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Olympians Speak Up On Gender Equality And Mothers' Rights


At the Tokyo Olympics this year, professional athletes who are also moms are being more vocal. They're at the top of their game and using their platform to speak up for gender equity and mothers' rights. NPR's Leila Fadel is in Tokyo.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Mandy Bujold wasn't sure she was going to get to Tokyo until a few weeks before the games because the boxer had a baby.

MANDY BUJOLD: I have a child. That's - like, it's a blessing. It's not, like, a hindrance.

FADEL: When she was pregnant and on maternity leave, she couldn't compete. So when the qualifier for the games for the Americas was canceled because of the pandemic, she was out. The 11-time national flyweight champion did not give up. She appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and won. Now she's the first woman boxer from Canada to compete in two consecutive Olympics.

BUJOLD: The more that we can have this conversation, the more that, you know, sport organizations start adding rules to protect the female athletes when they do take that needed time off for maternity leave. I think it's going to become more of a norm that, like, mothers are competing at the highest level.

FADEL: Even when Bujold decided to have a baby, there were whispers in the boxing community.

BUJOLD: She's done. She had her child. Like, she should just retire. And it's like, well, no, like, I don't think your life is over because you have a child. That was something I felt like I had to, like, almost defend at the very beginning - was like, I'm not dead.

FADEL: After getting sick at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, she finished fifth. She'd hoped Tokyo would be her moment, with her biggest fan cheering her on from home.

KATE: Go, Mommy, go. Go, Mommy, go.

FADEL: On Sunday, she lost her fight but won the bigger battle for maternal rights. Bujold is one of a slew of mothers competing at the Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo. They're speaking up about the obstacles female athletes face that their male counterparts don't, including getting their bodies, their tool, ready to compete after a baby, plus tough decisions. Bujold had to stop breastfeeding early for her sport. Mothers who are nursing weren't even sure they could bring their babies to Tokyo, because of coronavirus protocols, until just before the Games. It was too late for some, like superstar U.S. soccer player Alex Morgan or British archer Naomi Folkard, who stockpiled two weeks of breast milk before leaving. Skylar Diggins-Smith had to say goodbye to her 2-year-old for her trip to the games.

SKYLAR DIGGINS-SMITH: I've always wanted to have children while I was playing. I thought that was important, you know, for my son to see me work, to see me on the court.

FADEL: The star WNBA player and Olympian says it was hard, but these games are a lifetime dream and a message for him.

DIGGINS-SMITH: I wanted his aspirations to be - and whatever he wants to be - to chase his dreams, to go after his dreams. I wanted him to see me on this stage.

FADEL: She hid her pregnancy while playing in Dallas. And after her son was born, she took time off because of the panic attacks and separation anxiety. But it was only as a first-time mom to a now toddler that she also became a first-time Olympian.

DIGGINS-SMITH: You know, I've been very open about motherhood and my journey because I know I'm not the only one. A few days ago, you know, Allyson Felix was like, you know, I feel the same way and reached out and was like, I feel you. You know, I got you. You know, and it's just like, wow, you're not alone in these feelings of - in these moments, even as unique as being an Olympian and being a mom.

FADEL: Diggins-Smith says the only way to make sure that women and mothers are accommodated in sports is by making the demands. She says in the past, collective bargaining agreements with the WNBA didn't even mention motherhood. In the latest agreement, the players' union negotiated major wins for women and mothers, including reimbursement for adoption, surrogacy and egg freezing and fertility treatments.

DIGGINS-SMITH: Myself and other moms were very vocal about changing that and wanting to bring that change to the league.

FADEL: U.S. track star Allyson Felix is at the forefront of this fight for equity. She's won more Olympic medals than any other woman in track and field history. This is her fifth Olympic Games. When Felix became a mom in 2018, Nike tried to significantly cut her pay. In The New York Times, she announced she was cutting ties with the brand. And after public outcry and a congressional inquiry, Nike announced a new maternity policy. Now she's trying to change the game for other women athletes in the U.S. She and her sponsor, Gap-owned Athleta, paired up with the Women's Sports Foundation to dole out $200,000 in grants to pay for child care for moms who are professional athletes. Among the recipients are Kaleo Kanahele Maclay and Lora Webster, both Paralympians competing in Tokyo next month for Team USA's sitting volleyball team. Lora Webster.

LORA WEBSTER: The peace of mind that this money is giving us by being able to have somebody dedicated to be here - that they can't call in sick - they can't be a no-show - is going to be insanely relieving.

FADEL: She can pay for a flight and the time off her mother needs to be with Webster's three kids. It's a far cry from the hodgepodge of often unreliable babysitters Webster depended on for the Paralympics in London and Rio. She'll be competing pregnant with her fourth child this summer. Unlike London, she's not keeping it a secret.

WEBSTER: We've come a long way in nine years. This time around, I feel - although I - there's a whole lot of other struggles, I feel very free in being able to talk about it because keeping it a secret is awful.

FADEL: As she talks, her kids try to get her attention.

WEBSTER: Sorry, my son is miming. What, honey? No, honey. Sissy's in the shower.

FADEL: Mom life. And Webster, a five-time Paralympian, doesn't feel alone anymore. There are other mothers in the field, including her teammate Maclay, mom to a 3-year-old boy.

KALEO KANAHELE MACLAY: I know in the past, a lot of the time being a woman and an athlete, you feel forced to choose whether you're going to be a mom or you're going to continue your athletic career. But I think people like Allyson Felix, Serena Williams, people like that - Lora Webster, Kerri Walsh - who have really shown that you can be a mom and an elite athlete at the same time.

FADEL: Because of them, she knows, she says, she can do the same. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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