Policy changes needed to better support pregnant elite female athletes, say researchers
When a female elite athlete announces her pregnancy, she can prepare herself for a slew of congratulatory messages wishing her well — on her retirement. At least, that was a typical experience for many within a group of 20 female athletes participating in a recent University of Alberta study.
The surveyed athletes, who had either trained or competed at the elite level before and during pregnancy within the last five years, offered a critical first-hand perspective on an issue that has broad implications for women’s participation in sport at all levels.
“They’re not supported to do both,” said Tara-Leigh McHugh. “They have to make that decision between being an athlete and being a mother.”
It’s a decision nearly every female athlete must reckon with at some point. As Margie Davenport explained, for females, the window of peak performance and the window for fertility overlap. Female athletes interested in having a family essentially face three options: continue to compete and risk missing the window to start a family, retire from their sport to become mothers or attempt to do both with little support and few resources available to them.
“Male athletes don’t run into the same issues. The level of stress is unimaginable,” said Davenport, an associate professor and former national team athlete whose research in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation focuses on maternal and fetal health outcomes.