how they get sleep in.

“He has a game where he likes to smash his head into pillows, so I say, ‘Let’s just play the pillow head smash game! Let’s play that all day. That’s what Mommy wants to do,’” Jorgensen says.

Gwen Jorgensen as she wins gold in triathlon during the 2016 Olympics.
Getty Images

“When Arlen was born, I learned quickly that I don’t function well without sleep,” Vollmer says. “[My husband] took on night times. He’d have Arlen, he’d bring him in, I’d nurse him, he’d take him back, try to get him to sleep or try to get him away from me so I can get a four-hour chunk of sleep.

”I never thought I’d claim four hours is a lot, but it was a lot!”

“I think the biggest thing is you’re tired when you’re a mom. It’s always go, go, go. I use a little bit of time to train for me, and then the rest of the day is about them,” Rodriguez says. “I feel like so much of my life is putting them first, and sacrificing my energy, which I desperately need, it all goes into them.”

Every woman interviewed received nothing but support and love from their teammates. U.S. women’s national hockey team forward Jocelyne Lamoureux got to tell her teammates about the good news when the team was gathered for the ESPYs. Well, her twin sister got to share the good news.

“Everybody knew that Monique and I were trying to get pregnant after the Olympics. We weren’t secretive about it,” Jocelyne says. “When Monique announced it, we were all together in New York for an event. I shared with my teammates about eight weeks later, when we were at the ESPYs. I didn’t know how to announce it, so Monique ended up just telling everyone.”

“When it comes to camps, depending on how long the camp is, the baby’s going to have to come with us,” Monique says. “I think they’re going to have a lot of aunts on deck. It’s exciting. It will add a new dynamic that we haven’t seen in a while on our team.”

Similarly, Davis’ son has become a familiar sight at her gym.

“I have pictures of one of my coaches holding him in practice while I try to get some drills in. We’re fortunate,” Davis says. “Your gym sometimes becomes like your second family. It was definitely a huge help with everybody trying to pitch in as they could.”

Vollmer trains at her alma mater, UC Berkeley. Her coach told her to come back, regardless of what shape she was in, and they would figure out what her next steps would be.

“I walked in, I had the nanny, the stroller, the nursing pillow, my huge diaper bag. I’m sitting in the locker room nursing when the new freshman walk into the locker room,” Vollmer says. “Everyone kind of chuckles, and we were like, ‘Welcome to college!’ Didn’t expect a mom sitting here nursing her child.”

Perhaps the biggest change every woman experienced since having children? Their relationship to sports.

Monique Lamoureux-Morando (left) and Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson (right) showing off their 2018 Olympic gold medals.
NHLI via Getty Images

“If I feel like I have some sort of injury ready to pop up, or if I had a bad workout, I never think about it. I never talk about it. Something in triathlon that Patrick and I strived to do was to come home and not talk about triathlon,” Jorgensen says. “With Stanley, it’s so much easier to come home and have that separation. It’s about how can I get as much quality time with Stanley as I can.”

“It has taken the stress off a lot more. And in life, just in general. Because I’m like, You know what, I have bigger things I have to deal with,” Davis says. “I have a son, I have things I have to take care of than worry about what somebody on social media is saying about me. It doesn’t affect me the same way. It’s a lot easier to brush things off.”

Not every return to competition went perfectly. Davis lost her first bout after having her son. She was submitted by Sara McMann, another mom. Jorgensen ran the Chicago Marathon in early October, and finished in 11th place, fifth among American women. Rodriguez had worked to come back from her second son’s birth, and then tore her ACL and was out for another 10 months.

“There are days I felt like super mom, and then there were days I would be in tears wondering how on Earth am I trying to do this?” Vollmer says.

But Davis won her next two fights. Rodriguez is back with the USWNT, which qualified for the 2019 World Cup in October. Plenty of women have won gold medals as mothers, including Vollmer, who helped the U.S. 4x100 medley relay take home gold at the Rio Olympics. Cyclist Kristen Armstrong famously held her son on the medal stand at the London Olympics after winning gold in the time trial. Candace Parker celebrated her 2016 WNBA title with her daughter.

Jorgensen has her eyes on the Tokyo Olympics, and will have to finish among the top three Americans in the Feb. 29, 2020, trials to make the team. The Lamoureuxs won gold in Pyeongchang, and they want to repeat that feat in 2022. They are part of a new breed of working mothers who are proving they can juggle the many different responsibilities of being a pro athlete and a mom.

When Vollmer returned to swimming, she found she had new fans. Moms who were inspired by what she was doing, and girls who saw her and realized they don’t have to make a choice.

“There’s been some younger girls, like 10-year-old little kids, that have said that was their favorite thing, that I was a mom and I was still swimming,” Vollmer says. “It makes them feel like they can be a mom, too. It’s so precious. I feel like we’re finally breaking that barrier. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.”

Rodriguez said many of her teammates are still waiting to have kids until their careers are over. She has been able to do both because of her support system. The balancing act is not easy.

“I hope that we’re making it seem tangible, but I don’t want to give people the false sense of it’s awesome, and it’s all positive. Because this is actually very, very hard. I’ve been so fortunate that I’ve gotten to do both.”

Men's College Basketball

I spent 4 years of my life at the wrong college thanks to Michael Jordan


A look inside Japan’s obsession with bizarre mascots

That’s Weird: Hey uh it kinda seems like this Olympic swimmer got poisoned by her rivals