Everyone knows by now that Serena Williams won The Australian Open while pregnant with her first child & I love how crazy the internet has gone over her ability to perform at an elite level while pregnant!
But it’s also a timely reminder of what our bodies can do in a media era that floods young girls and women with examples of ways to alter our bodies or how they should look & feel. In the early stages of pregnancy a woman’s blood volume will increase. For an athlete, this means there is more blood available to carry oxygen to the muscles which can make a pregnant athlete stronger (not weaker) in terms of endurance and recovery.
How do I know this? I was 6 weeks pregnant when I competed for New Zealand Hockey in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and at that point I was the fittest I had ever been, breaking all of my own fitness testing PB’s and generally feeling pretty awesome.
In the buildup to the Olympics, the team had been based in Hong Kong for 12 days training 2-5 hours a day in temperatures that soared past 40 degrees celsius! In these conditions we had to be carefully monitored for fluid loss which could lead to dehydration. The coaching staff had chosen Hong Kong as the heat would be more extreme than what we would face in Beijing, making the competition seem easier physically – from that perspective.
Little did I know as I trained through these tough mental, physical and environmental conditions that I was in the early stages of pregnancy!
From HK, we flew straight to Beijing and into the Olympic Village. The day we arrived I needed to see the medical team about an infection on my knee from a turf burn. I briefly mentioned to the doctor that I hadn’t had my period for a while and assumed it was a side effect from all of my training. He suggested a pregnancy test……….wtf??!!
Months before the Olympics, the whole team had left family, friends and husbands to relocate to Auckland so we could spend a concentrated training period together. I hadn’t seen my Husband for a couple of weeks before we left NZ, except for that one time….
So I am now in the Olympic Village Medical centre looking at the piece of paper confirming my pregnancy….what am I going to do? Will I have to go home? The team is relying on me. How could I have sacrificed so much to do this right at the last hurdle? What am I going to tell my Mum & Aunty who have flown from NZ to watch me??
It was a long walk back to my accommodation and by this stage it was 9.30pm and the middle of the night in NZ so I couldn’t even call Johnny. I went to see the head of the NZOC Medical Team and asked her what my options were. At this point I have to say the medical stuff were AMAZING! They supported me and reassured me that there was very minimal risk to the baby this early on in the pregnancy. Even if I threw myself around, the baby was too small to be harmed. Also, she reminded me that what ever activity I was doing when I got pregnant, it is safe to continue at that level through early pregnancy.
It was a reminder that our bodies are robust and amazing – that I could still do what I needed to do even though I was pregnant. It wasn’t going to make me weaker or less of an athlete.
In reality, while I was excited about the news as we were planning kids immediately post Beijing, it also played heavily on mind and in hindsight was a real distraction for me. Being part of a team is the best and the worst – although we share so much as a group and with the special bonds you form within the team, I didn’t want to burden people with this news as they were preparing for the event of their life, but nor could I keep it to myself completely.
So I told 3 of my best friends in the team but no one else and on reflection I think it was unfair for me to burden that secret on them at that time. I didn’t even tell management or coaches, which now I know I should’ve. I did tell my Mum & Aunty of course.
As the Games drew nearer, I was making different decisions based on my new physiological state. I pretended to be too tired to attend the Opening Ceremony. During the Games, I spent more time in my room recovering and looking after my body, rather than attending other events or walking around the Village. Athletes will often talk about having cabin fever in the village – I intensified this feeling for myself. I told my room mate I had a cold (in Beijing, really??) to get out of the post games celebrations.
Part of my preparation had always been to keep my mindset in a happy/medium state of relaxation. I’m not the athlete with head phones on and a grim look on my face, I’m the athlete playing hacky sack or hockey squash before a game. I need to feel relaxed so my nerves can’t overwhelm me.
So changing my focus to a serious one and limiting my activity (unnecessarily) really affected my mindset, my experience and I believe my performance. I got through the tournament physically fine, but mentally it had taken its toll and I was ready for home.
By the time we left Beijing and I got off the plane in NZ I remember seeing my Husband and bursting into tear.
This was not how I had envisioned ending my international hockey career.
Pregnancy in normal circumstances can be challenging with turbulent emotions, physiological changes and the reality of what is happening. But is was amplified for me by the pressure environment I was in and the cloak of secrecy I surrounded my pregnancy with. In Serena Williams situation, she faced all of this as well as the task of facing off with her sister in the Open Final with the Grand Slams record on the line as well. To add all of this to the pressure that she would normally be under proves that pregnancy doesn’t make us weak or feeble, we don’t need to be wrapped in cotton wool.
So, I have huge respect to Williams and any other woman who is managing life and all its pressures, whatever the situation, while growing new life! Our bodies are truly amazing and we need to spend more time relying on our intuition to guide us and less time worrying about other peoples reactions or opinions or images that are unattainable and unrealistic.
Strength & Fabulousness is what we women have in absolute abundance.
Love, Jaimee Sarah oxo
NB I am commenting from my own experience of pregnancy.