Women’s Sport Week: Athletes can face ‘minefield’ returning after childbirth

Athletes can face a “minefield” when they return to elite sport after having a baby, Dame Sarah Storey says.

As part of Women’s Sports Week, Storey, who is expecting her second child, has called for clearer guidelines from governing bodies.

UK Sport, which funds elite sport, implemented a maternity policy in 2011, but the 14-time Paralympic champion says it can be open to interpretation.

The International Olympic Committee is researching pregnancy and sport.

Former swimmer turned cyclist Storey said: “Without any legal protection or support, athletes can find it’s a minefield when they’re coming back from having a baby.

“Let’s hope by highlighting the positive experiences they can support sports bodies creating post-partum policies of their own.”

Storey, Britain’s most successful female Paralympian, spoke to three athletes from different sports about their experiences for BBC Sport.

Dame Sarah Storey
Dame Sarah Storey says guidelines for mums wanting to return to elite sport can be confusing

Shelley Rudman – Olympic silver medallist in skeleton

Shelley Rudman says she has had both positive and negative experiences of returning to sport after having her children.

She won a silver medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin and always planned to return to skeleton following the birth of her first daughter, Ella, in 2007.

This was before UK Sport introduced its maternity policy and the three-time Olympian said she felt pressure to return quickly because of the implications for her funding.

“I really, really did feel that pressure and I had the whole risk of the APA [Athlete Performance Award] – it was being reduced while I wasn’t competing and I had performance targets to get back to for it to be increased. And that was an unnecessary pressure for me at that time.”

Shelley Rudman
Shelley Rudman gets her children involved in her training and sports

Rudman, 36, said she was given very specific targets for her return and had to achieve them three months after having Ella. She had also had knee surgery two weeks after the birth.

“In December I was called into a meeting to say I needed to hit my return-to-performance targets – one of which involved a three single-leg hop [test]- to then be part of the squad again and be fit to compete,” she said.

“Then I was given race targets for January so that was a new dynamic. That changed, that wasn’t in the plan.

“You’re a new mum, you want to be with your child, but at the same time the goalposts have changed and now you’re having targets put on you to perform and you’re not ready for them.”

It was a different experience after the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, when a new performance director was appointed.

Rudman says Nigel Laughton improved things for both her and her husband, former skeleton world champion Kristan Bromley.

“As soon as we had a more family-orientated performance director on board he just changed the whole feeling for both Kristan and I with Ella and was really happy with her. The team then let down their boundaries and were like ‘it’s ok to talk to them and go over to them’. It was literally that dynamic and it made everything so much nicer.”

She went on to have her most successful season ever, winning the World Cup and taking gold in the World Championships.

Shelley Rudman
Shelley Rudman’s children enjoy winter sports with her

But things changed again following the birth of her second daughter, Sofia, in 2015.

“I was undecided whether I would continue the sport because by then my APA had finished anyway, so I wasn’t on any lottery funding. I got called into a meeting with my performance director – who was then a different performance director to the one who was really supportive – and I was just asked what I would do.”

Rudman retired from the programme and set up her own personal training business.

The British Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association said it had implemented a bespoke programme for Rudman.

It said it was “proud to have supported her as she became a mother and continued to compete at the highest international level. In the run-up to the Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014 Olympics, the programme was then as flexible as possible to facilitate Shelley to compete on the international circuit as both a mother and a high-achieving athlete.”

UK Sport said it wants to see athletes continuing to receive Athlete Performance Awards during pregnancy and following childbirth.

In a statement to BBC Sport, it stressed the need for “good communication throughout with athletes to allow both the sport and the athlete to clearly agree a roadmap back into full-time training, if that is the long-term intention of the athlete”.

Sarah Wiltshire – Yeovil Town footballer

Sarah Wiltshire returned to football, for lower-league Cambridge, just three weeks after giving birth to her daughter, Alexa, in February. The former Manchester City forward then re-signed for the 2017 Spring Series with Yeovil in April.

“To be honest, I just listened to my body and felt that that was the right thing to do,” the 25-year-old said. “But that is important, that you listen to your body. Everyone’s different. I was just happy to get back playing and doing what I love.”

Sarah Wiltshire
Sarah Wiltshire returned to football just weeks after giving birth to Alexa

Wiltshire said she had a rough plan for her return.

“I tried to [plan], but I didn’t want to be disappointed because I knew it would depend on the birth,” she said. “I hoped I would be back quite quickly, but I probably didn’t think I was going to be back three weeks after giving birth.”

  • Juggling motherhood with sporting ambition

Helen Jenkins – double world champion triathlete

Triathlete Helen Jenkins is expecting her first child with her husband and coach Marc Jenkins.

The 33-year-old has agreed targets for her return after the birth of her baby, but does not feel extra pressure if she fails to meet those targets.

British Triathlon offers a three-month assessment for new mums.

“They have the option of reducing your funding or keeping you on less,” Jenkins explained. “But our performance director said that ‘you said you’re going to return to racing and I support that and I believe in you’ so I’ve got my level of funding through this year.

“I guess we’re just going to reassess when the baby is born and I’m back into it. If I’m back and I’m not racing at a high level I don’t expect to be given a full level of funding.”

Helen Jenkins
Helen Jenkins plans to return to triathlon following the birth of her first child

Jenkins also thinks attitudes still need to change towards female athletes choosing to start a family when they are still competing.

“It shouldn’t be a headline when someone does have a baby and then comes back to competing,” she said.

“In triathlon I think there’s seven of us that are pregnant from the Rio Olympics and there are quite a lot of long-distance triathletes that are also pregnant. So if everyone comes back from it I’m hoping it will set a good example for some of the younger girls in the sport that if they do want to have a baby, then there is that potential to get back.”

Brendan Purcell is Jenkins’ British Triathlon performance director and believes her pregnancy could actually boost her career.

“It’s an enforced period of refreshedness in some ways, and I think so long as we’re supporting and being clear on what her capabilities are the sky is still the limit for Helen. As long as we can see that there is actually progress towards delivering at a competition, I’m completely supportive of how they do it.”