Changing the Games: These stories of Olympic moms transcend sports; will make you feel things

Allyson Felix celebrates with her daughter Camryn after day nine of the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 26, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. (Steph Chambers, Getty Images)

It’s one thing to be a new mom: Unpredictable, frazzled, busy; you’re trying to get to know your baby, heal your body and maybe even breastfeed, which can be unfamiliar and challenging, especially at first.

Now, imagine being at the top of your sport, having to go through all of the above (and maybe even more, considering everyone’s journey looks a little bit different) and then rebound physically, only to compete against the highest-caliber athletes in the world.

It’s hard to imagine because that really isn’t new-mom life for most of us. But it is for U.S. marathon runner Aliphine Tuliamuk -- or at least, that was her life earlier this year.

She and her partner welcomed their daughter, Zoe, in January 2021. Now, seven months later, she’s set to compete for Team USA in Tokyo. She’s had to schedule much of her training around breastfeeding, among other challenges, she has said.

Tuliamuk and her partner had planned to start their family after the Games wrapped up in mid-2020, according to People magazine, but obviously, they couldn’t have predicted the year postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pair knew they had just a small window to try and conceive, but they went for it, and the rest is history.

By the way, Tuliamuk’s labor lasted 50 hours. In an interview with NBC Sports, she compared it to running a marathon -- something she’s quite familiar with -- but said childbirth might have been even harder, at times. “I didn’t know where the finish line [was]. And I’m someone who likes to know where the finish line is.”

Beyond powering through Zoe’s birth, Tuliamuk went on to be instrumental in pressuring Olympic officials to allow nursing mothers to bring their babies to Tokyo. Less than a month before the Opening Ceremony, she got word that Zoe and the other nursing babies of Olympians would be permitted. It was a big win for new moms, and Tuliamuk and Canadian basketball player Kim Gaucher led the charge, crafting a petition and speaking out on social media. Here’s Gaucher below:

So, what other moms and new moms have competed, or will compete, in this year’s Olympics? Let’s take a look.

Allyson Felix

This nine-time Olympic medalist is competing in her fifth Olympic Games.

If you’ve been watching the Games, you might have seen buzz surrounding Felix’s name.

This spot might even make you tear up: It’s a letter Felix wrote to her daughter Camryn, and it’s raw, vulnerable and emotion-packed. It’s been shown on NBC, and it’s just beautiful. “Cammy,” as Felix calls her, was born via C-section in November 2018. It was an emotional time, as the baby was premature and had to spend some time in the NICU. Felix had been diagnosed with severe preeclampsia and underwent an emergency C-section at 32 weeks.

Some critics doubted whether she would be able to bounce back, post-baby.

Now, she’s positioned to break or tie Carl Lewis’s record of 10 medals, becoming the most decorated American track and field athlete in history. If that’s not #goals, we’re not sure what is.

Felix, along with fellow U.S. Olympians Kara Goucher, who’s a long-distance runner, and track star Alysia Montaño, spoke out starting in 2019 about Nike reducing their sponsorship money after they got pregnant and delivered their babies.

“It became a watershed moment, with Nike leading a parade of companies that changed their policies regarding maternity pay and benefits,” the Washington Post reported.

In related news, Jamaican track and field star Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who has already taken silver in this year’s Olympic 100-meter dash, has said that many people assumed she too would have to retire from the sport after she delivered a child via C-section in 2017.

Not so fast, she seemed to say -- Fraser-Pryce was out running again just 10 weeks after having her son. This is a cool story about her recovery and comeback.

Quanera Hayes

Hayes, another track and field standout, gave birth within weeks of Felix in the fall of 2018, and said regarding her own return, “I had to learn to run all over again,” reported.

Hayes and Felix finished in first and second place in the 400-meter dash at U.S. Olympic Team trials -- and at the finish line, Hayes thanked Felix for all the work she’s done to advocate for better maternity care for Black women and maternity benefits for pro track and field athletes, according to published reports. It was quite a moment.

Here’s another great piece about Hayes and Felix.

Alex Morgan

You probably know all about the U.S. women’s national soccer team -- it’s a pretty dominant squad, despite the fact that it lost at the hands of Canada, missing out on a shot at Olympic gold this year -- and did you realize the women are (pretty publicly) battling for equal pay?

Orlando Pride star Alex Morgan, one of the leaders of the team, has said her daughter Charlie is a big reason why she’s fighting the good fight.

Tokyo marked Morgan’s third Olympics.

This year was her first time as a mom. Morgan and her husband welcomed their daughter in May 2020.

Skylar Diggins-Smith

You are not ready for this next part: Diggins-Smith, who competes in women’s basketball for Team USA, is a mom -- and not only that, but she was a WNBA league leader while pregnant, according to TODAY.

Yes, while pregnant.

And she returned to the court not long after giving birth, in April 2019.

What drive. That’s seriously impressive.

Foluke Gunderson

Here’s an incredible quote from the women’s volleyball player, who welcomed a baby with her partner in 2019, and is now competing in her third Olympic Games: “I’ve always looked up to women who decide to continue their athletic career after having a baby. Surrendering one’s body. Pressing pause on one’s career without knowing what lies on the other side. The grit, determination, resilience and sacrifice required to be a mom while pursuing one’s craft is truly admirable.

“I’m honored to join the strong women who have come before me and paved the way. Being a mom and an athlete is no longer an anomaly. And while I know my return to the court ... will be the most difficult feat of my athletic career to date, I’m so excited for the challenge.”

Mariel Zagunis

The most decorated fencer in U.S. history, Zagunis has four Olympic medals, and Tokyo marks her fifth appearance in the Games.

She and her husband had a little girl, Sunday Noelle, in October 2017.

Before leaving for an event in 2019, Zagunis took to Instagram, writing, “I will miss my family incredibly, but I’m excited to compete, kick some butt, and hurry back home. This job isn’t easy, but I’m thankful to be able to do it, and at the same time, set an example for my daughter about hard work and sacrifice.”

We love that.

Sally Kipyego

The marathon runner previously competed for Kenya at the London Games in 2012, but will now run as an American, in case her name isn’t as familiar to you.

She too weighed in on the whole motherhood ordeal.

“As an athlete, I was not sure how motherhood would play a role in my running,” she wrote in a post on Instagram promoting Nike Women. “I quickly realized that being a mom enhanced the great qualities that I already possessed. Being a mother has made me a better athlete and a better person.”

We so admire this energy.

For as long as the Olympics have existed, mothers have competed, the Washington Post pointed out. But it wasn’t always like this: Celebrated and normalized, with Felix reading her poignant letter to baby Cammy in a very public ad; these women lauded as the heroes of the Games, and advertising their journeys on their social media pages along the way, taking fans along for the ride.

Swimmer Dara Torres and volleyball star Kerri Walsh Jennings have contributed to the conversation with their own comebacks -- maybe they walked so this next generation could run. Goucher, a 2008 and 2012 Olympic runner mentioned earlier in this article, recalls fighting for years to get an extra hotel room on the road and an extra ticket to events so that she could bring her husband and son along, the Washington Post said. Colton was born in 2010, and even since then, the climate has changed so much.

Perhaps 2021 is truly its own time: A turning point for women and moms everywhere.

These women are doing a lot more than going for gold. They’re fighting for equal pay, maternity health, parental benefits and more. They’re reminding us what moms can do with their voices, and just how powerful they really are -- on and off the court. Strong like a mother.