Track and Field: USA Championships
Alysia Montaño competing at the 2014 USA Outdoor Championships

Athletes are always pushing the boundaries – doing and accomplishing things that most others would not try or even think of doing.

When Alysia Montaño was considering whether to compete in her fourth straight USA Outdoor championship in 2014, she made a decision to do so – a daring decision considering she was 8 months pregnant!

This link, which shows a list of athletes who competed in the Olympics while pregnant, is filled with names of people who were 5-months pregnant or less. I wrote about the famed Flying Dutchwoman, Fanny Blankers-Koen, who was three-months pregnant when she won four gold medals at the 1948 London Olympics. Today, it is more and more common to hear about athletes competing while pregnant.

But Montaño race at 8 months was eyepopping. She was not out to win the 800 meter competition at the USA Outdoor Championship. In fact, she completed her race 35 seconds off her personal best. Her objective, as she related in this CNN interview, was to show the world what it looks like for a pregnant woman to be working, even as late as 8 months.

I recognized it was unlikely for people to see a pregnant woman running, in general. I wanted people to recognize that fitness and pregnancy is a really good thing, and this is what it looks like being a professional woman, whether my profession happens to be a professional athlete, or a businesswoman who has to go in an office and work 9 to 5. This is what it looks like for me as a professional athlete and wanted people to see that.

Of course, everyone wonders, is it safe? And Montaño has explained in many interviews that she did consult with her doctors, who not only said it was safe, it is a very good idea for women who are pregnant to exercise. Montaño explained that the immediate concern in running is not to fall. But like walking down the street, when a pregnant woman’s center of gravity is different from when she is not pregnant, she has to always remember to keep the posture upright. Montaño concentrated on doing so during the race.

In Montaño’s interview with ABC News, Senior Medical Contributor Dr. Jennifer Ashton explained that “pregnancy is not a disease,” and “we have to remember, pregnancy, labor and delivery – we have to train for them.”

As explained in this article, only one out five pregnant women exercise according to a study commissioned by the International Olympic Committee, and that “The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity for women with uncomplicated pregnancies (although contact sports, scuba diving, sky diving, hot yoga or activities with risk of falling should be avoided, reads the organization’s opinion).”

Said Dr. Raul Artal, who co-authored the report, “pregnancy should not be a state of confinement but rather an opportunity for women to continue an active lifestyle or to adopt an active lifestyle if they were not active before.”

Amber Miller
Amber Miller competing at the 2011 Chicago Marathon

Amber Miller certainly didn’t confine herself. At the age of 27, while 39 weeks pregnant, Miller ran in the 2011 Chicago Marathon. It was not publicized, but when people realized she was pregnant, she got a lot of double takes and words of encouragement, as noted in this New York Times Well blog post.

Miller finished the race three hours off her personal best, in 6 hours and 25 minutes, mixing in walking with running. But then after the marathon, she embarked on a second one. While running she experienced contractions. Eight hours after completing the marathon, she gave birth to a baby girl. Which of the two was more difficult? “I don’t feel anything from the marathon, but I do feel what you’d expect after giving birth,” she said the day after.

So for all the mothers who have toughed it out, by just having children, Happy Mother’s Day!

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Fanny Blankers Koen in Tokyo_Asahi Graf 2

She was 46 years old, and she walked around Tokyo with an air of confidence and style. Fanny Blankers-Koen was in Tokyo for the 1964 Summer Olympics, and the Japanese press followed her around – after all, she was one of the most accomplished Olympians in town. At the age of 30 at the 1948 London Olympics, she became the first woman to win four gold medals in a single Games, replicating the 1936 accomplishments of her hero, Jesse Owens.

Fanny Blankers Koen in Tokyo_Asahi Graf 1

In the October 23, 1964 edition of the Japanese magazine, Asahi Graf, Blankers-Koen was featured in a photo spread, looking relaxed and glamourous. The article shows her walking about town, relaxing in the Olympic Village, describing her as a tall woman with golden hair and light blue eyes.

Fanny Blankers Koen in Tokyo_Asahi Graf 3

The article states she is the “chaperone” to the Netherland’s women’s athletics steam, but as fellow Dutch and Olympian, Ada Kok, wrote to me, she was actually one of several coaches on the Dutch Olympic squad.

The article quotes a Japanese swimmer, Hiroshi Furubashi, who knew Blankers-Koen, saying that she was a hero to the Dutch after her dramatic accomplishments in London in 1948. But as I wrote in previous posts, despite her historic accomplishments, she was never embraced in her home country as she was outside it. Kok said that the Dutch team at the 1964 Olympics treated Blankers-Koen as they did everyone else, quite neutrally, as just another member of the team.

Fanny Blankers Koen in Tokyo_Asahi Graf 5

“It may be a very bad Dutch habit, but our well known sportspeople were more recognised and honoured abroad then in the Netherlands,” said Kok. “The Dutch are more like, ‘act normal and keep both feet on the ground’, no matter how famous you become in your sport.”

And as I wrote in this post, Blankers-Koen was a very complex person, who was driven by a need to win at everything, and to be recognized as an achiever. It is unlikely she got that sense of fulfillment in her home culture. But when she came to Japan, she was a star.

