Pregnant surfing: ‘I also only did small, friendly waves’

Katie McAnena: ‘My baby won her first paddleboard title at 14 weeks gestation’

General practitioner Katie McAnena didn’t have any reason to question the “extreme caution” approach taken by medicine to pregnancy when she was a student in Galway.

There’s every good reason for same, given that both pregnancy and childbirth still pose risks. However, when she became pregnant herself two years ago she was struck by the fact that the phrase “period of confinement” is still part of the official terminology.

McAnena was anything but confined when out on a stand-up paddleboard five days before the birth of her daughter, Mara. Her firstborn was then already four days overdue.

"And there I was on these very gentle waves breaking off that lovely sandy beach at Rossnowlagh, south Donegal, and it was so relaxing," she recalls. The only thing I couldn't do was lie on the board . . . "


It wasn't quite what she imagined when she became pregnant, and found herself consulting "Dr Google" about just how restricted her life might be for a while. McAnena, now a GP in Co Donegal, is a champion windsurfer, who became one of the first women to ride the big wave break known as "Jaws" in Hawaii over four years ago.

The formation,which appeared in the opening sequence of the James Bond film, Die Another Day, can reach 18 metres in height and is considered to have all the risk and unpredictability of a shark attack.

“So when I typed in “pregnancy surfing” , I was met with a juxtaposition of advice from conflicting (and most likely non-reliable) sources,” she recalls. Even as a medical graduate, she still felt like “another woman, pregnant for the first time, lost in a sea of Wikipedia and ‘what to expect’ websites”.

“ On the one hand I saw stunning images of professional surfer Bethany Hamilton with her burgeoning baby bump, framed by a tanned, bikini-clad athletic physique, smiling as she glided along a Hawaiian turquoise wave. This is great I thought! Girl power!

“Then there was the other end of the spectrum, as in the myriad of sports that pregnant woman must avoid at all costs – of which surfing was one of them.”

Further study led her to some reasonable conclusions – firstly, continue to do what one has always done, within reason.

“Pregnancy is a new physiological state. With it comes massive hormonal and physical changes which need to be respected and appreciated. However, pregnancy is not an illness. You are not infirm. You do not need to go into confinement. It is a natural chrysalis that has been in existence for as long as we have,” she continues.

“When you become pregnant, your body changes in substantial ways which have a definite bearing on performance and physicality. For example your cardiac output increases by 30-50 per cent, your heart-rate increases by 15 per cent and your vascular resistance decreases by 20 per cent which lowers your blood pressure significantly,” she explains.

“You can’t take these changes lightly and, along with the hormonal nuances which increase your soft tissue laxity, it is imperative that you function within your limits.

“Pregnancy is not the time to push yourself, or to try anything new,”she says. “One of the best pieces of advice I came across online was from a professional triathlete. She said that one day in her first trimester she was so exhausted with that bone-deep fatigue that only an expectant mother knows that she couldn’t get out of bed.

“She was due to train that afternoon and she had this inner turmoil – as in, should she push through the tiredness and train, or succumb to it. And the answer is “always succumb”, which may seem counter intuitive to an athlete used to training to levels of exhaustion and beyond,” McAnena says.

“You are tired for a reason, you are building a human. Give yourself a break and accept that the energy you would have expended in your training session is now being applied to forming the architecture of a human being. That is in itself a pretty hard-core workout!” she says.

For many women, pregnancies are complicated, and she had hyperemesis gravidarum in the early stages, where she was throwing up for a period of about seven weeks – and had to be hospitalised for it at one point. She remembers only being able to hold down potato waffles.

“Other woman experience bleeding, high blood pressure, diabetes, and these conditions need to be taken seriously ,” she says. “But, for the most part, what I have learned is to listen to your body, take every day as it comes, enjoy the changes and challenges, and try to normalise the situation as best you can.”

She ruled out windsurfing from the beginning of her pregnancy, as she felt that wearing a tight harness around her waist and moving at up to 30km an hour with the possibility of a hard fall on to her equipment was not a risk she wanted to take.

“That left me with surfing and stand-up paddleboarding,” she explains.”

Surfing a regular short board and long board in the prone position was something I felt comfortable to do up until about 14 weeks.”

“My number one rule for surfing while pregnant was that I would go to a break that was not crowded, to avoid the risk of coming in contact with another surfer’s rogue board,” she says.

“I also only surfed small, “friendly” waves that did not require any degree of being tossed, tumbled or shaken-up,” she says. “I was fortunate enough to continue competing in my early pregnancy and my little baby won her first national stand-up paddleboard title at 14 weeks gestation and a second place in the national longboard competition!”

“Gliding on the water and getting in for a swim is what kept me sane for nine months,” she says, even though she eventually had to swap her wetsuit for one owned by her husband.

“Catching small waves and that feeling of weightlessness must be akin to what my little baby felt as she cruised the amniotic seas of my womb. It just felt so natural,” she says.

And several months ago, Mara’s mother won her sixth Irish national windsurfing championship title, and fifth national stand-up paddle surfing title, in Achill, Co Mayo.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times