To guide your summer getaway book selections, try this formula: E=FB²
Perhaps the most shocking revelation in former Olympic sprinter Sanya Richards-Ross’ book Chasing Grace is not that she ran in the 2008 Summer Games just two weeks after having an abortion.
According to the four-time gold medalist, abortion is common—if unspoken about—among women in her sport: “I literally don’t know another female track and field athlete who hasn’t had an abortion,” she writes, “and that’s sad.”
Richards-Ross’ claim did not garner the same level of media attention that her confession of her own abortion did after the book’s release in June. (Attempts to contact Richards-Ross through the book’s publisher, Zondervan, were unsuccessful.) Moreover, no woman who competes in track and field, or who has in the past, has confirmed or refuted the assertion, and no statistics are available to back it up.
There are multiple possible explanations for this: Getting female athletes who have had abortions to speak about them on the record is likely tremendously difficult due to fears of a public backlash and the loss of sponsors—fears that Richards-Ross once shared. Few would be inclined to name names and face ostracism the way former major league slugger Jose Canseco did after outing fellow steroid users in his 2005 book Juiced. Also, many left-leaning types in the media consider abortion to be a private matter: In their view, if a woman chooses not to let an unplanned pregnancy derail her athletic dreams, that’s her business.
Still, Richards-Ross’ claim underscores the need for a cultural shift in women’s sports: As British sportswriter Alison Kervin wrote for the female-centric website The Pool, “Her declaration is very, very sad, but the most uncomfortable fact of all is that it’s not completely unexpected.”
The reason for this, according to Kervin, is that “most sportswomen regard pregnancy as the end of their careers.” This perception exists even though the past two decades of sports history are replete with women who thrived after having children and even while pregnant: Beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings, for instance, was five weeks pregnant when she won her third Olympic gold medal at the 2012 Games in London. Basketball Hall of Famer Sheryl Swoopes became a sports pioneer when she joined the WNBA’s Houston Comets six weeks after giving birth to her son Jordan in 1997, the league’s inaugural season.
It helps to have a coach who is sensitive to female athletes’ post-pregnancy physical needs and willing to help balance the demands of athletic training with those of motherhood. It would also help to have resources to advise female athletes about how to deal with the financial, physical, and psychological issues associated with pregnancy, Kervin wrote.
For athletes who become pregnant close to major events such as the Olympics, it would help to know that pregnancy can actually be a performance enhancer: During pregnancy, a woman’s heart pumps blood throughout the body at a higher rate and with greater efficiency. This brings a greater supply of oxygen to the muscles, increasing muscle power.
Richards-Ross—who gave birth to a son in August—aborted her first child in part because she feared pregnancy would jeopardize her hopes of Olympic gold in 2008. At the time, she felt abortion was her only option, and the decision haunted her: A physical and emotional wreck, she ultimately settled for bronze in her event, the 400-meter, in Beijing.
Perhaps with greater education and support, athletes in Richards-Ross’ position won’t sacrifice their unborn children on the altar of athletic glory. Female athletes can have the best of both worlds.