Mum's the word

Sarah Elliott recently scored 104 against England in the Women's Ashes Test. What many don't know is that she was breast-feeding her baby who was 9 months during lunch and tea breaks.

Updated: August 19, 2013 13:38 IST
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"There is no maternity leave for professional sportswomen. Most working women can also remain in their jobs up to seven or eight months pregnant, whereas most professional sportswomen would have to stop paid competition by the third month."

- Natalie Grinham, top Dutch squash player

I don't know about you, but the story of Sarah Elliott, the Australian cricketer, made me very, very happy. I don't get to watch women's cricket too often, but I do try to track the scores and stay abreast of developments. So I knew about Elliott's 355-minute innings at the Women's Ashes, where she scored 104 against Katherine Brunt, Anya Shrubsole, Jenny Gunn and Laura Marsh. What I didn't know was that Elliott was breastfeeding her nine-month-old baby during the lunch and tea breaks.

It's a no-brainer that women have it tougher than men on a fair few fronts in sport. I am no expert on the subject, but there is no getting away from the fact that motherhood impacts a woman's body: from childbirth-related surgery to hormonal changes. There is a period of rest that keeps the sportswoman from her training schedule. Even the decision not to breastfeed could lead to complications. I don't know if women in all parts of the world face the sort of pressure Indian women are under to get married and have children, but of course, a sportswoman might want to get married or have children anyway.

In other fields, this need not affect her career in a big way, in terms of performance, but in sport, it's a different story. The body will - in purely physical terms - take a certain amount of time to regain its form.

I have heard of some top-drawer female athletes who just took time off for childbirth and returned once they felt they were ready. There have been others who chose to stick it out and do what they could through their pregnancy. Others, many, just quit.

It was one of those quiz questions back in school, which set me thinking about the issue properly for the first time: Who was the first mother to win the Wimbledon 'ladies' singles title after World War I? Evonne Goolagong-Cawley. When she won the title in 1980, she had a three-year-old daughter. I don't know if Goolagong-Cawley ever needed to breastfeed her daughter between sets, but it couldn't have been easy, returning to the courts so soon after the child's birth and getting back on top of her game. Of course, it's unfair to remember her only for the trivia, because she did win Wimbledon once before, as a 'Miss' in 1971, as well as four Australian Open and one French Open title. More recently, Kim Clijsters became the first mother since Goolagong-Cawley to win a major. Like her predecessor, she took a little time off to have her first baby, came back to reach the top and, having achieved that, signed off for good, announcing in February this year that she was pregnant with her second child.

Amanda Beard and Janet Evans, the American swimmers, beach volleyballer Kerri Walsh and many others are glowing examples of motherhood failing to keep a good sportswoman down, while Paula Radcliffe, the British distance runner, ran competitively for the entire duration of her first pregnancy.

The story I know best, from up close, is that of MC Mary Kom, the former Indian boxing world champion. Her pregnancy, accidental, forced her to quit the sport temporarily, and she returned only after giving birth to twin sons in August 2007. Her thoughts from the time probably sum up the dilemma so many other women encounter when in a similar situation - the confusion, the order of priorities and much else, over and above the questions any woman would have anyway. She was worried about having a caesarean; would it ruin her chances of returning to the sport? She worried about being an absentee mom. And she worried about never being able to fulfil her dream of fighting at the Olympics.

Mary was 24 at the time. The London Olympics would later become the first occasion where women's boxing was allowed as a competitive sport; she would be 29 then. Not just that, at 46-48kg, she was well below the lowest category of 51kg, which meant that within two years of making her comeback, she would have to increase her bodyweight, return to full fitness, become strong enough to fight heavier boxers, and being a multiple world champion, live up to her reputation and win gold in London. "My Olympics dream was still unfulfilled," she said. "I would be too old in 2016, so 2012 was my best chance. I had to do it. I had no option."

For Mary, it worked out well, as an extremely supportive husband helped her along. There was no gold, but there was a bronze. And the boys are growing up well. She's just had another baby - before getting ready for 2016. Much like Yelena Isinbayeva's plans; she's 31, a world champion again, taking a break to have a baby, but with enough time in hand to return and hopefully make a splash at the 2016 Olympics.

And a splash is what Elliott created at Wormsley the other day. Throughout her pregnancy, Elliott maintained that she wanted to play for Australia again, having played only one Test prior to this one, back in January 2011. She hit the gym just six weeks after giving birth to her son Sam, and the practice grounds soon after. The century validates her drive, tough though it has been (reports say Sam doesn't always sleep through the night).

Returning to pre-pregnancy fitness levels is yet another hurdle. Often, sponsors walk away when a female athlete becomes pregnant. But over the years, with improved training methods and more scientific approaches to such matters, the 'disabled' tag has detached itself from sports mums.

The rise of sports mums is "the next revolution in recognising that pregnancy isn't a disability", says Bill Moreau, managing director of sports medicine for the US Olympic Committee. I agree, and that's awesome. More power then to the women that brave the physical and other stress, sleepless nights and bawling babies to make their way back to where they belong.

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