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Indian athletes who continued sporting excellence after motherhood

Published at :May 12, 2024 at 5:04 PM
Modified at :May 12, 2024 at 5:04 PM
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(Courtesy : @MangteC/X)

Ankhi Dutta

These athletes achieved remarkable success in their sports.

Historically, women have often been forced to choose between motherhood and their professional dreams. However, a new generation of sportswomen is shattering this dichotomy, proving that motherhood and ambition can coexist and thrive.

The 2024 Paris Olympics marks a significant milestone, with 50% of the athletes being women – the highest representation ever at a Summer Games. This achievement is a testament to the resilience and determination of mothers in sports, who have refused to let societal expectations limit their aspirations.

Indian athletes like Sania Mirza, Koneru Humpy and Dipika Pallikal have emerged as inspiring figures, balancing motherhood with remarkable success in their respective fields. Mirza’s mother fought against societal norms to allow her daughter to pursue tennis and now Mirza herself juggles her sporting career with motherhood.

Globally, athletes like Allyson Felix have challenged brands that penalized them for taking maternity breaks, while Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson has realized her dream of being both a mother and a professional athlete.

Despite facing obstacles such as reduced sponsorships and public scrutiny, these sportswomen have persevered, inspiring generations of women to chase their dreams while embracing the joy of motherhood fearlessly. Their stories serve as a powerful reminder that motherhood is not a hindrance but a source of strength and motivation.

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Here are some Indian athletes who embraced a career in sports and motherhood together:

Mary Kom

Mary Kom, India’s most decorated boxer, defied expectations with a remarkable comeback after two C-section pregnancies. She first gained international recognition in 2001, becoming the first Indian woman to win a silver medal at the Boxing World Championships in the lightweight category. She followed this with gold medals in 2002, 2005, and 2006.

After her first pregnancy in 2006, experts doubted her ability to regain top form due to the physical toll of a C-section delivery. However, Kom silenced her critics by winning gold at the 2008 World Championships and silver at the 2008 Asian Women Championships. She then became the first Indian female boxer to win an Olympic bronze medal at the 2012 Beijing Games.

Undeterred by her second pregnancy at age 31, Kom staged another remarkable comeback, winning gold at the 2014 Asian Games. That same year, she achieved a historic triple feat: her first Commonwealth Games gold, her sixth World Championships gold, while also adopting her fourth child with her husband.

Deepika Kumari

Deepika Kumari, the former world No. 1 archer, faced an arduous journey to reclaim her spot on the Indian national team after giving birth in 2023. Just 20 days after childbirth, she resumed training with her 44-pound bow but initially struggled to regain her fitness and form.

Determined to earn her place back, Kumari made the difficult decision to leave her 10-month-old daughter at home and travelled to Goesan, South Korea, to train under renowned coach Kim Hyung Tak. “Body has completely given up – the muscles have loosened, don’t have any control, and I’m facing a lot of difficulty to stand still and shoot. It’s only for my mental strength I’m here,” Kumari had confessed during this challenging period.

However, her perseverance paid off as the three-time Olympian made a triumphant comeback, winning two gold medals at the Asian Cup Stage 1 to secure her place in the Indian team. She then announced her return to the world stage with a silver medal at the World Cup Stage 1, defeating two Korean archers. “I’m happy to do what I’ve wanted for so long. I just wanted to play for myself. I feel that if I’m not playing, or not playing well, I’m not alive,” Kumari stated after the triumph.

Koneru Humpy

Humpy, a chess grandmaster and former world rapid chess champion, gave birth to her daughter Ahana in 2017. After a maternity break, she staged an impressive comeback, winning two Grand Prix tournaments in 2019 and then her first World Rapid Chess Championship title. Humpy has consistently ranked among the top three players in the world, securing silver medals at the 2022 World Blitz Championship, 2024 World Rapid Championship, and 2024 Candidates tournament. She has spoken about the motivation she draws from her daughter, who patiently waits for her return and encourages her to win gold medals.

Sania Mirza

Tennis star Sania Mirza made a triumphant return to the court in January 2020, winning her first doubles title after a nearly two-year break. In an interview, she acknowledged the challenges of balancing work and motherhood, stating, “It’s not easy, it’s challenging. I think being a mother has been one of the greatest honours and pleasures of my life.

“So for me, my work and everything, I just was trying to find that balance and it is challenging at times.” Mirza also penned an ‘Ode to all the Mothers’ (an open letter) in 2020, reflecting on the experience of motherhood.

Dipika Pallikal

Dipika Pallikal, a pioneering squash player and the first Indian to break into the top 10 of world rankings, has also navigated the journey of motherhood. After trying to conceive since 2018 and undergoing fertility treatments, Pallikal and her husband, Indian cricketer Dinesh Karthik, became parents in October 2021.

Despite these challenges, Pallikal excelled on the court, winning medals at major events, including two doubles World Championship golds in April 2022 and a mixed doubles bronze at the 2022 Commonwealth Games. In 2023, she secured her maiden gold at the Asian Games in mixed doubles and contributed to the women’s team’s silver medal.

Pallikal has also been a vocal advocate for gender equality in squash, protesting against the inequality in prize money at the Squash National Championships between 2012 and 2015, where the women’s champion received only 40% of the prize money awarded to the men’s champion. Her efforts led to the introduction of pay parity in 2016.

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