Going for the Gold with a Baby Bump

Research finds that elite athletes can perform at high levels with no damage.

Posted Nov 05, 2019

The 2020 summer Olympics will be held between July 24 and August 4 in Tokyo. In the run-up to this major international spectacular event, there is intense interest in which athletes will be competing for which countries. Considerable attention is being paid to female athletes, who, for the most part, are young, trim, and fit. One thing they definitely are not supposed to be is pregnant. 

But defying all stereotypes, pregnant women athletes are competing and winning at the highest levels. “Over the years, at least 18 athletes competed in the Games while with child,” according to Splinternews.

At the 2012 London Olympics, Kerri Walsh Jennings won her third gold medal in beach volleyball. She was five weeks pregnant. Now, as a mother of three, she is hoping to make her fifth Olympic team in Tokyo 2020. Alysia Montaño ran the 2014 USA Track and Field Championships while eight months pregnant. In 2017, when she was five months pregnant, she repeated that performance. 

As described by Flotrack, “Seven-time U.S. 800m champion Alysia Montaño created one of the most viral moments of the 2017 USATF [USA Track & Field] Outdoor Championships by completing the preliminary round of the 800m while five months pregnant.” She “wanted to prove she could continue in her profession without pregnancy getting in the way.”

Lisa Brown-Miller, an American ice hockey player, did not know she was pregnant with her first child when she competed in 1998. This was the first year women’s hockey became an Olympic sport, and Brown-Miller’s team nailed it, winning the gold medal. In April 2017, four-time Olympic gold medalist Dana Vollmer swam the 50-meter freestyle at the Arena Pro Swim Series while 26 weeks pregnant. “The self-dubbed ‘momma on a mission’ wore a green suit (instead of pink) over her bowling-ball–size bump during the race.”

Kim Rhode, a member of the U.S. shooting team, has won six medals, including three golds, in six consecutive Olympic games. Like Walsh, she discovered weeks after the London Olympics that she was pregnant while competing. And also like Walsh, she won the top prize. 

In 2016, runner Sarah Brown announced that she would attempt to win a spot on the U.S. Olympic team less than four months after giving birth to her first daughter. She kept training while pregnant, gave birth and then came back to the track one week after giving birth. “The pregnancy was unexpected, and I had some goals that I wanted to achieve before finding out,” Brown told Motto. “There was no reason why I shouldn’t keep trying.”

These elite American athletes have counterparts in other parts of the world. 

Nur Suryani Taibi was the first woman to compete for Malaysia in Olympic sharpshooting. Taibi holds the record for the “most pregnant athlete” to compete at the Olympics. In 2012, she was eight months pregnant with her first child when she took part in the London games. When interviewed, Taibi noted that she had to change her stance due to pregnancy, but the added weight actually made her more stable. Canadian curler Kristie Moore won a silver medal at the 2010 Olympics while almost six months pregnant. As an alternate, she did not expect to play. Much to her surprise, near the end of the match a shocked Kristie was called up. 

"I wasn’t expecting to go in," said Moore. "I didn’t stretch out or anything. So I was a little unprepared."

“It looked that way in the beginning,” noted the Seattle Times. “She squatted, left leg in front of her baby bump, right leg back, assuming that funny-looking curling position and slid, rock in hand. She wobbled during the glide of her delivery, but it didn’t matter. The curling-crazy Canadian crowd roared. The momma-to-be had made a subtle point that pregnancy doesn’t have to be a limitation or a suspension of a woman’s dreams.”

Kurkova Emmons, a member of the rifle team for the Czech Republic, competed in the 2008 Games in Beijing while one month pregnant. And she won her first gold medal. Italian short-track-speed skater Martina Valcepina competed in the 2010 games in Vancouver while one month pregnant with twins

Cornelia Pfohl, a German archer, competed in the Olympics two times while pregnant. She had already won a silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games when she arrived at the 2000 Olympics early in her pregnancy. In the Sydney Games, she won bronze. Four years later at the Athens Games, she competed while seven months pregnant, though she did not win one of the top prizes. 

Snowboarding champion Amelie Kober represented Germany at the Turin Games of 2006. She was two months pregnant at the time. Despite falling in the quarterfinals, she picked herself up and won a silver medal. 

In 2012, Swedish handball player Anna-Maria Johansson took part in the London Olympics while three months pregnant. Then she took a year off to care for her baby, and returned once again to the sport. 

Importantly, these women competed in a wide range of sports, ranging from those that entailed high to low impact on their bodies. High impact sports are characterized by intense and/or frequent wear and trauma of weight-bearing joints–foot, knee, and hip. These include hockey, racquetball, gymnastics, running, soccer, basketball, and football. Low impact sports are those in which there is minimal stress on weight-bearing joints. These sports include bicycling, bowling, golfing, sailing, swimming, sharpshooting, archery, and scuba diving, explains the Medical Dictionary. 

