Female athletes still have to tread a hard road back to post-pregnancy action | Netball

When Kim Ravaillion took a break from international netball in September 2018 she had no idea of ​​the rollercoaster she would be on over the next four years. In 2019 she learned she was pregnant with her first child and a return to the Diamonds was the last thing on her mind. But after making a stunning comeback to Suncorp Super Netball with the Queensland Firebirds in 2021 and consolidating that form over the initial rounds of the 2022 season, many were sure she would be in the mix for the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham this year. Instead Ravaillion was a conspicuous absence from the 18-player squad named this week, highlighting the difficulties that female athletes face in returning to sport after pregnancy.

Former Diamonds ’captain Caitlin Bassett brought the issue into the spotlight in a News Corp column this week, when she spoke of the way players in the past were urged to be“ smart ”with contraception and not risk losing their place on the team. It is a difficult line to tread. In most careers, parental leave provisions guarantee that someone returning to work after the birth of a child is entitled to come back into the same role that they held previously. But for female athletes there is more at play. Pregnancy takes a heavy toll on the body and there are often traumatic effects of childbirth that simply cannot be planned for. The pressure to return to their previous standard of play is immense and to make things even more difficult, they have a whole group of often younger, fitter players breathing down their neck and vying for their position.

While there are exceptions to the rule – Ravaillion’s teammate Gretel Bueta has returned to the court and retained her Diamonds spot without a hitch after the birth of her son – for most female athletes it is a hard road to tread. Even once pregnancy and birth complications are taken out of the equation, societal expectations around the gendered division of labor come into play. Mothers are expected to take a more active role in raising children than fathers, meaning that male athletes can hop on a plane and wave goodbye to their partners and children for a few months while they pursue their sporting dreams, but this is a much harder ask for female athletes. Provisions are now in place for netballers to bring a carer along while they travel to look after their children, but the pressure of having children close by and the guilt of not being the one to attend to them at all times is considerable.

Of course this is assuming that athletes are able to make their return at all. During the Covid-stricken 2020 Super Netball season, the entire competition took place in a Queensland hub. While the Collingwood Magpies struggled on the court, their star goal attack Nat Medhurst spent months in Melbourne, desperately trying to make a return to the court. She was able to get an exemption for herself and her newborn son to travel to Queensland, but there were difficulties in securing one for her partner. This effectively left Medhurst stranded. Although the pandemic threw a significant spanner in the works in that situation, these are considerations that complicate sport for women. In the end, Medhurst announced her retirement from netball without returning to the court.

There are so many factors to consider and while no one can claim to have all the answers, it is a discussion worth returning to as these issues continue to arise. In the years gone by, women waited until they retired to start a family – as Bassett alluded to in her column. However, greater availability of information around fertility has led many female athletes to decide that waiting isn’t an option they are willing to take. Netballers such as Medhurst, Liz Ellis and England stars Geva Mentor and Chelsea Pitman have spoken openly about fertility problems and egg freezing, but as yet there is no perfect solution. Athletes with female partners who are prepared to carry the children, such as Ash Brazill and cricket’s Megan Schutt and Rachael Haynes, are better able to balance motherhood and professional sport, but clearly that is not an open solution to every female athlete.

As the professionalism of women’s sport continues to grow, this will be a question that keeps arising. Responding to the changing needs of athletes will take flexibility, understanding and the ability to listen to the needs of each individual. It won’t be an easy solution, but it will be worth the work to see some of our most exciting athletes thriving at the top again after having children.

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