Fanny Blankers Koen with her children 2
Fanny Blankers Koen with her children and husband.

We meet competitive people all the time. Some of them can be jerks – for them, winning is everything, and relationships are secondary. As this Psychology Today article hints, competitive people can be overly narcissistic and self-centered, “not seeing you as a separate human being, but more as an extension of themselves.” The article also explains that competitive people could have issues of self esteem. “When they are doing well, they feel great and even superior to others, whereas when they encounter setbacks, they tend to feel shame and self-doubt. This results in anxiety and vigilance around social status and performance.”

Sometimes, we learn that even our heroes are prone to this kind of behavior. Arguably one of the greatest stories of the 1948 London Olympics was Fanny Blankers-Koen. The “Flying Dutchwoman” as the woman from Holland was called, won an amazing four gold medals in the 100-meter dash, the 80-meter hurdles, the 200-meters and the 4×100 relay.

Often described as a shy, gangly 30-year-old housewife, people were amazed at her accomplishments, often wondering what her medal would have been if the Olympics were not canceled in 1940 and 1944, arguably Blanker-Koen’s prime years. In 1999, the IAAF recognized her as the sportswoman of the 20th century. As written in the journal of the International Society of Olympic Historians, as celebrated as Fanny Blankers-Koen was, she was not beloved by those closest to her.

Een Koningin Met Mannenbenen_Fanny Blankers-Koen

This article mentions a book called, in Dutch, Een Koningin Met Mannenbenen written by Kees Kooman, a sportswriter, author and investigative journalist. Although not yet translated in English, the title would be something like – “A Queen with Man’s Legs”. According to Kees, Blankers-Koen had this to say about her mother:

I think my mother never loved herself; while the other way around she could not give love and friendship herself to other people! Laying an arm around your shoulder like my father used to do, was an impossibility for her.

Here is another quote from the book in this article in The Independent:

Fanny Snr’s brother, Huib Koen, told Kooman: “My sister was a girl who always did what she wanted to do but, to be honest with you, she was really always a bitch.”

Kees, a sports writer of good repute, explains in The Independent article that she was very much a competitive personality, and it got in the way of relationships:

Fanny wasn’t only the shy, nice Dutch housewife. Sport was everything to her and she wanted to win in everything. If she was out on her bike and someone was ahead of her she had to beat them. When she was 65 and she was told about someone knitting a sweater in a week, she was so jealous she had to do it herself.

Sport was more important to her than her children. Her daughter and her son were both critical of her. As her daughter said, she didn’t love herself. She had problems with confidence. I think she was searching for it on the track.

 

Fanny Blankers-Koen winning 200 meters in London
Fanny Blankers-Koen winning 200 meters in London

 

When Fanny Blankers-Koen won four gold medals at the 1948 London Olympics, she was 30 years old and a mother of two.

Despite the fact that the war-ravaged years of the 1940s resulted in athletes of all ages, she was considered too old. The Smithsonian noted the reaction of TeamGB’s team manager, Jack Crump, who “took one look at Blankers-Koen and said she was ‘too old to make the grade.’”

Even more amazingly, Blankers-Koen won the gold in the 100-meters, the 80-meter hurdles, the 200-meters and the 4×100 relay while 3 months pregnant! If the press was aware of that, it’s possible Blankers-Koen would have been attacked more aggressively. And yet, the what the press wrote must have rankled, typically being described as the “shy, towering, drably domesticated” housewife.

According to The Economist, she was reported to say, “I got very many bad letters”, people writing that I must stay home with my children and that I should not be allowed to run on a track with…short trousers.”

The Smithsonian noted that the press was commonly patronizing of her, “hyping Blankers-Koen as the ‘Flying Housewife…’ Newspaper coverage of her exploits reflected the sexism of the time in other ways. One reporter wrote that she ran ‘like she was chasing the kids out of the pantry.’ Another observed that she ‘fled through her trial heats as though racing to the kitchen to rescue a batch of burning biscuits.'”

And yet, Blankers-Koen was indeed in conflict between personal achievement and family. After she had won her second gold medal in the 80-meters, barely, she was ready to go home. The unending criticism and the pressure to win combined made her homesick. But her husband and coach, Jan Blankers, convinced her that glory was hers for the taking. So Blankers-Koen trooped on, still breaking down in tears after a 200-meter heat.

Fanny Blankers Koen with her children

The Flying Dutchwoman went on to win gold in the 200 meters and 4×100 relay, convincingly, establishing her place in the Olympic Pantheon of greats. Blankers-Koen set 16 world records in eight different athletic disciplines. In 1999, she was voted female athlete of the 20th century by the International Association of Athletics.

And while it may not have seemed so at the time, Blankers-Koen made a difference. So thought Sebastian Coe head of the organizing committee for the 2012 London Olympics:

“She moved the discussion on about the ability of women, particularly post World War II. A lot of things came together at the same time, particularly women who were taking up jobs that were often vacated by men” (who did not survive the fighting). “Women were showing that they were physically the equals of those jobs when it was assumed that they were not.”