Returning to work after giving birth is tough for any parent. Now imagine you're an Olympic athlete.
Moms have been Olympians since women were first allowed to compete in 1900, when a mother-daughter duo, Mary and Margaret Abbott, golfed together (both wore full-length dresses and hats). More recently, swimmer Dara Torres and beach volleyball champion Kerri Walsh Jennings had jaw-dropping post-baby Olympic comebacks.
These athletes aren't just going for gold at the 2020 Summer Olympics. They are fierce advocates for equal pay, maternal health, parental benefits and racial justice. And they're reimagining what mothers can do.
Team USA basketball star Skylar Diggins-Smith was a WNBA league leader while pregnant. Repeat: while PREGNANT. She was back on the court not long after giving birth in April 2019, despite "separation anxiety" whenever she left her son.
"It definitely brings a different perspective," she told The Dallas Morning News. "I feel accomplished. ... I feel like everything's into perspective for me now and things that were important to me really aren't, so I just try not to take any moment for granted."
Six-time gold medalist Allyson Felix underwent an emergency C-section in 2018 at 32 weeks pregnant after being diagnosed with a life-threatening case of preeclampsia. Her 2-year-old daughter Camryn weighed just 3 pounds, 7 ounces at birth and was taken to the neonatal intensive care unit. Cammy, now 2, was there to see her mom qualify for Tokyo. Felix then teamed up with her sponsor Athleta to give $200,000 in child care grants to professional mom-athletes headed to Tokyo. As the most decorated American female track-and-field Olympian in history, Felix has long been a champion of athlete mothers.
“(Cammy) doesn’t understand everything, but I wanted her to be proud of me and I’ll explain all of this later to her. Just so much has gone into this moment," Felix told TODAY. "There’s been so much struggle and so much to overcome, and to share that moment with her? That’s pretty indescribable.”
Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson
Volleyball player Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson is heading to her third Olympics less than two years after giving birth to a son, Olukayode Ayodele, in December 2019.
"It’s been a long and arduous journey to get back here and there were many times I debated calling it quits along the way, but I’m so glad I didn’t. It was all worth it," she said on Instagram. "For the longest time, I dreamt of becoming a mom AND a professional athlete. I’m proud to say that I am now both. Thank you to all the badass mothers who came before me and showed me that it was possible, and here’s to those who will follow in our footsteps."
Quanera Hayes gave birth within weeks of Allyson Felix in the fall of 2018, and said that coming back, "I had to learn to run all over again." The pair came in first and second in the 400-meter dash at U.S. Olympic Team trials. At the finish line, Hayes thanked Felix for all the work she's done to advocate for better maternity care for Black women and maternity benefits for professional track and field athletes.
"I thanked her for being who she was and never giving up," the 29-year-old Hayes told the Team USA blog. "I have looked up to Allyson for a very long time and to go through this with her as a mom makes it even more special."
The U.S. women's soccer star Alex Morgan gave birth to a baby girl, Charlie, in 2020, just months before the originally scheduled Tokyo Olympics. The postponement of the Games gave her time to recover and compete. She has said that Charlie is one of the reasons she's fighting for equal pay for women athletes.
"I never want to be someone who puts down a dream whether it's realistic or not," she told Prevention. "I had a dream when I was 7 years old of playing professional soccer, and there were absolutely no avenues to do that at the time. [My mother] encouraged me to live out my dream, so that's what I want to pass along with Charlie."
Marathoner Sally Kipyego had to give up running at about 18 weeks of pregnancy and had an emergency C-section in the summer of 2017. After the birth of her daughter Emma, Kipyego suffered from malaria and pneumonia, and said she felt her immune system suffered from the pregnancy. The return to marathons was difficult, but Kipyego said motherhood prepared her for the challenge.
"Physically I feel a lot has changed,” she told Runners World. “My body is different. My body kind of fell apart after giving birth. But mentally I’m stronger. ... I keep telling myself, ‘You can go through childbirth, you can pretty much go through anything.’ I can take the pain better now."
