How to combine having and raising children, family life and a successful career in high performance sports. This was the main topic of a roundtable discussion with famous Russian women champions at an informal event organised by ROC on the eve of 8 March.
Women and Sport is one of the main topics on the agenda of the International Olympic Movement. The IOC declares the role of sport as a potent platform for women’s empowerment. It pays attention to gender balance at the Olympic Games and increases the number of women’s and mixed disciplines. The Russian Olympic team has always had female athletes who inspire and motivate thousands of women to succeed in the truest sense of the word. In a variety of ways – motherhood, family, career, public or governmental activities, gaining and using new knowledge and skills in practice.
On the eve of International Women’s Day, the Russian Olympic Committee brought together for the first time renowned Olympic champions, medallists and Olympians at a round table to discuss realising their sporting potential in harmony with their desire to become mothers and raise children.
An important aspect was that the athletes came to the event with their children, for whom a separate entertainment programme was organised, while the mothers could have an in-depth and open conversation about issues that are important to each of them and share their own experiences.
“We live by the Olympic cycles”
Alla Shishkina, three-time Olympic champion in artistic swimming, moderated the meeting. One of the most hotly debated topics was how to approach pregnancy during an active sports career. It turned out that each “Olympic” family has its own story, but the participants agreed on one thing – life planning, including the birth of children, is guided by sporting goals and objectives. And successfully combining these two areas of life would be impossible without the support of family and friends.
For example, the world’s most titled artistic swimmer, seven-time Olympic champion and 21-time world champion Svetlana Romashina, admitted that she and her husband were thinking about becoming parents aready after the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
– But I knew I didn’t get enough from my sports career. I think each of the girls here and their husbands can attest that we live by the Olympic cycles. After you’ve worked for four years, you realise that now is the right time. It all worked out very well, so I was able to continue my sporting career: I got pregnant quite quickly, the pregnancy went smoothly, and when the baby was born, I started thinking about more competitions almost immediately.
Two-time Olympic champion in artistic gymnastics Aliya Mustafina:
– For me, everything happened consciously and purposefully. After the Olympics I didn’t train on purpose, I was preparing for motherhood. To be honest, I started thinking about pregnancy after the London Olympics, but I was only 18 at the time and decided to wait, but after Rio I made up my mind.
Aliya is an example of rare resilience: as she later said, she returned to training only three months after giving birth to her child, which caused real admiration among other young mothers.
– I had a goal of getting back into sports after giving birth. At all costs! Mum tried to talk me out of it but Dad said ‘come on, let her try it’. It was difficult physically. I did, however, get rid of my lower back pain from which I had suffered for four years. Flexibility has probably even increased, stretching has remained the same. Of course, gymnastics requires a very good physical form, and my coach spotted me on the most difficult elements at the beginning because I couldn’t do the normal bows on the uneven bars that children do at the age of five. But before the new year I got back into shape, remembered all the elements and already in March I competed in the Russian championships. It’s easier when you have a goal.
“I’d rather have you pregnant than go away”
But particularly interesting stories happen in families where both parents are professional athletes. Despite their demanding schedule, they are a successful example of how to pursue both family and competition.
Anastasia Fesikova, the 2012 Olympic vice-champion in swimming, shared a funny story:– I have trained with the same coach for many years. When I got married and my husband (London 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Sergei Fesikov – ed.) was training in Italy, I knew I wanted to go with him. I did a trial there, and when I got home I told my coach that I wanted to train in Italy with my husband. She was very upset, of course, such changes are hard for athletes. But literally a month later I found out that I was pregnant. Coach said then, “Whew, thank God! I’d rather have you pregnant than go away.
Everything worked out well, and in June Maxim was born. The second child, by the way, was also born in June. As Sveta (Romashina) said, we live by the Olympic cycles.
The story of skeleton racer Olga Denshchikova and her husband Semyon Denshchikov, a freestyle skier, Olympian, touched the athletes most of all.
