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A hockey player, a bobsledder and a curler competing at the Olympics next month have more in common than years of rigorous training. They're all also mothers. NPR's Neda Ulaby has been talking with them to find out how elite athletes bounce back after a pregnancy.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Let's be clear. Olympians handle the physical challenges of childbirth differently than most of the rest of us. Aretha Thurmond is a discus thrower who'd already competed in two Olympics when she went to the hospital in labor.
ARETHA THURMOND: So I get there and they're like, yeah, whatever, you're four centimeters dilated. Go walk around the hospital and come back. And I was like, walk around the hospital? I'm a track athlete.
ULABY: Thurmond's hospital was part of a university. So she headed straight for its track, where she power-walked for the next two hours. Then the school's own discus throwers came out, her people.
THURMOND: They're starting to have practice and I'm out there and I'm helping coach, and all of a sudden I have one of these contractions that just took my breath away. And I was like, I think it's time to go back to the hospital.
ULABY: Two hours later, her son was born. Two weeks later, Thurmond was back on the field, competing in the U.S. championships. She threw the discus in the next Olympics and captained her team for the one after that, in 2012. And moms like Thurmond are not uncommon in this super-athletic world.
THURMOND: You give the little head nod, you know, when you see them at a meet. It's like, girl, I know what you're going through.
ULABY: Amy Acuff is a high jumper. She competed in four Olympics, one after having her daughter. She never knew of any moms who were also elite athletes until she competed against one in the 1996 games. The woman was Russian, she'd just had a baby, and she was rail thin, except for the giant flap of loose skin where her pregnant belly had been.
AMY ACUFF: She would pull up the skin and tuck it into the top of her jog bra. And then sometimes she would pull it down and tuck it in to the bottom like the briefs. It was that much that she would grab it and tuck it in.
ULABY: Acuff says as recently as the 1990s, female elite athletes often thought they had to retire if they wanted to have kids. Now, they time them around the Olympics, or they try to. Dr. James Pivarnik says monitoring fertility is one of the few complicating factors that comes when you're incredibly fit.
DR. JAMES PIVARNIK: Many women who are very athletic have very irregular, if any, menstrual periods, so they might not even know that they're pregnant.
ULABY: Pivarnik studies exercise and pregnancy. He says back in the 1980s, doctors routinely told pregnant women never to get their heart rates above 140. Now, he says, most doctors know when it comes to pregnant athletes, the only real issues are overheating and balance. Pregnant athletes can even have an edge.
PIVARNIK: During pregnancy, a woman's blood volume expands about 60 percent.
ULABY: That gives your body more oxygen. Pivarnik, though, emphasizes that each pregnancy is different. Plenty of athletes need to rest through their pregnancies. Some train right through them. During the last Olympics in London, a markswoman from Malaysia competed when she was eight months pregnant. Nur Suryani told the network ITV babies kick. That's distracting. She had to coach her unborn child.
NUR SURYANI: Please behave yourself. Please be calm. Support mommy.
ULABY: Now here's the thing - shooting and high jumping are individual sports. Team players' pregnancies affect everyone. Keli Smith Puzo is a field hockey champion who competed in the 2008 Olympics. She found out she was pregnant right before her team was about play a major tournament.
KELI SMITH PUZO: I just didn't want to tell them because I was afraid that it would impact the important tour we were about to go on. I didn't want their focus to be on me.
ULABY: Smith Puzo had two children before she qualified for her next Olympics in 2012. To train with her team, she had to stop breastfeeding and bring her baby and toddler across the country.
PUZO: The first week was very, very challenging. I thought a lot about quitting that first week.
ULABY: So did Amy Acuff, the high jumper. After the birth of her daughter, she'd get up at dawn, park her car by the track and turn on the headlights for illumination while she practiced in the dark and the cold.
ACUFF: I remember thinking, what am I doing out here? Like, I'd just have horrible high jump session after horrible session and it looked awful.
ULABY: But Olympians are queens of positive thinking. Acuff would put her baby in a stroller and sprint her up and down a hill until her legs were wobbly and weak. Bodies change after pregnancy and not always in the ways elite athletes expect. For example, there's the urinary incontinence many women experience after childbirth.
ACUFF: You know, anytime you really increase that intra-abdominal pressure, there's issues. And, you know, definitely the explosive jumping.
ULABY: Another problem was not physical but financial. Olympic marathoner Deena Kastor found out about a certain clause in many sports sponsorship deals.
DEENA KASTOR: They don't have a name for it but obviously it's some sort of pregnancy clause - if you're not competing for nine months, that your contract would be reduced by third of its value.
ULABY: Still, savvy companies are beginning to see how elite athlete moms can be brand assets. Noelle Pikus-Pace is competing in Sochi this year. She's a skeleton slider and a mother of two. One of her biggest sponsors is Pampers. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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