Lacking physiological evidence, some researchers have turned to psychological explanations. During labor, for example, many women discover mental and emotional resources they never knew they had. "No marathon has ever been as difficult as labor," says Samuelson, who married Scott Samuelson two months after her victory in Los Angeles and was in labor for nearly two days. "I kind of joked around with the people in the hospital that after this a sub-2:20 marathon was going to be a piece of cake. Having Abby definitely changed me mentally."
Slaney agrees. "I've never experienced pain like I did during labor," she says. "Now I can push myself so much harder. I don't think women have pushed themselves as far as they can physically, which is why I believe women are going to run a four-minute mile."
Having interests outside of sports can also improve performance. Many athletes suffer from overtraining—running or swimming too many miles instead of putting in quality mileage. Having a baby can help a woman avoid this pitfall by forcing her to use her limited time more efficiently. Kristiansen, of Norway, ran the fastest marathon of her career five months after giving birth to her son. Gaute, in August 1983. In May 1984 she improved on that time and a month after that set the world record for 5,000 meters. Since August 1986 she has held the world record in the 5,000, the 10,000 and the marathon. "I am now aware that there are other things in life than winning," says Kristiansen. "And, funnily enough, that has helped me get better at competition."
Lynn McCutcheon, author of Psychology for the Runner, points out that Kristiansen's experience is common. "I've seen [it] with many runners, male and female, who were injured and forced to slow down or stop," says McCutcheon. "Once they got healthy, they showed a strong psychological readiness to return."
Competing as a world-class female athlete can also be psychologically trying. Many of the top women track performers in the U.S.—Samuelson, Ashford, Brisco, Slaney et al.—who are now in their late 20's and early 30's, grew up at a time when girls weren't exactly encouraged to excel in sports. Slaney recalls that when she started running competitively at age 11, "It wasn't openly acceptable for women to race. Men's races were real athletic events and women's races were tokens." Even the Olympics offered no track race longer than 800 meters for women until the 1972 Games.
Women's sports in the U.S. have changed considerably since then, partly because of the Non-Discrimination Act of 1972. Better known as Title IX, the act requires, among other things, that high schools and colleges provide equal opportunities for men and women athletes. But while opportunities may have improved, attitudes have not. A 1985 poll conducted by Miller Lite Beer in conjunction with the Women's Sports Foundation found that 58% of 1,700 respondents thought that women often must choose between being athletes and being feminine.
"We still hear from people who say things that lead you to suspect that they think athletics will impair their ability to bear children," says Lee. "We hear, 'I don't want to lose my period. I still want to have kids.' The reproductive function seems to be so mysterious."
Nonathletes aren't the only ones who are confused. According to Dorothy Harris, a sports psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania Human Performance Laboratory, "Some women athletes think. If I'm this good, I'm not normal. Training is strenuous, it throws their menstrual cycles out of whack. It may be that such psychological stress affects their success. Obviously, being pregnant is very normal."
Having a child seems to have helped Kristiansen on this score. Her husband, Arve, has said that before the birth of Gaute, Ingrid didn't really believe she could be a mother. "She thought her whole hormone system was not working in that way," says Arve. "But now she is more fulfilled. Nothing is missing."
More than 16 Soviet women have won Olympic medals after giving birth, and at least four moms who have won gold medals are scheduled to compete for the U.S.S.R. in Seoul this year, including Kazankina and 100-meter sprinter Lyudmila Kondratyeva. A non-scientific explanation for the large number of East European athletes with children is that their countries have traditionally subsidized these women well into their childbearing years. By contrast, until recently in the U.S., many athletes, particularly those in sports in which there were no postcollegiate financial rewards, dropped those sports when their college scholarships ended. Further, some women who excel after becoming mothers are simply reaching their physical and mental peaks at that point in their lives and would have achieved whatever they did even if they had not had children. These days, however, they are less hesitant to compete after childbirth.