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Can pregnant athletes compete?

This is an excerpt from Women and Sport by Ellen Staurowsky.

On June 26, 2014, Alysia Montaño, defending champion in the 800-meter event who had won a total of five national titles, joined a field of top runners on the track at Hornet Stadium in Sacramento, California, during the U.S. National Track and Field Championship. What a difference a year had made in her performance, however. Montaño, known as the Flying Flower because of the signature flower she wore in her hair when she competed, had dominated the 800-meter race the previous year. This time around, she was destined for a last place finish in her preliminary heat. Then again, when she won the championship in 2013, she wasn't 34 weeks pregnant.


Just six weeks away from giving birth to her first child, Montaño's time of 2 minutes and 32.13 seconds was slow for the field and about a half a minute slower than her personal best time. Even though her time was slower, her joy in racing, the shared experience with her child, and the reception of the crowd (who gave her a rousing standing ovation) rendered her laps around the track triumphant.


When contemplating the training she would be doing for the race and wondering if it might harm both her and her baby, Montaño consulted her medical team. Because she was an elite-level athlete who had trained most of her life, she could continue to train, being watchful of signs that might suggest that she slow down or stop and adjusting to her pregnancy by cutting back on intensity as she got closer to the birthing date. "My midwives and doctors were so encouraging. You are a professional runner. Your threshold, your lactate levels are going to be completely different than anybody else's. That took away any fear of what the outside world might think about a woman running during her pregnancy," Montaño said (Cox, 2014, para. 5). She also learned that exercising as a general rule is good for expectant mothers, a growing number of whom have been athletes most of their lives.


Like Montaño, female athletes in various stages of pregnancy have challenged the public perception of what a woman is capable of doing when she is with child. Famed basketball player Sheryl Swoopes, who had a record-breaking collegiate career at Texas Tech and competed on three U.S. teams that won gold in the 1996, 2000, and 2004 Olympic Games, is credited with making the road a bit easier for pregnant athletes after her first year in the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) was delayed due to her pregnancy in 1997 (Ohikaure, 2013). She returned to the court for the Houston Comets six weeks after she gave birth to her son, contributing to a team that won the WNBA championship that year.


After the 2012 London Olympic Games, Kerri Walsh Jennings revealed that she had won her gold medal in beach volleyball with U.S. teammate Misty May-Treanor while five weeks pregnant with her third child. She was not the only pregnant athlete at the Games. Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi, the first woman to participate in an Olympics for the country of Malaysia, was eight months pregnant when she competed in the sport of shooting. While her husband was supportive of her participation, traveling with her to London, some of Taibi's friends and relatives were not. About her desire to continue with her sport during pregnancy, Taibi commented, "Most people said I was crazy and selfish because they think I am jeopardizing my baby's health. My husband said grab it as this is a rare chance which might not come again. Also, I am the mother. I know what I can do. I am a stubborn person" (Pickup, 2012, para. 6).


Fears around women's involvement in sport and risks to reproductive health have endured since the Victorian era of the 1800s to the present, emanating from gender stereotypical notions of feminine inferiority and weakness. Hoffmann, Jette, and Vertinsky noted,

A central problem with organized sport has been the way sport-related policies - particularly those enforcing sex segregation - have codified historical myths about female physical inferiority, fostering a system which, while offering women more opportunities than ever before, has kept them from being perceived as equal athletes to men. (2009, p. 26)


The warm reception Alysia Montaño received at the U.S. Track and Field Championships signaled a level of public understanding and acceptance that athleticism and womanhood in all of its variations need not be contradictory or oppositional. Still, women's sport participation and concerns about potential damage to a woman's capacity to conceive and bear children remains a consideration in the minds of some who seek to guard access to sport from women.

Learn more about Women and Sport: From Liberation to Celebration.