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How top-level athletes are rewriting pregnancy in sport narrative and forcing governing bodies into action | Rugby Union News

The empowering messages from Abbie Ward and Naomi Osaka are changing the narrative around pregnancy in sport (PA/AP Photo/Getty)

If 2022 was the year women’s sport hit unprecedented heights, 2023 is shaping up to be the one where elite sportswomen, in full flight of their careers, are changing the notion of waiting until the final embers of their profession or retirement before starting a family.

Already, four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka, Rugby World Cup finalist Abbie Ward and 2020 AIG Women’s Open champion Sophia Popov have all announced they are expecting a baby later this year.

In going public with their news, they all shared a similar empowering message of expressing a desire to return to their own sporting theatre of dreams with baby in tow.

Ward, who narrowly missed out on World Cup glory for the Red Roses last November, posted on social media of her pregnancy in late January: “I can’t wait to have my mini-me pitch side next season and show that athletes can be mums too.”

Osaka, merely a couple of weeks earlier, similarly wrote: “I know that I have so much to look forward to in the future, one thing I’m looking forward to is for my kid to watch my matches and tell someone, ‘that’s my mom’”, while Popov added in her announcement post: “Looking forward to my comeback as an #lpgamom.”

For 29-year-old Ward, the 61 words she crafted on her social accounts were given careful consideration – with the overall message of her long-term commitment to rugby.

“It’s definitely been up until now that players (in rugby) would wait until the end of their careers before having children or cutting their careers short,” Ward told Sky Sports.

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Abbie Ward opens up on going public with her pregnancy and explains the message she wanted to put across

Abbie Ward opens up on going public with her pregnancy and explains the message she wanted to put across

“I wanted to let people know, I am still training, still very much a Bristol Bear and a Red Rose, it’s going to be hard but a very exciting time ahead.”

Ward admitted to feeling nervous about telling her team-mates for fear of “letting them down”, but has been touched by the overwhelming support and warmth she has felt from her rugby family and the wider public.

“It’s about showing that it’s an option now, but not putting other athletes under pressure. If people choose to end their career and go down another route, then that’s also important. I don’t want to put pressure on other sportswomen to say you have to get back. I’m obviously putting pressure on myself, and I know it’s going to be very difficult, but I know there is that support structure around for me and everyone is so excited.”

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England’s Abbie Ward wants fellow sporting governing bodies to take a look at their maternity policies following the RFU’s announcement

England’s Abbie Ward wants fellow sporting governing bodies to take a look at their maternity policies following the RFU’s announcement

Even nine-time Grammy winner Rihanna’s spectacular half-time show at the Super Bowl last month with baby bump on full display helped shift the perception of what a pregnant woman should or shouldn’t be doing.

“Pregnancy is something that a lot of people are talking about right now,” Ward added. “At the Olympics last summer, you saw athletes with their kids on the track after their races. Then, to see Rhianna, pregnant and performing in one of the biggest shows of her career at the Super Bowl and bossing it is amazing for not just women to see, but for men and kids too.

“Although you can think, women have been doing it forever (having children), it’s good to have a spotlight on it and take away the thinking that once you’re pregnant, you have to curtail what you’re doing.”

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Some of the best bits from Rihanna’s incredible half-time show at Super Bowl LVII

Some of the best bits from Rihanna’s incredible half-time show at Super Bowl LVII

That new narrative being shaped by Ward and her fellow pregnant sportswomen is making governing bodies sit up and take notice as they look to accelerate their maternity policies, rework previous outdated ones or, in some cases, start a long overdue discussion over how best to support their athletes and their growing family.

‘It’s time for other governing bodies to take action’

Last month, the RFU announced a ‘ground-breaking’ new maternity policy for contracted England players which not only includes 26 weeks leave on full pay, but looks beyond the birth, with players able to bring their infant to away fixtures and tournaments with travel costs met by the governing body too.

“The work behind the maternity package has been going on for over a year now behind the scenes, it’s something the RFU didn’t want to rush,” Ward said.

Abbie Ward is still currently training with Bristol Bears and will join up with the England set-up for the Six Nations, albeit in a different capacity

“They spoke to different countries, different unions, different sports, those who had really good practice to see what learnings they could get and what would work the best and tailored to the Red Roses.

“It was pretty much finished by the time I spoke to the RFU and told them my news. It was great in terms of timing. I was presented it (the policy) at the same time as the players in camp. They wanted to say that, ‘this is what we have’ but we are also aware that this doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. We will need to change and adapt things, everyone is unique, we’re all learning, this is a new process. I’ve had communication with everyone at England, the doctors, medics, physios and the coaches and that’s been great.”

Now Ward wants other governing bodies to follow suit and make sure their policies are ones that truly support the athletes.

“I’d also like to see other countries, particularly the Home Nations introduce something similar of their own. This is about us all speaking to each other, learning from each other and sharing this. Right across the board, people need to be introducing this, and if they haven’t, they need to be doing it straight away.”

The Women’s Tennis Association started updating their own maternity policy in 2018 after 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams returned to the tour following the birth of daughter Olympia, allowing players to freeze their ranking to enter tournaments and use up to a year after making their return.

Serena Williams with her daughter Olympia Ohanian after winning the ASB Classic in Auckland back in 2020

While this ruling won’t benefit Osaka as she had slipped to world No 66 at the time she made her surprise announcement, the 25-year-old, who was Forbes’ highest-paid female athlete for 2022, earning over $50m, will undoubtedly be handed wildcards by tournament organisers if and when she steps back out on court again.

