Melissa Bishop plays with her child on the track

MOMentum building for athlete moms on the road to Paris 2024

There will be more of a focus on athlete moms at Paris 2024 than at any Olympic Games before and a group of Team Canada athletes are helping lead the way.

Rower Jill Moffatt, who is aiming to make a second Olympic appearance in the lightweight double sculls, is a leader of a new initiative called MOMentum. MOMentum is helping elite Olympic and Paralympic athletes with their family planning needs while they go about their preparation for the Games.

“It is interesting that in Canada, especially with the Summer Olympics, women are winning 76% to 77% of the medals compared to men,” Moffatt says. “And yet we’re so far behind in terms of being able to support athletes across their athletic career before pregnancy and then afterwards if they continue on in their sports.”

MOMentum is one of 15 non-profit projects awarded an OLY Canada Legacy Grant in February by the Canadian Olympic Committee. These grants assist athletes who are making an impact in their communities with initiatives that focus on access to sport, safe sport, or sustainability.

Moffatt says that years ago many athletes retired when they became pregnant as their peak fertility years and peak athletic ages collided. More recently, some athletes such as tennis star Serena Williams continued to excel in their sports after giving birth, but not without huge challenges.

Moffatt first learned the extent of the problem when she was doing a journalism fellowship. She was researching a story that she was writing about athletes who were competing well into their 30s and freezing their eggs so they could get pregnant later.

“It was something that was being talked about more in society but not something athletes opened up about, even though I knew some who were doing it,” Moffatt says. “When I started to reach out to them about egg freezing, I heard from others who said what we really need is basic support for pregnancy in general.”

Moffatt learned it’s a question of equity. “Most employers have a human resources department where you have a maternity leave policy. If you are a coach, you have a maternity leave policy. But as athletes, we don’t.”

MOMentum will offer family planning education, resources, grants, pro bono legal help, and mentorship to female national team athletes.

Moffatt says she feels privileged to be working with women who have all been trail blazers in their sports. She is collaborating with about 20 athletes who will share their experiences as mentors. This includes boxer Mandy Bujold, who was only able to compete at Tokyo 2020 after winning a legal battle. She successfully argued that the qualification system for the Games was discriminatory when she missed out on some key events because of her pregnancy and post-partum recovery.

Another athlete mentor is track star Melissa Bishop-Nriagu, who finished fourth in the 800 metres at Rio 2016 but then struggled to maintain her sponsors after becoming a mother.

Kim Gaucher is another one of the mentors. Gaucher had to fight to have her newborn daughter join her at Tokyo 2020 so she could continue breastfeeding. Those Games took place in the middle of strict COVID-19 restrictions, which banned spectators from attending.

“It’s incredible to be part of this group of women that is going to change the path for future Canadian female athletes,” Gaucher says. “I’m honoured to be with so many difference makers.”

In Tokyo, Gaucher’s husband and daughter Sophie went by taxi every day to the Olympic Village where Gaucher breastfed Sophie in a small nursing room. The family was isolated in their hotel the rest of the time. Gaucher says there are many things that would have made her experience better.

“I had injury problems after I gave birth and came back and if I’d connected with a nutritionist right away, it might have been different,” she says. “I spent a lot of time before Sophie was born looking up what the best workout was on my own. Obviously, my doctor hadn’t worked with too many high-performance athletes.”

Gaucher is now coaching Canada’s 3×3 women’s basketball team, which includes player Paige Crozon, who is a single mom with a five-year-old daughter named Poppy.

READ: Team Canada’s women’s 3×3 team makes push for Paris while prioritizing passion

It’s really neat because we can talk about these things,” Gaucher says. “I tell her [Paige] that we have a big summer coming up where there’s a lot of time on the road. I’m like, ‘how can we support you and make this easier for you to be away from Poppy or how can we bring Poppy at certain times so you’re at your best?’”