These elite athletes owe a debt of gratitude to Magda Julin of Sweden. Born in 1893, she competed at the 1920 Olympic Games as an individual figure skater while four months pregnant. She won gold at the games, which took place in Antwerp that year. 

Beyond the Olympics, in 2017, Serena Williams won the Australian Open Tennis Tournament. Just two days before the start of the Tournament she found out that she was pregnant with her first child.

Pregnant women professional athletes are not letting their pregnancies stop them. Rock climber Beth Rodden became pregnant when she was 33, about 20 years into her climbing career. While making some equipment and training adjustments, she continued to climb in Yosemite National Park through her seventh month of pregnancy.  

Surely, there must be health risks for pregnant women who engage in such strenuous and demanding competitions. Or are there?

Climber Beth Rodden was in frequent contact with her doctor. “I was very open with my doctor and told her what I did and how it worked … She just said listen to your body and back off when you need to,” she told the Washington Post.

The accomplishments of these women certainly do not mean that all women who are pregnant should consider elite-level athletic competition. Rather, their stories illustrate that women who are in good condition, who have been competing at a high level, and who want to continue competing should not be deterred by widely held scare stories. 

It used to be that pregnant women were told not to work out, but doctors have since come to recommend exercise (even high-impact workouts like running) as something that’s beneficial for mom and baby.

What does the medical literature tell us? Although we have all heard dire warnings about the need for rest and the importance of avoiding strenuous activity, in fact there is little hard scientific evidence to support these claims. And, until recently, there has been “surprisingly little research into the actual effects of vigorous activity on pregnancy and delivery.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that much advice given to pregnant moms needs rethinking. Working out with a baby bump might seem dangerous, but doctors say that it’s usually fine for pregnant women to maintain a normal level of activity.

New research done on high-level pregnant female athletes challenges previous thinking and reveals surprising results.  

A team of medical researchers from the University of Iceland and other Nordic institutions decided to look at “birth outcomes among a group of national-team and other elite athletes, who, by definition, train intensively.” Their results were published in September 2018 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. As reported by the New York Times, “They asked 130 elite female athletes and mothers about their training in the three years before they gave birth and during their pregnancies.

“Some of the athletes competed in sports that involved pounding and impact, such as running and soccer. Others engaged in lower-impact sports like swimming and equestrian events ... The researchers also asked about the exercise habits before and during pregnancy of 118 Icelandic mothers who were not athletes ... Then (with permission), they examined records in the Icelandic Medical Birth Registry about each woman’s labor and delivery."

“The resulting data showed that the athletes, many of whom had trained into their second trimesters or beyond, had experienced healthy pregnancies and few delivery complications. Their labor was not more prolonged than in the control group, and they were no more likely to need an emergency cesarean ... Statistically, they also were less likely overall to experience a serious perineal tear during delivery than the control group, especially those athletes who competed in high-impact sports.”

In sum, Thorgerdur Sigurdardottir, a doctoral student at the University of Iceland who led the study, says, “The lesson of these results is that elite athletes should not expect more difficulties in childbirth than other women.” Moreover, “The data suggest that athletes, particularly those in high-impact sports like running, come out quite favorably in terms of their pregnancy and delivery outcomes.”

A second study also yielded surprising results. The 2018 research, published in August in the Journal of Applied Physiology, was conducted by a team of Canadian scientists. They documented the physiological effects of climbing to Everest Base Camp while seven months pregnant. Trevor Day, a professor of physiology at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada, who oversaw the research, recounted the project’s serendipitous beginning. As the Times reported, “He and other researchers arrived in Nepal in 2016 to study Everest trekkers and discovered that one of the Sherpas assisting their group was an elite runner who also was fairly far advanced in her pregnancy.

“With her permission, they outfitted her with monitors to measure her activity levels during the subsequent eight-day trek ... Much of this activity was quite vigorous, according to the monitors.

“She turned out to be breathtakingly active, averaging more than 270 minutes of exercise every day, or nearly twice the amount often recommended for a week, even as the group approached and reached the 17,600-foot altitude of Everest Base Camp, where oxygen levels are about half those at sea level.

“It was a remarkable feat!” Dr. Day says.

What did the data show? She reported “no pregnancy-related distress or difficulty, gained weight normally and, two months later, gave birth to a healthy baby girl.”

What is the takeaway message? Clearly, these two studies have limited generalizability to most pregnant women. Yet, they do blow a large hole in the previous gospel about exercise and pregnancy. Most importantly, they strongly suggest that we reexamine the linkage between pregnancy and fragility. Specifically, pregnancy does not need to equate to fragility.

As Thorgerdur Sigurdardottir, the lead researcher in the first study, said, “Physical activity before and during pregnancy is very good for the mother, the child, and the process of childbirth.”