Mighty mothers

Pregnancy, being a mom can benefit top female athletes

Posted: Friday, May 14, 2004

ANCHORAGE If his wife had not stopped at three children, Kevin Loan wonders if she might have just evaporated into thin air.

''She got smaller with every child,'' said Loan, of his wife, Sheryl. ''Not that she was big to begin with,'' he quickly added. ''She was in great shape. But she just gets stronger every year.''

Motherhood has been good to Sheryl Loan, who has three children ranging from age 15 to 8. She is, at 45, perhaps Alaska's toughest female cyclist. She regularly wins local racing events, most recently the Bike For Women. And she even beats competitors in Lower 48 races, such as last summer's National Off Road Bicycle Association championships in Durango, Colo. Loan not only won her age group but crushed every expert-level woman in the race.

But Loan isn't Alaska's only mighty mom. Striding along jogging trails, swooshing down mountain slopes and pedaling hair-thin singletrack across Anchorage are women who have blossomed after motherhood.

Like countless women before them, they've shown that being a mom doesn't mean hanging up the sports bra forever. In a 2002 guidebook called ''Sport Psychology: The Key Concepts,'' Staffordshire (England) University professor Ellis Cashmore said pregnancy and parenthood can actually improve top athletes' performance. Not only do pregnant women begin to produce more progesterone, which leads to stronger and more flexible muscles and joints, but postpartum moms have higher levels of oxygen-rich blood, which boosts lung capacity and strengthens muscles.

Cashmore said these physiological benefits, when combined with the psychological changes that new parents undergo, create a more stable, grounded athlete.

The recent Bike for Women was so easy for Shannon Brunner Donley, 32, she followed the race with a bike ride and run later in the day. She finished third. Not bad for a new mom to 14-month-old daughter Quincy.

Always a competitive athlete, Brunner Donley bounced between alpine skiing, trail running and triathlons. But after having a child, her perspective changed.

''No matter what's happening now, she comes first,'' Brunner Donley said of her daughter.

''In the past, before her, I was on an (exercise) schedule, but that is gone now. When my friends who don't have children call to say, 'Can you work out with us, we're leaving right now,' I just laugh and say, 'Right now? No way. I can maybe do it next Wednesday at noon.' Everything has to be planned way in advance now.''

Brunner Donley and her husband, Kevin Donley, another competitive athlete, have a convoluted but workable exercise plan that gives both of them time for training. Shannon gets a couple of mornings to swim or ski, and Kevin gets a couple of other mornings to do his workouts. She has a baby sitter for a few hours a week and uses all of that time to train.

The Donleys treasure dinner the one time of day when the whole family can be together so Shannon refuses to interrupt her family time with workouts then.

It is that kind of psychological attitude, according to Cashmore's study, that complements the physical aspects of being a mother athlete. When other facets of life take precedence over the win-at-all-costs attitude that plagues some competitive athletes, it can make competition more enjoyable, resulting in better performance.

Brunner Donley said she still loves to compete. But being a great mom will be her No. 1 accomplishment.

''People always tell you that you will love your children, but you can't really appreciate it until they come,'' she said. ''I'm amazed at that kind of love. I feel like I'm in some kind of secret club that you don't realize is so special until you're in it.''

For Gina Johnston, whose son, Eli is just 3 1/2 months old, being a mighty mom is not about winning races. She's the first to admit that she is not competitive. But that's not because she couldn't be.

The 32-year-old lab technician with the genetics department at Alaska Fish and Game is a wicked telemarker. She routinely tackles the peaks behind her home near Rabbit Lakes and not alone. When the conditions are right and the skiing can be done safely, Eli comes along in the front pack. When she's skijoring with her dogs, Eli is there as well.

In fact, there is never a day when Eli is not with Mom on some trail somewhere.

It's a way of life Johnston is used to, being raised on a homestead near Trapper Creek with famous mountain climber father, Dave Johnston.

As a kid, Gina and her brother and sister were hauled in front packs, back packs, dog sleds and any other type of mobile mode of travel as much out of necessity as pleasure. As an adult, Johnston wants to instill in young Eli that love of the outdoors she grew up with.

Before Eli came along, Johnston went on longer ski trips and spent a lot of time skate skiing.

But other than modifying her routines a bit she won't take Eli in the front pack skate skiing because there's too much risk of a crash, and the all-day trips are too long for an infant not much has changed with Eli in tow.

These days, Johnston is spending more time hiking than skiing. She goes outside rain or shine. She ran Mount Marathon last year while a couple of months pregnant with Eli (finishing 51st in a field of 238 women, most of whom were not pregnant), and is planning on running it again this year. And she likes to run the Bob Spurr Memorial Hill Climb of Bird Ridge, too.

While many moms struggle to find time for their workout routines, Johnston doesn't miss a day of exercise; she just brings Eli along. It means her workouts are a bit more mellow but challenging enough to keep her fit and feeling good.

Melissa DeVaughn is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News

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