Moms and Olympic athletes: At times it seems like they're both capable of doing the impossible.
And now even more world-class female athletes are taking on the challenge of holding both titles at the same time.
Motherhood is never easy, especially for athletes who have dedicated their lives to their training and their sports. Not only does it alter their routines, but they also must face a stigma around pregnancy that says it could cost them their sponsorships and their careers, and that it would be wise to wait until retirement before starting a family. But as more and more athletes return to their sports after giving birth, they're challenging that stigma and showing that is, indeed, possible to have it all.
Below are first-hand accounts from several female Olympians who have recently had children and are now changing the game. Some responses have been edited or condensed for clarity.
The joys of motherhood
Allyson Felix (six-time Olympic gold medalist, mother to Camryn): I just love Cammy's smile, you know? She's just always funny and whenever she just lights up and smiles, it just warms my heart.
Alex Morgan (two-time FIFA World Cup and 2012 Olympic champion, mother to Charlie): It’s just so fun to have Charlie around and for her to get used to having a lot of people around, and for her to be just around all these incredible women that are so strong, such an intense environment. She just kind of brightens up the room. I think it lightens everyone up. (quotes via AP)
Kerri Walsh Jennings (three-time Olympic gold medalist, mother to three kids): Any time that my husband or I receive a compliment on how kind our kids are, it's like the biggest compliment of my life.
The challenges of motherhood
Allyson Felix: Giving birth to my daughter Camryn was a really eye-opening experience for me. I felt like I had definitely heard the statistics, but I just never really thought that I would be one of those women who would face complications or even face death while giving birth. And going through that experience, it made me realize that for Black women we are at such a risk, and it doesn't matter how privileged you are, the great medical care you could have, we are still at risk.
Serena Williams (four-time Olympic gold medalist, mother to Olympia): As an athlete, you can't be vulnerable. You have to be strong. As a mom, you're completely vulnerable to everything. And that's what makes it scary. (quotes via TODAY)
Kerri Walsh Jennings: I think the lack of control I have with my children has helped me just to realize that things truly do always work out if you have a good attitude and a smile and a good work ethic. It's okay not to know everything and not to know every outcome.
Striking a balancing act
Allyson Felix: There's a lot of sacrifices involved, whether that is time away from your family, or not being able to be in an ideal [training] situation. Whether that means you don't get as much sleep as you once got, or just figuring out what life looks like, you know? Life, for me, is chaotic. There's a lot of moving parts, and a lot of pieces, and it's figuring out how can I have a support system that can support me to be my best.
Nia Ali (2016 Olympic silver medalist, mother to Titus and Yuri): When I'm sleepy, it's the new normal for me and I've just accepted that. I'm just going to be tired and I have to figure out how to cope with that. Which I have and don't ask me how, I just kinda got used to it.
Alex Morgan: My life has definitely made a 180. When we have an afternoon gap between trainings or whatever it is, it’s not like, "Oh, let me lay down and watch TV and take a nap." I’m hanging out with Charlie the whole time. I’m on her schedule and I absolutely love it, but it’s just very different, for sure.
Kerri Walsh Jennings: The hardest part of my job is the fact that I have to leave my children and my husband a lot. I was gone for like 11 of 13 weeks [in the summer of 2019]. Like, gnarly stuff, you know? So they have to be part of the team because just as much as I work hard and sacrifice and have my focus, they sacrifice and work hard, and if they're not feeling part of this journey then it's all for naught. We're in this together.
Serena Williams: The hardest part is walking out of the house while she's crying because she wants to be with me. It's very hard and makes me vulnerable and upset. Even in Australia, my heart was aching when I left the door.
Kerri Walsh Jennings: Prior to having kids, my life was 365, 24/7 focused on the end result of becoming the best and winning, winning, winning. Now that I have children, I still wanna be the best, I still wanna win, yet I have new perspective, new inspiration and I am less self-centered.
Nia Ali: You step up and you do things that you never imagined that you could do and you kind of become a new person in a better way. … I was fortunate enough to be able to see that and pull myself together and realize that it was a blessing that happened for me and for my career.
Allyson Felix: It has definitely been the most rewarding time in my career. I think about the year that I had, and just being able to run is a blessing, you know? The fact that I had any type of fitness still kind of amazes me when I just go back through my timeline of the amount of training that I had and just the physical challenges that I had as well. It was a lot, but it was also very motivating that I can get back to me.
Alex Morgan: [Since] having Charlie, I feel like I’m making the most of it when I go to training. I don’t want to give 90%, I want to make sure I give 100% every time I go to training because that’s pulling me away from Charlie. I do definitely feel reenergized.
