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Sonia O’Sullivan: Motherhood no reason to give up on sport

Just over a year after Ciara was born, I won my Olympic silver medal in Sydney

Sonia O’Sullivan with her two daughters Ciara and Sophie in 2002. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

It’s not unusual for any female athlete at the top of her game to take a break, start a family, then return to the level she was at before. Often she returns and performs to an to an even higher level.

The latest evidence of this came last Sunday at the London Marathon where four of the top five women finishers also happen to be mothers.

Kenya’s winner Mary Keitany has a nine-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter, and ended up running a woman-only world record of 2:17.01; in other words, the fastest ever marathon where the women raced separate to the men.

 She eclipsed one of the most sought after records, set by Paula Radcliffe 12 years ago. Radcliffe’s ‘mixed’ world record of 2:15:25, set in 2003, included male pacemakers.

Keitany was closely followed across the finish line by Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba, mother of two-year-old son, who ran 2:17:56 to become the third fastest woman marathoner ever. And that was despite briefly stopping with a cramp.

For some strange reason these world class results by mothers were not highlighted in the same week that Serena Williams announced that she is pregnant. She won the Australian Open title earlier this year while eight weeks pregnant, and has clearly indicated her plans to return to competition after the birth of her first child.

There is no reason to think that she won’t. Williams will miss the rest of this year, and plans to return in 2018 – and there is much more evidence now to suggest this is the norm, rather than the exception.

Williams has achieved so much in tennis, ranked second only to Margaret Court on all-time Grand Slam victories, but there is still plenty of motivation for her to want to return at the highest level. 

If marathon runners can achieve even greater results after pregnancy and childbirth, then there is no reason to believe it will be any different for Williams.

Most women athletes continue to train or play for as long as they can; some until they are forced to stop. The longer you can maintain the fitness routine and regime throughout pregnancy, the easier it is to regain fitness, and eventually return to competition.

Mental changes

Every athlete’s path to success is personal and individualised. The path a pregnant athlete takes is even more personal, because what works for one person may not necessarily work for another. 

Motherhood definitely brings its challenges, but it certainly doesn’t mean you have to give up your chosen sport. You may just have to do things a bit differently. 

As any athlete knows, if you want something bad enough, you will find a way to make it happen. There is also plenty of data to indicate that women go through both physiological and mental changes after childbirth. 

It’s often described as similar to the benefit of spending time at altitude. That also means the sooner you can get back competing, the more you will be able to utilise this boost in performance levels, as the benefit soon runs out. 

Looking back, I certainly believe there was a physical boost, which coupled with a greater mental confidence and belief, enabled me to return to competition stronger and more determined. 

At the end of 1998, when I was pregnant with my first child, Ciara, I was aware of a few runners that had continued to run and train while pregnant. 

The person I aligned my timeline with was Scotland’s Liz McColgan. I’d seen what she was able to do, winning the 10,000m at the 1991 World Championships less than a year after her daughter was born, and also winning a bronze medal in the World Cross Country Championships just four months after giving birth. 

Ciara was born in July 1999, and I knew in my own mind this left me with just over a year to prepare for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. 

Still, there were so many questions and uncertainties in my mind, many of which I had to work out for myself. I had to be comfortable with the choices I was making, and also scour around for as much information as possible. 

I continued to train every day, maintaining my twice-a-day routine for a few months, then deciding to combine the sessions into one. So I would train for two hours in the morning, then rest in the afternoon, if I needed to.

Gym sessions

Once I felt good and maintained some fitness, I figured my body wouldn’t change too much overnight, or at least wouldn’t feel very different from day to day. I continued to do my regular gym sessions to maintain strength and stability. 

I also took the time to learn how to swim. I was worried the time would come when I wouldn’t be able to run at all, and would need to be able to swim competently to get a decent workout, raise my heart rate a little. 

At the time the recommendation was not to raise your heart rate above 140bpm. This seemed too conservative to me, too much of a generalisation, knowing heart-rate is different for everyone. I used to get my heart-rate up above 140 just walking up the steps to the gym. 

This was an anomaly, something I was always trying to get to the bottom of, and eventually found one study that concluded it was safe for pregnant athletes to continue to train up to 85 per cent of their normal heart rate. This correlated with how I was training and maintaining fitness, and I took it one step further and worked out I could continue to train across the board at 85 per cent of my normal routine. 

When I look back now at my training diaries from 1999, and also 2001 when I was pregnant for the second time with Sophie, I’m actually quite amazed at what I was able to achieve. I probably could have been a little less structured and intense, although it’s what worked for me at the time. 

I didn’t actually follow the same routine both times, as I’d worked out that the most important factor was maintaining fitness, and just being ready to return to training as soon as possible after the birth. 

There was no scientific plan, just what felt right to me at the time. After Sophie was born in December 2001, it just seemed right that I should do my first run on New Year’s Day. The World Cross Country was in Dublin that March, and I felt I needed to get the year off to a positive start.

Endless energy  

There was always something to look forward to, and when there is an end goal, there is no lack of motivation. My first race back was a low key 5km fun run, a checkpoint along the way. Every week I was able to run faster in training: it was like starting all over again, new goals and endless energy to help me achieve what I set out to do. 

Just over a year after Ciara was born, I won my Olympic silver medal. Just over three months after Sophie was born, we won bronze medals in the women’s team race at the World Cross Country Championships. 

Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player, and there is no doubt she will want to join the growing list of women champion athletes that continue to compete well into motherhood, and share their sporting life with their children.