Natasha Hastings runs down the obstacles of being a pregnant Olympic hopeful
400-meter relay medalist hopes to go to Tokyo after she has her first child
As soon as Natasha Hastings, 32, learned she was pregnant, she began to wonder.
She pondered all the fraught physiological and cultural questions that undergird the modern motherhood industrial complex: How would her body change? Would her fiancé share equally in the work of round-the-clock baby care? What happens when she returns to her career — and would she even have a career to return to?
But she also had some custom asks: Would she ever run a quarter-mile in 52 seconds or less, again, and if so, how soon? What support would it take for her to make it to the Olympics one last time? And, crucially, would sponsors stick by her as she tries to make the trip?
Early this month, Hastings, a gold medalist in the 4×400-meter relay at the 2008 and 2016 Olympics, revealed on Instagram that she was 5½ months pregnant. She also announced her intention to return to world-class competition, saying, “I’m going to go to Tokyo! Win a couple more medals!”
Questions about balancing pregnancy and world-class athletics aren’t new. At the 1960 Rome Games, sprinter Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals 16 months after having a baby, although few knew it. But Hastings is part of a new visibility and debate about the physical capabilities of female athletes after motherhood, and what systems and protection — health, economic, child care — they need around them. They are conversations we’ve rarely had, around questions we’ve hardly asked.
Hastings has been running professionally for 12 years. But now, as she pursues her dream of sport and family, she’s about to cover new ground.
When she found out that she and her fiancé, former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay, were expecting, Hastings remembers thinking, My God, what’s happening? She saw the excitement in his face, and he saw the dismay in hers. Yes, she wanted a baby, eventually. But she was just back from a knee injury, training for her outdoor season and hoping to compete in this year’s World Championships. They were planning to marry next year and, fingers crossed, she would qualify for the Olympics. For someone who’d been in communion with her body since she began running competitively at 10, the timing felt all wrong.
“Track is my life, you know,” Hastings said. “My job relies on my physical abilities.” Everything she’s planned for the next phase of her life — building her 400M Diva cosmetic and beauty line, and her Natasha Hastings Foundation to advocate for women and girls in sports — was predicated on exiting track on her own terms. “I’m not the first woman who has thought about family versus career,” Hastings said. “But I don’t know any man who has to make that choice, you know?”
Hastings was worried her family might be disappointed in the timing. And she was especially worried about her sponsors, particularly Under Armour, which she’s been with since 2012.
“I took a while to share with my sponsors for fear of, just, I don’t know what this looks like, I don’t know how they’re going to take this.” She didn’t know “if I’d have a job at all. Or I shouldn’t say a job, but financial support to continue to train and go after the Olympics.”
While Under Armour continued to sponsor Hastings, her fears were understandable.
Middle-distance runner Alysia Montaño, a six-time USA Outdoor champion, competed in the 800-meter race at the 2014 U.S. Track and Field Championships while eight months pregnant. In a Mother’s Day editorial in The New York Times, Montaño wrote that female athletes are often forced into physically dangerous choices because companies such as Nike, which sponsored her, can suspend their contracts and health insurance when they get pregnant.
Athletes are always vulnerable to risk and injury that is often heightened during pregnancy. And they largely don’t get maternity leave. Some sports have responded to the challenges.
When Orlando Pride star Sydney Leroux posted pictures of her training while five months pregnant in March, her Twitter mentions included people worried about the health of her baby. But teammates and other female athletes rushed to offer their support.
Two members of the U.S. World Cup soccer team in 1999 had children. The 2015 U.S. World Cup team had three mothers, and a culture of inclusion has taken root in the sport, including paid maternity leave. Moms have been a part of the WNBA for more than 20 years and have a portion of their salaries and medical expenses covered through the league’s collective bargaining agreement.
A bobblehead of Phoenix Mercury All-Star DeWanna Bonner features her holding her twin baby girls.
But non-team sports often seem to think female athletes don’t, or at least shouldn’t, get pregnant at all.
The message from the culture has been that female athletes should retire to have children, said Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor of history and gender studies at Penn State University.
“So we haven’t had a lot of cases that have been able to be visible role models, modeling what it looks like to be working moms within sports,” she said. Her own earliest memory of an athlete mother was fictional: Sanaa Lathan’s character in the 2000 movie Love & Basketball. But she calls this new era of visibility a chance to engage in granular conversations about child care, what breastfeeding looks like when you’re also pushing your body athletically and how to bring abdominal muscles and hips back to world-class form.
Davis cites Serena Williams, who almost died after giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., via emergency cesarean section in 2017. Her story highlighted the WTA’s lack of maternity leave policies. And her well-documented struggles, both emotional and physical, to return to competition opened a new front in motherhood conversations worldwide.
In track, Hastings is familiar with the history of sprinter Marion Jones, who failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics after giving birth the year before. (She was also banned from the sport for two years and had her Olympic medals stripped after charges of doping.)
Sprinter Allyson Felix, whose six Olympic gold medals include the 2016 4×400-meter relay on a team that included Hastings, struggled with complications during her pregnancy last year and had to have an emergency C-section. Her daughter was hospitalized for a month, Felix testified at a recent congressional hearing on the crisis in maternal mortality. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that black and American Indian/Alaska Native women are three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as white women.
