On May 7, the eve of Mother's Day, Mary Decker Slaney made her 1988 racing debut at the Oregon Twilight Meet in Eugene. The race was also Slaney's first on a track since the birth of her daughter, Ashley Lynn, on May 30, 1986. With her husband, Richard, watching, Slaney led the 1,500 from start to finish. She won by 50 meters, and even though her time of 4:09.14 was 12 seconds off her five-year-old American record, after the race she said, "I did exactly what I should have done tonight. People don't want to peak too early this year, because the Olympics are so late."
For the 29-year-old Slaney, the world-record holder in the mile and the U.S.-record holder at every distance from 800 to 10,000 meters, the Seoul Games may well be her best remaining shot at an Olympic medal. For a lot of other women athletes, Slaney's presence at the Olympics will hold special significance: She'll be joining the ranks of women who have returned to world-class competition after becoming mothers. "Elite runners are constantly asking me questions about pregnancy and the baby," says Slaney.
She hopes to regain and even improve on her prepregnancy form. If she does, she will be in good company. Such track stars as Valerie Brisco, Ingrid Kristiansen and Tatyana Kazankina, golfer Nancy Lopez, speed skater Karen Kania, diver Pat McCormick and luger Steffi Martin Walter all have equaled or exceeded their best feats after giving birth. Many of these women credit motherhood with their continued success. "Carrying little Al definitely made me stronger," says Brisco, who won gold medals in the 200, 400 and 4 X 400 relay at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, two years after having her son. "Motherhood [made] me a better runner."
If motherhood does have a positive effect on sports performance, part of the reason is probably psychological. Many of today's top female athletes began their careers when competitiveness was considered less than feminine. Pat Connolly, the U.S. pentathlon champion from 1961 to '67 and again in 1970, won the '66 nationals three months after having a child. Now a coach with the Puma Track Club in Los Angeles, Connolly says that when she began competing. "If you were an athlete in anything other than synchronized swimming, people figured you were either a lesbian or a tramp." Psychologists suspect that having a baby allows some women to reach their athletic potential by reassuring them of their femininity.
Of course, not everyone races right from the delivery room to the victory stand. Though she's healthy now, Slaney, who was often injured before becoming pregnant, had difficulty coming back after Ashley's birth. She ran a mile six days later and within a month had resumed rigorous training. But then a tailbone fracture, apparently suffered during delivery and aggravated by exercise, forced her to lay off. That injury was the first of several that kept Slaney out of serious competition before the Twilight Meet. Back and hip injuries prevented Joan Benoit Samuelson, winner of the women's marathon at the Los Angeles Games, from training hard enough to enter the 1988 Olympic marathon trials earlier this month. She may have hurt herself because she began working out too soon after the birth of her daughter, Abby, last October. Two weeks ago Samuelson was healthy enough to finish second in the 7½-mile Bay to Breakers Race in San Francisco.
Still, a look at the record books shows a surprising number of top athletes have given stellar performances after bearing children. Margaret Smith Court won three legs of tennis's Grand Slam in 1973, a year after having her first child, and Evonne Goolagong Cawley won the Australian Open in December 1977, seven months after giving birth. Then in 1980 Cawley became the first mom to win Wimbledon since Dorothy Chalmers in 1914.
Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands was a 30-year-old mother of two when she won all four women's track events (the 100, 200, 80-meter hurdles and 4 x 100 relay) at the London Olympics in 1948. Dubbed the "Flying Housewife" by the press, Blankers-Koen was alternately praised for her achievements and pilloried for neglecting her son, Jan, and daughter, Fanny, even though she had the support of her husband-coach, Jan. In 1960 Wilma Rudolph, then 20, won the 100 and 200 and anchored the winning 4 X 100 relay at the Rome Olympics. What few people knew at the time was that two years earlier she had had a baby, a daughter, Yolanda. Current Olympians with children include Walter of East Germany, who won the luge at this year's Winter Games, and her countrywoman Kania, who took home three speed-skating medals from Calgary. All told, mothers claimed eight medals in Calgary.
At the 1984 Summer Games, Brisco, who was married to Alvin Hooks, from whom she is now divorced, won her three gold medals when Alvin Jr. was two. Soviet runner Kazankina had her first child in 1978, two years after winning the Olympic 1,500 in Montreal and two years before successfully defending her championship at the 1980 Moscow Games. Kazankina had another child in 1982, and in 1984 she set world records in the 2,000 and 3,000 meters. Her 3,000 mark of 8:22.63 shattered the previous record by four seconds. Evelyn Ashford delivered Raina Ashley Washington (her husband is named Ray Washington) in May 1985, less than 10 months after winning the 100 meters and anchoring the winning 4 X 100 relay team at the L.A. Olympics. The next year Ashford was ranked No. 1 in the world in the 100 for the fourth time and ran a 10.88, the best time in the world for 1986.
As impressive as these accomplishments are, though, they remain isolated examples. "From a research point of view, there's not much evidence that there is a pregnancy effect," says Valerie Lee, a psychologist at the Melpomene Institute for Women's Health Research in Minneapolis. Problem is, what happens to a woman physiologically during pregnancy is surprisingly poorly understood. Almost every study involving pregnant women and exercise has examined whether physical exertion can hurt the mother or fetus rather than how gravidity affects athletic performance. Early studies, which indicated that exercise could harm the fetus by depriving it of blood and oxygen, have been overturned by more recent research.
For example, in the early '80s James Clapp, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the University of Vermont, and his colleagues monitored 35 pregnant women who exercised to varying degrees—from those who remained virtually sedentary to women who ran till late in their third trimesters—until they delivered. The researchers found that the runners had smaller babies, but the babies were perfectly healthy. And a five-year study at Madison (Wis.) General Hospital demonstrated that most pregnant women not only can exercise safely but also can actually improve their fitness level over what it was before they conceived.