– In 2018 we had our wedding in Sakhalin, I saw my husband off to the Olympics in Pyeongchang and stayed home myself. At the time, I was in a borderline state of either continuing my career or wrapping up and building a family. We thought we didn’t see enough of each other, so I decided to keep competing and went with my husband to a joint training camp in Sochi. Later, in Austria, where I was buying sports equipment, I suddenly realised that something was wrong with me: I was on a carousel at the Oktoberfest at the time and suddenly I felt sick, which is not typical for me – I am a skeletal athlete. That’s how I found out I was pregnant. It was a mixed feeling of joy and confusion at the same time, because the season had begun and I was determined to fight for the next four years. Anyway, after giving birth I decided to get back into sports. Missed a year and went to Sochi for training camp. This time already with my husband and child. After that, I found out that I was pregnant again.
“If I could then, everything else is possible”
The participants of the round table agreed that it is not easy to return to sport after the birth of a child, but that the motivation for the championship and the sporting ambition help to overcome all difficulties. Three-time Olympic artistic swimming champion Alexandra Patskevich has revealed that she was ready to end her career and switch to another job:
– I had a workplace, you might say, and I was getting away for good. But four months into my maternity leave at home with the baby while watching the 2019 World Swimming Championships, I thought I should have been there. Four months later I started training, and six months later I was back in the lineup.
Recovery was very difficult. I cried, videotaping myself saying that I would watch it the next time I won the Olympics in Tokyo. I couldn’t do splits, I couldn’t do anything. But in the end, through training, through daily work, it all worked out. And now, when it’s very, very difficult for me, I open this video and think: if I could do it then, in that state, then everything else is possible.
In addition, the athletes noted, a trained body well remembered what to do. Lyudmila Privivkova, Olympian and two-time European champion in curling:
– I came back to my first competition when Fedya was 8 months old. I was very nervous, it was very difficult because I had not trained for practically the whole pregnancy. But almost immediately I noticed that the body remembers everything very well.
“The child was at home with my husband. That’s why half of my medals are actually his”
One of the most important elements in pursuing a professional sporting career has proven to be the support of the close ones, as it is really difficult for young parents to leave for training and to be separated from their children. Athletes admitted that without the help of their families – mothers, grandmothers, and, of course, husbands – it would be impossible to continue on their way to medals and titles. Svetlana Romashina told how she persuaded herself that it was okay to leave her child to go to work:
– That’s my goal, my job. After all, how many mothers around the world go to work every day? And my child is at home with my husband. That’s why half of all my medals are his. When we train, perform, and do what we need to do for our careers, the folks have our backs. And it is so important to know for sure that the children are all right.
– I want to be a mom, hug and kiss the baby, but at the same time I feel like I haven’t said everything in sports yet. For me, the most important thing was to find a balance and not to blame myself for the fact that I want to be with my child and continue my career at the same time. The support of loved ones is important here, and so is new technology and video communication. At least it’s a little less torturing and longing to see the baby.
“When you hear ‘Mum!’ from the stand, it gives you strength”
Lyudmila Privivikova said that she began to prepare for training camps while she was still pregnant. According to her, special educational and psychological literature often advises telling a child openly where their parents are going, but this did not help:
– There were always tears, the baby was literally clawing at me. I’ve tried both straight talking and running off while the baby was sleeping. Of course, I was worried, when you’re not at home, the child is not with you – it’s hard. That said, there’s a lot of upside to having you perform and him cheering for you, shouting from the stand, “Mum!” It gives you strength. I felt calmer and more comfortable myself.
– There were different periods of my kid growing up. At first he let go quietly because he did not yet understand, then he asked more and more often where Mum was going. And when he was a little older, if I went away, he would expect me to bring him something from the training camp. In 2021, during the Tokyo Games, Maxim was already 7 years old, and he was already supporting me as best he could. But when I come home, I’m even more devoted to my child and to my family – perhaps more so than the mothers who see their children every day.
And Olympic champion in tennis Elena Vesnina, who is preparing to become a mother for the second time, confessed that her daughter has instilled in her an interest in new sports:
– We like to watch sports and cheer together. For example, recently we all got hooked on diving together. My daughter learned one athlete’s name and cheered for him, she really liked the way he jumped up and down and did flips. But she wants to play tennis, like me, and she also goes to gymnastics.
At the end of the discussion, all participants agreed that the restrictions associated with having children ultimately turn into additional incentives, both in sport and in other areas of life. All participants expressed the hope that their examples would inspire female athletes to continue combining their careers with motherhood.