Gaucher took Sophie, who is now three, back with her to Japan earlier in May as the 3×3 team competed in their first Olympic qualifying tournament. Coming one win shy of earning their ticket to Paris 2024, they’ll now compete at the final Olympic qualifier in Hungary, starting on May 16. If all goes well, Gaucher is hoping to have Sophie with her at this summer’s Olympics in Paris as well.

The Organizing Committee for Paris 2024 plans to have a nursery built into the Olympic Village and Gaucher says there are other interesting firsts for athlete moms at the upcoming Games.

“It’s really cool what the French Olympic Committee is doing for their breastfeeding and parent athletes. They have a hotel that has reserved rooms and a play area that’s going to be for whoever is caring for the child during the Olympics. Then they’ll have shuttle buses running from the Olympic Village to this hotel for French athletes. This is what we want to be the norm.”

Moffatt says one of the big areas MOMentum is hoping to bring more attention to is around athlete funding and pregnancy, which is a common problem for new parents.

Moffatt says the sport system has been a bit like the wild west in terms of how it has treated elite athletes and pregnancy over the years. Some athletes gave high marks to National Sport Organizations (NSOs) like Canada Basketball and Hockey Canada for the way they accommodated and supported athlete moms.

Other NSOs treated pregnancy the same as an injury and athletes had to claim an injury to keep their government carding money. Sometimes, there was a limit to how many times the athletes could do that. So, some new moms who got injured after coming back from their pregnancy lost their funding.

After a few athletes fought those restrictions as discriminatory, NSOs now treat pregnancy like other health-related circumstances. But some experts say they need to do more.

Tara-Leigh McHugh and Margie Davenport are researchers at the University of Alberta who have studied this issue extensively. They were commissioned by Sport Canada to consult with high performance athletes, coaches, and NSOs to make policy recommendations.

In a report submitted to Sport Canada in April 2023, they made several recommendations, including that there should be a universal pregnancy policy for all NSOs as well as a separate pot of money for athletes who are pregnant or new parents.

“Athletes want to see clear recommendations. From a financial support point of view, they want to know what’s going to happen to them. Are they off the team? Is their spot maintained?” Davenport says.

She adds that there are going to be more pregnant athletes coming back to sport as old attitudes that led to many retiring in the past continue to get debunked. “Our data is showing that there are many changes that happen to the body during pregnancy that can actually make you a better athlete. Your heart is growing. It gets bigger and stronger and those adaptations are maintained afterwards.”

The two researchers say this is a message that women in Canada at all levels need to hear.

“These athletes are role models. It’s not just a handful of elite athletes we are talking about. This has a trickle-down effect on all levels of sport,” McHugh says.

Davenport adds, “There’s research showing that two-thirds of moms will stop all sport activity basically for the rest of their life because of motherhood. It’s a point where we see people dropping out of physical activity and we know how beneficial that can be across the lifespan.”

Moffatt says there is another reason NSOs need to have a clear pregnancy policy. There could be situations where there is a toxic environment. With the power imbalance between athletes and coaches or high-performance directors, she says that could lead to safe sport issues where athletes are fearful of coming forward.

“I’ve heard from athletes who sometimes didn’t want to tell their coaches that they were pregnant and were hiding it.”

MOMentum will use the $10,000 OLY Canada Legacy Grant to first build a website and social media platforms where they can promote and make available all the resources they have.

Moffatt says this is only the start.

Given her passion for equity and the rising interest in women’s sport, Moffatt has plans to begin a PhD focused on athlete motherhood after Paris 2024.

As for MOMentum, she hopes to see it continue to grow, to offer support down the road to new dads as well. She is looking to get the message out to corporations in Canada who might want to donate.

“We are hoping to offer grants for mothers who are going be competing at the Olympics or Paralympics. This will go towards things like childcare when they are competing or to pay for the extra expenses in the lead up. Maybe it’s $2000 each or more depending on how much money we can raise.”

Moffatt says MOMentum is not just something they plan to do for this year.

“We’re going to do it for the 2026 and 2028 Games to be able to support winter athletes as well.” She adds, “Our goal is to ensure this isn’t something that we do only for the Paris Games. It’s something we do ideally until there’s not a need for this anymore.”