Motherhood and Olympic Success: an inspiring combination

By Jessica Pinchbeck

When skeleton athlete Shelly Rudman makes her Sochi Olympics debut there will be one very important spectator in the crowd – her 6 year old daughter Ella; but how easy is it to combine life as a professional athlete with motherhood?

Following the recent announcement of athletics’ golden girl Jessica Ennis-Hill’s pregnancy the question of how motherhood can impact athletic success has been a prominent discussion point in the media. There are those sceptics that allude to this being the end of Ennis-Hill’s athletics career however many Olympic athletes have shown that motherhood does not symbolise the end of a career, but simply marks a transition into the next phase of their development, with a different set of challenges to overcome.

Competition and Motherhood

Combining motherhood and Olympic success is not a new trend as shown by 1988 Olympic Silver medallist Liz McColgan. McColgan continued form winning gold in the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo one year after the birth of her daughter, and continued to have a successful career winning the London and New York marathons. Similarly Irish long distance runner Sonia O’Sullivan returned to training only 10 days after the birth of her daughter in 1999, and in 2000 won a silver medal at the Sydney Olympics in the 5000m. More recently in 2007 Paula Radcliffe triumphed in the New York marathon just 10 months after giving birth to her baby daughter Isla. Paula claimed being a mum actually improved her performance:

‘The happier I am, the better I run… Certainly I’m a lot happier with Isla in our lives …I think your body is just a little bit stronger after pregnancy’.

Radcliffe continued to train throughout her pregnancy but chose not to run competitively, although some athletes do continue to compete. During the history of the winter Olympics there have been three known cases of pregnant women competing. In 1920 a Swedish figure skater, Magda Julin, was three months pregnant when she won gold. In 2006 German athlete Diana Sartor competed in the women’s skeleton at nine weeks pregnant and in Vancouver 2010 Canadian curling athlete Kristie Moore won silver at five and a half months pregnant.

Other examples include GB equestrian Mary King who famously competed in the European Championships in 1995 at five and a half months pregnant, and came away with a team gold and individual bronze medal. King has continued to successfully combine competition and motherhood and added to her medal tally in London 2012 with a silver:

‘Everyone warned me that motherhood would change me and my attitude to riding and competition…I didn’t think it would – and it really didn’t’.

Zara Phillips, Olympic silver medallist, also caused a media furore when she competed in the Brighting Park International Horse Trials days after announcing her pregnancy. She has also publicly stated her intent to return to competitive eventing as soon as possible with hopes to compete in Rio 2016.

Providing inspiration for female athletes 11 time gold medallist paralympic cyclist Dame Sarah Storey made an impressive return to competition winning the 3km pursuit in the Paracycling International Cup in December 2013 after becoming a mum. Storey got back on her bike only 6 weeks after giving birth, and gradually increased her training revolving her schedule around the demands of a newborn baby:

“Since coming back it has been about fitting training around Louisa’s feeding regime. I haven’t missed a day of training – I’ve just had to adapt how I have done it. It has been a big learning curve but one I have enjoyed.”

Sliding to Success in Sochi

Shelley Rudman, Skeleton Olympic Silver medallist in 2006, portrays another inspiring female role model. Following the birth of her daughter Ella in 2007 Rudman returned to the sport within three months. In an interview with the BBC Rudman discussed the issues she faced upon her return:

‘My funding got reduced and I had targets to meet. Three months after Ella was born I had to hit targets and when I did my funding incrementally increased… Fortunately I was doing really well and won a few races, but it was a real worry.’

Rudman and her husband will both be competing in Sochi 2014 and rely heavily upon the support of their family to help them look after daughter Ella. Rudman is a prime example of how to strike the balance between motherhood and being an Olympic athlete. When the family are away from the UK Rudman’s day typically consists of training and home tutoring Ella. In 2013 Rudman proved this regime to be a success by becoming the Women’s Skeleton World Champion, and cites Ella as her main inspiration for competing in Sochi:

“At the back of my mind, I thought ‘how cool would it be for Ella to say she’s been at an Olympics to watch her mum compete. That’s probably the biggest motivator’

Timing it right

For women the decision of when to start a family is a crucial one and even more so for top level athletes due to the physical as well as the logistical challenges that motherhood brings. Some like Ennis-Hill and Phillips opt to take a break from their sport following career highs with the aim of returning to competition in time for the next Olympics. A feat that Olympians such as Liz McColgan, Sonia O’Sullivan, Mary King, and Paula Radcliffe have all managed to achieve. Other Olympic athletes choose to wait until their retirement to begin a family such as Gail Emms, badminton silver medallist in Athens 2004, and Katherine Merry, 400m bronze medallist in Sydney 2000. For others the timing can be far from perfect.

Tasha Danvers’ story is a particular heartfelt one. 400m hurdler Danvers fell pregnant at the peak of her career just months before the 2004 Athens Olympics. With a tough decision to make, and even getting as far as the door of the abortion clinic, Danvers put aside her Olympic dream and chose motherhood. This was an emotional time with her career plans shattered. However, Danvers showed tremendous determination and strength of character gaining silver at the 2006 Commonwealth Games and later winning an Olympic bronze medal in Beijing in 2008, proving Olympic dreams and motherhood can co-exist. Still ambitious Danvers aimed for London 2012 although training and being a single mother with little support took its toll. Her son moved back to LA to be with family leaving Danvers alone in the UK following her Olympic Dream. Her depression escalated until the situation became unbearable and Danvers attempted to take her own life. Fortunately Danvers recovered and in June 2012 retired from athletics returning to LA to be with her son:

“It’s hard to be a mother. Full stop. If you’re a working mum, it’s that much harder, and if you’re a professional athlete and a mum you have the added pressure of being away for weeks and months. It’s very difficult, not just for you but for your child, who also has to sacrifice time with you.’


For most new parents life becomes a juggling act with a whole new set of demands placed upon them. As these Olympic athletes show with the right support networks in place, and the ability to find a suitable balance between athletic success and motherhood, Olympic dreams can be achieved. Being a mother is certainly not an easy task and these women lead the way in providing inspiration.


BBC (2013) Shelley Rudman ‘had skeleton funding cut after pregnancy’ [online] Available from:

BBC Radio 5 (2013) ‘Pregnancy in Sport’ [online] Available from:

Flanagan, J. (2012) ‘London 2012 Olympics: Mary King, the farmer’s wife, chasing gold’ [online] Available from:

Hudson, E. (2013) ‘Dame Sarah Storey set for racing comeback in Newport’ [online] Available from:

Lewis, A. (2013) ‘Shelley Rudman on her Sochi hopes and teaching her daughter’ [online] Available from:

Mail Online (2014) ‘Paula Radcliffe wins New York Marathon – less than 10 months after giving birth to baby Isla’ [online] Available from:–10-months-giving-birth-baby-Isla.html

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