WNBA star Diana Taurasi's wife, former fellow Olympian Penny Taylor, gave birth to their son, Leo Michael, in 2018. Taurasi said her wife "keeps the ship afloat."
"It's been amazing, it really has," she said. "It's really made me appreciate my parents and how much work and love they gave me. If I can be half the parents they are, to Leo, it's going to be a good job."
Training was frustrating after giving birth for fencer Mariel Zagunis. “I don’t know if it’s taboo, but people don’t really talk about how hard it is post-partum,” she said. But with four Olympic medals under her belt, Zagunis said her 3-year-old daughter, Sunday, gave her a new sense of purpose as she prepared to compete in Tokyo.
“Now I have new motivation — doing this for my daughter and trying to make that work,” Zagunis told USA Fencing. “I’m really excited to go to my next Olympics with her to show that anything is possible. If you put your mind to it, you can make your dreams come true. It would be a really awesome experience to have with her and our entire family and to be able to tell her someday that I went to all these Olympics and then had her and we did it together.”
After the 2020 Summer Olympics were postponed, marathoner Aliphine Tuliamuk didn't waste any time — she seized the delay to start a family with her fiance, Tim Gannon. They had a daughter, Zoe, in January 2021 and Tuliamuk has scheduled her training around breast-feeding. Tuliamuk won the marathon at the 2020 U.S. Olympic trials in just more than 2 hours 27 minutes and says she has not been away from Zoe for more than three hours at any time and hopes to take her to Tokyo.
“I was so naive. I thought I’d get induced and in 12 hours I’d have my daughter. It ended up being 50 hours. That was the longest marathon I’ve ever ran," she told Women's Running. "I look at my daughter and the feeling I get, I can’t describe it. I’m just so happy. I didn’t realize how good motherhood is. Thank god I didn’t know—I probably would have had a kid at 17."
Long jumper Brittney Reese won Olympic gold in 2012 and will be making her fourth Olympic appearance at the Tokyo Games, her second as a mom. Reese adopted her godson, Alex, before the 2016 Rio Games, when a friend was no longer able to raise him. Reese had helped raise Alex since he was born so said the decision was easy, and she even home-schooled the boy.
“He’s a good motivator,” Reese told NBC’s affiliate in San Diego before the 2016 Games. “He’s at the end of the runway saying, ‘Let’s go, Brittney!'”
Track and field star Gwen Berry is one of the most outspoken social justice activists going to the Tokyo Games. She created controversy at the track and field trials when she turned away from the American flag as the national anthem played while she stood on the podium receiving a bronze medal. Berry was placed on probation in 2019 for raising a fist during a medal ceremony during the 2019 Pan American Games, but later received an apology from the Olympic Committee, which is allowing social justice protests in Tokyo. Berry said the pressure she feels as an athlete can't compare to the pressure she has experienced as a Black woman with a teenage son, Derrick.
“I feel like being Black in America is enough pressure,” she said. “The neighborhoods I grew up in is enough pressure. The things I have to deal with and I have to protect my son from is enough pressure. And I’m here. I’m old enough to be able to handle a lot of this pressure.”
Softball pitcher Cat Osterman won gold at the 2004 Olympics and silver at the 2008 Olympics before the sport was cut from the Summer Games. When the International Olympic Committee announced it would return, Osterman came out of retirement to compete in her third Olympics, now a step-mother to 8-year-old Bracken, who pitches for her own softball team.
"As an athlete, we always talk about how there are always eyes watching you, but when you're a mom or a stepmom, there really are eyes always watching you," she told Romper. "It motivates you to be a good role model, a good example."
Volleyball player Lora Webster is heading to her fifth Paralympic Games, where she helped win U.S.’s first Paralympic sitting volleyball gold medal ever at the Rio Games in 2016. She's also a mother of three.
“The kids had a volleyball in their hands as soon as they could lift their arms up,” she said. “When they were part of the practice, it made it easier for them to understand what I was doing, and it was more of a family investment. That’s how we got through it. We just did it together.”
- See full coverage of the Tokyo Olympics on TODAY.