Refusing to compromise
Nia Ali: Having a child at the height of your career, most people can think that that is career suicide. … My first time around, I was kind of nervous about how my sponsors or people around me would take to it. That's something that I wish I could have spoken out a little bit more on ... so people can see it's not all roses and it's not easy to do by any means, but it's very possible.
Allyson Felix: Things are made really difficult for you, and it's already hard enough to fight your way back [from pregnancy], and the road is so tough. But I think constantly you're forced to feel like you have to make a decision.
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (six-time Olympic medalist, mother to Zyon): You're an athlete. That's how you make a living, by running. I was a nervous wreck [when I found out I was pregnant]. (quotes via POPSUGAR)
Allyson Felix: For me it was extremely important to be able to stand up on the issue of protection surrounding maternity for my own situation, but really for people coming after me. I know what I saw in my sport. I know what was the norm. I saw woman after woman hiding their pregnancy, unsure about contracts and just what should be a really happy time in your life, being a really stressful, scary time where you are unsure about your next paycheck, unsure about your future in the sport, and feeling really forced to either have a family or have a career.
Nia Ali: You don't have to hide it, you don't have to be ashamed, you don't have to feel like it's stopping your career or stopping what you have. You just push through it and keep going.
Kerri Walsh Jennings: Any female athlete who is at the crossroads of: "Okay, I'm of the age and in a situation where I'm thinking children, yet I have this career where people may think that I have to retire in order to be a mommy or I need to step away and not be selfish so I can commit to being a parent." [I’d tell them] everything is possible. Do it all. Be a mommy, it'll make you a lethal athlete, it'll make you better, it'll make you more focused and inspired.
Nia Ali: I have heard throughout my time, that sports and babies don't mix. … That you have to wait until you're completely finished and then move on and have that time for your children. … Well, I just say "watch and see." Because that's always been my personality. It's not about proving other people wrong, but I like to try to prove myself right. I genuinely do feel like you can do anything that you really want to do and you have that deep passion for, so I'm all about going for it.
Kerri Walsh Jennings: Right now I'm an entrepreneur, I am a mommy to three amazing little souls, and I'm a wife to an amazing husband, and I'm chasing a fourth gold medal. And it all feels important. It all feels special, and each of those loves feed each other and it creates a really powerful, dynamic life. I believe I can have it all.
Raising future Olympians?
Kerri Walsh Jennings: Our kids are playing everything. They play more backyard volleyball on our mini court than they do beach volleyball, but whenever we find ourselves at the beach, yes, we play. Joey, Sundance, and Scout, they're little ballers. Whatever's in season is what they're playing. We drag them to practice sometimes, they always complain, but once they get there they love it.
Serena Williams: She is into sports. Unfortunately, she's into soccer. I got really jealous and gave her a little Wilson tennis racket. But she prefers a soccer ball, and that's OK.
Sharing the experience
Kerri Walsh Jennings: Of the amazing life I've lived chasing these Olympic dreams, I believe the best is yet to come. And I want my children to be part of this experience so that when they have kids, they can say, "I remember when your grandmama, your Nana did this and we were a part of it." And they can inspire their kids.
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce: If I win, Zyon wins. I need him to see this moment and understand that, “After my mommy had me, she was able to come back at 32 and win a world championship. So I can do anything in my lifetime.”
Kerri Walsh Jennings: I need them to know that they're with me and they're part of me and they're part of this journey and that their support and inspiration and faith in me fuels my dreams, and even when I'm far away, I'm still with them. It means the world to me that my children feel very vested and very involved and, in my opinion, it would be wrong if they didn't feel like they were on the team.
Nia Ali: My victory lap in Rio was really special. … I just remember running, and I don't know how I heard my mom yelling "Nia, Nia!" and showing me Titus. I'm like, "Yeah, bring him down." … It was very difficult to get to the track in Rio and [my coach] got up there and brought him over and handed him to me and then I grabbed him and we got on the track. I remember him just looking around, like, "What is going on?" And he could walk at the time … so, I put him down and he kind of just did his scarecrow thing and got some really good photos.
Kerri Walsh Jennings: I have a new dream that's on my vision board. I have this vision of Brooke [Sweat] and I winning gold in Tokyo. And after we do the anthem and we accept our medals, we're able to bring our families down to the sand. I want my children, my husband, my parents, my siblings, my cousins, my aunts, uncles, friends, trainers, Brookes' family, all on the sand with us for a big group hug and a prayer of thanks because we did it. That is the vision that I want and the experience that I want to give my kids because they are on the team. This gold medal will be theirs [too].