Mother vs. athlete: University of Alberta study highlights gaps in gender equity in sport

A U of A study calls for policy changes for female athletes, and says starting a family shouldn’t put athletic careers at risk

New research calls for policy changes, says starting a family shouldn’t put athletic careers at risk

After her first race back from pregnancy, Hilary Stellingwerff crossed the finish line to her one-and-a-half-year-old son, Theo. As an elite athlete and mother, she wants to make sports more equitable for elite athletes doing both. (Trent Stellingwerff)

Elite athletes who become mothers need better support from sporting bodies to continue their careers after birth, a University of Alberta study suggests.

Tara-Leigh McHugh, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Alberta, interviewed 20 women who competed at elite levels before becoming pregnant.

"There's so little support and there's so little value given to pregnant athletes and to women who want to be able to be mothers and compete," McHugh said.

"We need to start to normalize and value pregnancy … to demonstrate that it is possible and women can actually succeed and thrive as mother athletes."

For McHugh, the findings identified a clear gap in support for athletes during and after pregnancy and the effect it has on careers.

"Girls need to know they belong in sport," she said. "Even if they do want to start a family."

Pregnancy as injury

Hilary Stellingwerff is a former Olympian and nationally ranked track-and-field athlete who took part in the study. 

As a "carded" athlete, she received financial assistance from the federal government throughout her career and her first pregnancy. 

Under Athletics Canada, athletes that compete at a certain level can apply for the Athletic Assistance Program or AAP, and those that qualify for funding receive their 'card' for the year. There are different kinds of cards, including one medical card for athletes who are pregnant, ill or injured. 

When Stellingwerff was competing, athletes could only receive one medical card in their career.

In a bid to make the Olympic team for Rio, Stellingwerff, a new mom, returned to training and hit the ground running. In 2015, she had a stress fracture and applied for another medical card.

After competing in Rio, Stellingwerff came back to her family right after competition. During the closing ceremonies she was on a beach in Victoria with Theo. (Trent Stellingwerff)

"I applied for a medical card and they said, you've already used your medical card for pregnancy and you can't have a second," she said. 

"And I said, 'That's unfair.'"

Stellingwerff appealed and brought her complaint to the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, where she was allowed to apply for a second medical card. But she still wasn't approved for financial support through the AAP.

While raising her young son, Stellingwerff continued training and qualified for the Canadian team in 2016. She received financial assistance retroactively.

In 2016, Athletics Canada changed its policy, allowing athletes to be nominated for a medical card for pregnancy more than once. 

In her current role as head coach at the University of Victoria, Stellingwerff makes a point of sharing her story with female athletes.

"More people need to be thinking about these things and women need to stand up for each other," she said.

Mother vs. athlete

McHugh and co-researcher Margie Davenport identified key recommendations for sporting organizations.

Davenport, who specializes in exercise and pregnancy, said a first step is understanding the physical effects of training on pregnant athletes.

"We don't have a lot of information about what is safe and beneficial for athletes who are regularly exceeding current recommendations [of physical activity]," Davenport told CBC's Radio Active

The study calls for more research to create evidence-based guidelines specific to athletes who continue to train at high levels during and after pregnancy.

Margie Davenport (left) and Tara-Leigh McHugh (right) co-led the study from the U of A, identifying policy changes to make elite sports better for mother-athletes. (Submitted by Margie Davenport and Tara-Leigh McHugh)

In interviews, many athletes also identified the need for clear policies and expectations around pregnancy from sporting organizations.

The study asks sporting bodies to be clear about when and how an athlete can return to sport after pregnancy, including whether or not their spot on a team is safe.

"We heard from a number of athletes who are really scared to disclose that they were pregnant for fear that they were going to lose their position," she said. 

"We need to start to normalize and value pregnancy. To be able to demonstrate that it is possible and women can actually succeed and thrive as mother athletes."