Like Hastings, Felix is also hoping to compete in Tokyo.
Along with Under Armour, Hastings’ sponsors — which include the New York Athletic Club, as well as cosmetic and feminine care products companies — congratulated her on her pregnancy and continued their sponsorship.
Hastings feels “blessed. … If there’s anything that can speak for me, it’s that I have been a resilient person and athlete and my back has been against the wall several times.” That resilience helped her get past her failure to make the 2012 Olympic team. It helped her overcome a hamstring pull before the 2016 Olympic trials. She’s relying on it now, including for all the difficult conversations about pregnancy that she wasn’t prepared for.
In deciding on child care post-baby, Hastings says she and her fiancé have had some pointed exchanges. Hastings is thinking about how she will balance the needs of an infant with her own need for speed. She can’t run if she doesn’t sleep. And in discussing her options with other women, including hiring a nanny, she’s found these mommy conversations can get thorny quick.
“I’m now entering a new world of mommyhood, and unfortunately our worst critics are other moms,” said Hastings. She’s finding her instinct to rely on their wisdom difficult to square with her own world-class ambitions. “I mean this with respect and honor, and I know that they’re coming from a good place and I know that I’m also, I am coming from a place of the unknown, right? But then there’s also this space of what I do that is unknown for them.” So there’s a disconnect “even in the conversation of a nanny, you know? It’s almost like, well, you’re less of a mom for having a nanny.”
She’s always had to curate the people around her and the voices she allows in her space. “I’m in a small population of the world that thinks that what I go out and do every day is possible. I’ve lived up to a standard that to most is impossible without having a child in there, right?” Her career has always been hard. “I’m no fool to what I’m going up against,” she said. “I’m going up against probably the hardest challenge I’ve ever had to face in this sport.” But if she dwells on that, her race is already lost.
Hastings is trying to keep her second-most important athletic instrument — her spirit, her willpower, her determination to completely dust the women running next to her — honed and ready.
As to her body, she’s trusting her longtime coach to help with that. It’s been an adjustment for him as well.
Darryl Woodson of Training Ground Elite in Round Rock, Texas, has been working with Hastings for more than seven years. He’s never coached a pregnant athlete before, so this is new space for him as well.
When Hastings told him she wanted to get back to the Olympics, Woodson said, she was focused on whether things would change between them — if he would start to take her less seriously as an athlete.
He became disciplined about keeping their same routines early on.
Elite coaching is physical, he said, but it is also about keeping athletes in their right mind. “There’s a psychological situation for a person where they’re always feeling like, uh-oh, you’re giving up on me,” Woodson said. When athletes are injured, or have some other physical limitation, “if you make them more aware of it then it starts to bother them, and if you treat them normally then they get through it a lot better.”
As her pregnancy progressed, they made adjustments for her schedule and how Hastings was feeling. He takes cues from her, but he said her dedication to the work hasn’t wavered.
“I’m not a prenatal coach,” he said. She’s in consultation with her doctors, who say her body will let her know how much she can handle. “And that’s when we stop. Obviously, I have altered some of her workouts” to make sure they’re not overly demanding.
Typically, she’d be in the outdoor season now. She’d be doing flat-out runs over 400 meters to build strength and endurance and doing other anaerobic work. At six months pregnant, she’s not doing that, or weight training, running stairs or jumping hurdles.
She’s continuing to do 150-meter sprints. Normally, she would run it at about 16 or 17 seconds. She’s four or five seconds slower now, and she can get frustrated that she’s not hitting her pre-pregnancy marks.
“That’s where the pick-me-up comes from me, where it’s like, ‘Let’s look at the circumstances,’ ” Woodson said. “The numbers matter nothing at all if we’re not stopping training so that your body doesn’t need to get reintroduced to this next time.”
She’s actually working harder because she’s carrying more. Woodson is sensitive about using words such as weight. If she keeps her body trained, her times will rebound when she’s no longer pregnant.
“My job is to modify the program and get the same results or better and not put her under the same psychological stress,” Woodson said. His job is to listen and give her the best shot at what she says she wants. The baby is due in July, and he’s hoping she returns as soon as September but no later than October.
“We don’t know what we can and will be able to do. We just know psychologically, emotionally and spiritually what we want to do,” Woodson said. “We’ll keep pushing the same way as we always have been.”
On the track and off, Hastings wants to be a role model. Davis said it matters that she’s a black woman doing this work. This is not only because of the recent spotlight on black maternal health but also because “the tropes about black women’s femininity and sexuality within athletics have been so tied to ideas of their bodies.” Pregnancy pushes back at larger stereotypes about what is feminine, and what sport does to femininity.
“I didn’t get to this level by thinking it was impossible,” Hastings said. “I had to know and believe that it was possible, and that came with having a plan, putting the plan in place, being able to adjust here and there when you have to.” And that’s what she’s still doing.
She’s running toward her future, not just for the girls who come next but also for women right now who are watching her for clues about their own postpartum possibilities. She’s doing it for her athletic dreams of speed and glory. For her entrepreneurial dreams of reward and influence. For her dreams of black family and baby love. She focuses on that as she circles the track, chasing the person she’s always striving to be.