Breastfeeding mothers are breaking down barriers in Olympic sports

PARIS (AP) — When Clarisse Agbégnénou won her sixth world judo title, confirming that the reigning Olympic champion is one of the athletes to watch at next year’s Paris Games, the smallest but biggest fan was the French Stars less excited about their mother’s latest gold medal than she was about her breast milk.

After a hungry day with few feedings – because mum was busy testing her opponents – 10-month-old Athena made amends that evening.

“She wouldn’t let my breasts out of her mouth,” Agbégnénou said. “I thought, ‘Wow, okay.’ I think it was really something for her.”

French judoka Clarisse Agbegnenou breastfeeds her baby Athena at an undisclosed location in France, October 17, 2022. (Nadia Benabdelouamed via AP)

Breastfeeding and high-performance sport have long been a near-impossible combination for elite athletes who have been torn between careers and motherhood for decades because it was so hard to have both.

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But that’s less and less true in the run-up to the 2024 Olympics, when women will take another step forward on their long road to equality, competing in equal numbers with men for the first time and pioneering mothers like Agbégnénou are showing it’s possible to breastfeed and be competitive to breastfeed.

They don’t pretend that late feeding, disrupted sleep, expressing milk, and eating for two are easy. But some female athletes are also discovering that balancing their careers with the rigors of motherhood can deliver strong emotional well-being.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Agbégnénou said she surprised herself by returning from childbirth so quickly to win the World Championship in May, with Athéna in tow and expecting to be fed every few hours.

During training, Agbégnénou would stop for a quick meal when Athéna needed milk and snuggle her hungry baby in the folds of her kimono while other athletes in the judo hall ignored it and continued their fights.

“I was sweating with her, poor baby,” she said. “But she wasn’t paying attention. She just wanted to eat.”

Women who have breastfed and continue to compete say support from coaches and sports administrators is essential. Agbégnénou thanks the International Judo Federation for allowing her to take Athéna to competitions. IJF officials asked other competitors and coaches if the baby was a nuisance to them and were told, “‘No, she was really perfect, we didn’t hear the baby,'” she said.

“It’s amazing,” she said of the acceptance and support from her peers. “They are part of my fight and I’m really proud of them.”

In addition to Agbégnénou, three other women have also checked in at IJF World Tour competitions over the past six years and have been allowed to breastfeed their babies, each time taking precautions that allow the mothers “to look after the child and not other athletes disturb”. Prepare,” said Lisa Allan, the general secretary of the governing body. She said the IJF is currently developing specific guidelines for pregnant or postnatal judokas because “more and more athletes are continuing their careers while reuniting families.”

French judoka Clarisse Agbegnenou gestures during an interview with The Associated-Press in Paris, Wednesday June 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

The main organizer of the Paris Olympics, Tony Estanguet, said it is also looking into the possibility of providing facilities for the care of athletes at the Games.

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“They should have access to their children for the good of the mothers and the children,” he said in an AP interview. “The status of female athletes who are new mothers needs to evolve a bit. We need to find solutions that might make it easier for these athletes to bring babies to the Olympic Village where the athletes are staying.

For some breastfeeding athletes, part of the thrill is being a pioneer.

Two-time Olympic rowing champion Helen Glover, who is now aiming for her fourth Summer Games, gave birth to and breastfed twins early in the COVID-19 outbreak and then came out of what retirement she originally intended to be to attend the Olympics at The The 2021 Tokyo Games were delayed by the pandemic. Glover became the first rower to represent Britain at the Olympics as a mother.

Glover’s eldest, Logan, lost interest in her milk around his first birthday, but twins Kit and Willow continued feeding until they were 14 months old. She said that combining her strenuous rowing workout with long breastfeeding sessions for two babies was “very taxing.” It cost every calorie I had.”

“But I was able to do it because it was my own time and my own choice,” she said.

“Everyone should have a choice,” Glover added. “Our bodies… are sometimes changed a lot through childbirth, pregnancy and breastfeeding. So the answers will never be blanket. But I find it really exciting that these talks even exist.”

Milk Stork has also been a help to some athletes. The US-based carrier ships the milk of working mothers when they are separated from their babies. It said it shipped milk pumped by athletes attending the Tokyo 2021 Paralympic Games and also transported 21 gallons (80 liters) of milk from coaches, coaches and other support staff at the Olympics that year.

The daughter of British archer Naomi Folkard was just 5 1/2 months old and exclusively breastfeeding when her mother traveled to Tokyo for her fifth and final Olympics.

Breastfeeding mothers have successfully campaigned for them to be able to take their babies to the Olympics, which are being held remotely and without crowds due to the coronavirus pandemic. Rather than subject her daughter Emily to the ordeal of living apart from her in a Tokyo hotel outside of Athletes’ Village, Folkard reluctantly left her with a large supply of frozen milk. She built this up over months and pumped it into the night so Emily wouldn’t go hungry during her stay in Japan.

But that created another problem: because Folkard’s breasts were now so good at producing milk, she had to pump regularly at games to keep them from becoming painfully swollen. She threw away the milk.

“I had to get up at night and pump just because my stash was so big,” she said. “It really wasn’t that great for preparing for the performance. But I did what I had to do to get there.”

And progress with every drop.

“There’s still a long way to go, but people are talking about it now. Women don’t withdraw to have children. They’re still competing,” Folkard said.

“I have a feeling things are changing.”

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