While Great Britain’s Billie Jean King Cup captain Anne Keothavong believes Osaka can achieve a lot more success if she does return to tennis, she feels the nature of the sport and the policy in place is swayed towards those at the top of the game.

‘Reality for women further down rankings is a lot harder’

“We’ve seen a lot of players in women’s tennis “returning to the heights (after having a child). Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams were really the two key women who were able to help change the maternity rule that the WTA had in place, so women who did decide to start a family were allowed more time to come back,” Keothavong told Sky Sports.

“I still think it’s great that we see more women do that, but the reality of it, in tennis terms I’m talking about, it’s perhaps easier for those who have achieved a lot of success already in their career and have the finances to be able to help them on their return.

“Because the reality for women further down the rankings, to make that decision is a lot harder. I still feel that while it’s brilliant that sportswomen are making this decision, and making it clear their intent is to come back on tour, the reality for most is that it’s not that easy, it’s still going to be difficult and I don’t think women should be blinkered or naive about that.”

Billie Jean King Cup captain Anne Keothavong supports those sportswomen who want to return postpartum, but says the reality is tough

While a growing number of the bigger tournaments are providing crèche facilities, not all events across the circuit have the finances to put facilities in place to accommodate young families.

“You’re on the road for 25-30 weeks a year, so it’s a lot of time to be on the road, it’s a tough one to juggle,” Keothavong added. “For those in the position where they can take their child and take them everywhere and have a supportive partner, or someone else who can help them and be day-to-day childcare, then that’s a privileged position to be in. For most women, that’s not really the reality. You need a huge amount of support, without it, it would be impossible.”

While the reality is tough, Keothavong, who retired a decade ago aged 29 and is juggling her role with GB and punditry duties while raising two young children, has been encouraged by the increased spotlight and conversation around maternity and sportswomen.

“The fact we’re talking about it, whether it’s governing bodies, events, people are thinking about it and trying to put plans in place. We’re moving forward with the times. We’ve got female athletes competing on the same stage as male athletes who want to be able to do it all and if they can, they should be helped along the way. It’s not to say that as soon as you become a mother your career is over, not at all. There’s still a way to do it, as long as the support is in place.”

In football, Juventus midfielder Sara Bjork Gunnarsdottir most recently shone a spotlight on the current maternity policy in the game after winning a claim against former club Lyon for not paying her full salary during pregnancy.

The FA last year updated its own policy so Women’s Super League players would be paid 100 per cent of their weekly wage for the first 14 weeks of leave.

It remains far from adequate for players, with Reading captain Emma Mukandi raising concerns over a lack of support having returned to competitive action in August 2022 after giving birth in November 2021. The 30-year-old revealed in a recent podcast she has had to use a breast pump in a cupboard at the training ground to express milk and was banned from having her child on-site due to club policy.

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Reading manager Kelly Chambers admits more needs to be done to support players on maternity leave following comments from captain Emma Mukandi

Reading manager Kelly Chambers admits more needs to be done to support players on maternity leave following comments from captain Emma Mukandi

One sportswoman who has turned pregnancy in sport on its head and ripped up the misconception that women cannot continue their sporting careers alongside parenthood, is Olympic boxer Charley Davison.

Davison put her own fledgling career on hold aged 19 after success for Great Britain at youth level in the ring, to start a family.

Three children later, and returning after a seven-year absence from the sport, Davison was given the right support and backing as she was fast-tracked through a programme that saw her deservedly qualify and compete at the Tokyo Olympics.

‘With correct people around you, anything is possible’

“There’s always life after children,” Davison, who now has her sights set on winning a medal at the Paris Games next summer, told Sky Sports. “If you have the correct people around you to help you, then I think anything is possible. I’ve got a brilliant partner who stays at home with the children, without him I wouldn’t be able to box.”

Competing and juggling three children hasn’t been without its challenges for the 29-year-old over the last decade, but having taken up the sport as an eight-year-old, she knew she would regret not giving it another shot.

“I had doubts when I returned. Coming back from a training session I’d be so tired but then would be dealing with the children.

“At first it was a shock but, once the fitness built up, I found it a lot easier. My nutrition was good, I was sleeping well. My children have always slept through the night, so it wasn’t like they were waking up and keeping me up. We were in good routines. My partner was here, so I could get up and go for a run before the school drop-off.

“At first there were a few doubts. I knew I didn’t want to go back half-hearted. I’ve got through those bad days and now, as a GB boxer and potentially going for the qualifiers in June to get to my second Olympics, I’m so glad that I haven’t stopped and haven’t regretted anything.”

Charley Davison competed at the delayed Tokyo Olympics after taking a seven-year hiatus to have children

Tokyo was a real pinch-me moment for Davison, whose children are now 10, 9 and 7, and said video messages of support from every class in her children’s school spurred her on in the absence of family and friends being able to attend the Games.

“When I look back and type my name in google and it comes up that I went to the Olympics, I don’t think it has really sunk in. Everything went so fast, it was crazy. But for GB to send me to those qualifiers and then to the Olympics after being on the team for a short amount of time – even though they knew what I was capable of from my youth days – has been brilliant.”

With top-level sportswomen in the prime of their careers now leading the conversation and forcing governing bodies into action, pregnancy in sport need not be the eye-opening discussion point it has been in recent times.

For Ward, who is excited about the future that lies ahead both in her personal and private life and for those who will also benefit from the new RFU policy, the landscape will look a whole lot different.

“This policy is for everyone,” Ward said. “Not just the current squad. It’s for the squads that come in the next cycle and the next one after that, and so hopefully, while it’s great there’s so much publicity now, but it will also be great when it isn’t news that someone is having a baby.”

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