“It doesn’t have to be a setback”: How top athletes return from pregnancy Serena Williams

SErena Williams has never liked the word “retirement.” she away from tennisannounced in an essay in the September issue of VogueIt’s an “evolution,” she says. In her transition, she will shift focus from tennis to “other things” that are important to her. One is her desire to have another child.

Williams and her husband have been trying for a baby for the past year, a move apparently encouraged by their four-year-old daughter, who hopes to be a big sister. But, as Williams told the magazine, “As an athlete, I definitely don’t want to get pregnant again. I need to be two feet into tennis or two feet out.

Williams was two months pregnant when she won the Australian Open in 2017. On September 1 of that year, she gave birth to their daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. However, it was not an easy pregnancy. Williams had a cesarean after developing a blood clot in her lung during labor, and played through postnatal depression.

There is no doubt that pregnancy can take its toll on top athletes. The weight gain and change in body shape affect the balance and posture that one needs to get used to, and maximum intensity training should be avoided, says Prof Kari Bø of the Norwegian School of Sport Science in Oslo. Any training where there is a risk of hitting the hump, whether from an impact or a fall, is also strongly discouraged.

But while training tends to be scaled back, athletes continue to train during pregnancy. How quickly top athletes return after childbirth depends on how smoothly it goes. Aside from any muscle weakness from impaired exercise, the two muscles that run down the center of the abdomen often separate in pregnancy as the expanding uterus forces them apart.

At the same time, ligaments and other connective tissue loosen to make it easier for the child to get out. The pelvic floor muscles can become stretched and weakened, which can lead to urinary and fecal incontinence. All can affect recovery.

Other problems can arise after birth. When a woman breastfeeds, her estrogen levels drop. This reduces the body’s ability to absorb calcium, which in turn leads to a loss in bone density. The risk is that a top athlete may return too soon to a high-intensity workout or competition and break a bone. “That’s an issue we need to consider, especially for endurance athletes. You have to find a balance between diet and exercise,” says Bø.

However, not all changes are negative. During pregnancy, the heart remodels and is able to pump more blood around the body, but the changes are short-lived and return to normal within a few months after birth.

Despite the challenges, there is no shortage of women returning to elite tennis. Margaret Court gave birth to her first child in 1972 and won the Australian Open, French Open and US Open in 1973. Evonne Goolagong Cawley and Kim Clijsters also won maternity titles. “If everything goes smoothly and there are no complications, it’s possible to get back into shape and improve on what you’ve been doing so far, it doesn’t have to be a setback at all,” says Bø.

Kim Clijsters in 2012, four years after giving birth to her first child
Kim Clijsters in 2012, four years after giving birth to her first child. Photo: Rebecca Naden/PA

Candice Lingam-Willgoss, associate professor of physical education and fitness at the Open University, says one of the biggest problems facing elite athletes in motherhood is the loss of recovery time. Sleepless nights can make it harder to exercise at full intensity, but the time previously set aside for crucial recovery is so easily taken up with childcare.

The most glaring truth in Williams’ essay is that if she were a man, she would not be in that position. “I was out there playing and winning while my wife did the physical labor to expand our family,” she writes. Female fertility begins to decline after the age of 35, with the chance of conceiving at 40 being around 40-50% in a year. When 36-year-old Rafael Nadal announced in June that his wife was pregnant, he remarked: “I don’t think it will change my professional life.”

Lingam-Willgoss says, “Many mothers of elite athletes still struggle with cultural norms that see women as caregivers. Motherhood is very selfless and being a top athlete is very selfish and you have this constant tension to do both very well.”

One of the biggest challenges for Williams – and for any top athlete – is the fundamental loss of identity that comes with leaving the sport. But this is where Williams comes out on top. “Leaving this athletic self is very, very difficult. That’s all she worked for, that’s what she is,” says Lingam-Willgoss. “But she already has a different identity, and she’s thinking about becoming a mother again, and that may mitigate some of the psychological impact.” She’s already got that new focus.”

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