Alysia Montano was the real-life wonder woman of the USA national track and field championships last week.
The 31-year-old, who wore a Wonder Woman crop top while competing in the 800 metres, was five months pregnant.
“I wanted Wonder Woman to represent me … When I found out [star Gal Gadot] filmed half the movie five months pregnant, I said, ‘I for sure am signing up for USA nationals’,” said Montano, who finished in 2 minutes, 21.40 seconds. “I don’t define myself as a runner. I really define myself as a fighter for good. And I see that playing true in running.”
While Montano has been universally praised for being an “eternal badass”, for raising the bar of what pregnant women can do and for being a “real-life wonder woman”, the reception was less glowing three years earlier when she competed in the same event eight months pregnant.
“Ridiculous – is it really worth the risk?” one online commenter said.
Another said, “All it takes is a misstep and down she goes.”
“Doctors gave her okay to run??! Who are these doctors And how long have they been in practice?” yet another said.
“This is what pregnancy looks like. It’s not an illness. It’s not a disease,” Montano said at the time. “You need to keep moving. You need to keep moving.”
Now, like Serena Williams who won the Australian Open in January while nearly eight weeks pregnant, Montano is normalising pregnancy and showing what women can do.
“It’s still a conversation that needs to be had. I represent so many different people: women, black women, pregnant women. It’s my responsibility to make sure I’m a voice and an advocate for them,” said Montano, whose healthy three-year-old daughter greeted her at the finish line.
Despite this, people still tend to pathologise pregnancy.
Newly pregnant, I was surprised at the strong reaction of those around me when, continuing as I had pre-pregnancy and running hills, I enrolled in a race.
“You’ll lose the baby,” several people said. “Don’t be an idiot,” was the verdict of others, while the general consensus (from well-meaning loved ones, not from the actual doctor I consulted) was: “it’s not worth the risk.”
Backlash is often harsh against women who choose to exercise with intensity while pregnant (or, in “irresponsible” Michelle Bridges’ case, soon after pregnancy).
In the end, I relented. Miscarriage is tragically common and rates increase with age. I’m no spring chicken and the comments got to me – I didn’t want to tempt fate and lose my baby.
But is the worrying and cosseting worthwhile?
“There are lots of people that have these concerns,” says Dr Kym Guelfi, a senior lecturer in exercise physiology and biochemistry at The University of Western Australia.
“There are still a lot of people with the view that pregnancy is a time to put your feet up and wrap yourself in cotton wool. That’s been based very much on social and cultural norms from the past and not necessarily scientific research.”
While she says not every woman should (or could) go and do what Alysia or Serena did, now it is generally accepted there are “many, many benefits” to regular exercise during a healthy pregnancy.
“I guess where the grey zone is when you talk about high intensity athletic performance. It’s a grey zone because we don’t really know what the upper limit is,” Guelfi admits.
“There is one study that showed that when athletes work at a really high intensity, there was some evidence that the fetal heart rate was impacted, but what the implication of that is, they were not quite sure.
“It means athletes probably want to be wary of pushing too hard. But Alysia and Serena Williams, they would have closer monitoring by a medical practitioner while exercising than your average Joe.”
The grey zone is also individual and depends on a range of factors from what the woman was doing pre-pregnancy, whether there are any complications or health issues during pregnancy and how she feels.
Now in my second trimester, I listen and take the advice of my doctor but I also listen to how my body feels. Some days a walk or yoga is enough and it feels good to be gentle on my body while other days sprinting up a hill is all that will hit the spot.
“I think a lot of people naturally back off anyway. You know your own limits. It’s hard to give prescriptive advice on that upper limit,” Guelfi says.
She advises that activities with high-risk of falling (like horse riding, skiing or contact sports) are generally best avoided and as a pregnancy progresses, the centre of gravity changes, there is extra weight and ligaments start to relax in preparation for the birth, so there’s increased risk of injury.
“Often as the pregnancy advances, anything higher-impact, it’s probably wise to steer away from,” she says.
Otherwise, let your body be your guide and know there are many wonder women out there changing the perception of pregnancy.
“There are numerous women who have done what Alysia has done,” Guelfi says.
“There’s no evidence to suggest you can’t do the things you’ve done before, within reason. I think the best thing is to do that with consideration of where you’re at and your own limitations. It’s important to listen to your own body.”
What the guidelines say
“Understanding the physiological changes of pregnancy and the possible complications of high-intensity or contact sport is important but in general, moderate levels of exercise three to four times per week is safe for both mother and baby in low-risk pregnancies,” say the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.
“By and large, sensibility is the key. Straight line or stationary activities (walking, jogging, swimming, cycling) and strength training can all be undertaken safely. In experienced athletes, group and team sports can also be played with consideration of the risks. Women must always be conscious of their exertion level and hydration status, and in beginning a new exercise regime, such as beginning with three short sessions of low-impact exercise per week and working from there.”