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Athlete-mothers juggle priorities as they prepare to compete at the Pan American Games in Chile


RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — As the Pan American Games quickly approach, a certain section of athletes find their focus…

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — As the Pan American Games quickly approach, a certain section of athletes find their focus is constantly being pulled in different directions — from practicing their sport to taking care of their children.

Half of the estimated 7,000 participants getting ready for this year’s Olympic-style multi-sport event in Santiago, Chile, are women. And some of them are mothers, juggling family responsibilities with the rigors of elite competition.

“I have a 1-year-old waiting for me at home, that is my priority,” Brazilian diver Giovanna Pedroso told The Associated Press.

Pedroso, who lives in an impoverished region of Rio de Janeiro, is one of several mothers planning to compete at the Pan Am Games from Oct. 20-Nov. 5 while still taking care of their children. It’s a demanding task.

The 24-year-old Pedroso, a Pan Am Games silver medalist eight years ago in Toronto, said she hasn’t been able to focus 100% on her sport since her son was born last year.

She often can’t make it to morning training sessions, depending on others — especially her mother — to stay with her son during practice. With only a few days left to train at Maria Lenk aquatics center, she struggles to keep her schedule.

On a recent day, Pedroso didn’t have time to change her post-training outfit. She fixed herself a quick lunch to eat while breastfeeding and sitting down for an interview.

“It wasn’t easy before he was born, but this is much, much harder,” said Pedroso, who will be competing at only her second event since the birth of Nicolas. “Sometimes my mind is here when I am there, and sometimes my mind is there when I am here.

“Sometimes I wake up and don’t want to leave my bed. I cry in the middle of the night, too. It is tough, but it feels special to overcome all of this and still qualify for the Pan Am Games in the only shot I had.”

Seeking to help mothers like Pedroso, Pan American Games organizers will provide a lactation room this year in the athletes village. Breast pumps, toys and cradles will be available throughout the event.

“This makes us very proud. We believe it is a first step,” Chilean sports minister Alexandra Benado said after the facility was opened. “It is the very least we can give our athlete-mothers.”

Some athlete-mothers, however, are unlikely to have any time to enjoy the benefits of a room made just for them.

Belén Casetta, a 29-year-old Argentine runner, will be in Chile to compete in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. A Pan American Games bronze medalist in Lima four years ago, she lives in a condo outside Buenos Aires with her 4-month-old daughter, Lina.

Like so many others, Casetta had plenty of hurdles to jump to make it back to high-level competition. Luckily, she has some help in the form of her mother-in-law, who will travel to Santiago and stay with her in an accommodation away from the athletes village.

“I can’t annoy the other athletes. Just imagine if she starts crying in the middle of the night,” Casetta told the AP as she held her daughter, clad in a pink dress. “Also, my level of strength after a nine-month pregnancy is very reduced, no matter how much I trained at the gym. It is hard to prepare for a Pan Am Games in only four months.”

Motherhood also brought about another challenge for Casetta. She was unable to join her teammates in altitude training at 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) in northern Argentina.

“We could not go that high because Lina is too small, her pediatrician did not recommend it,” Casetta said.

Another athlete-mother, Canadian shooter Lynda Kiejko, has been dealing with these types of challenges for a decade.

Kiejko has three children; Olivia, 9, Faye, 6, and Logan, 4. She was quick to adapt after the birth of her first child, learned how to carry on when the second was born, but now needs plenty of help to remain a dedicated mother and to compete at the same time.

“I went to the Commonwealth Games in 2014 with a 15-day-old baby because she was three weeks late,” Kiejko said. “I was convinced I could still go. I just kind of had the focus. If I wanted to do something, I could be a mom, I could be an athlete, I could be an engineer.”

Kiejko said she managed to bring at least one of her two older kids to competitions in years past, but things have changed.

“I didn’t travel nearly as much with No. 3, though. I would have to take a babysitter with me and my husband would stay home watching our other two kids,” the Canadian said. “A little bit of a logistical challenge to make sure everyone was taken care of.”

Mexican sailor Demita Vega, who describes herself as a “high performance mom” in her Instagram profile, will compete at the Pan American Games for the second time knowing what it’s like to have split priorities.

The 40-year-old Vega won silver medals in Guadalajara in 2011 and four years later in Toronto. In 2019, Vega was still adapting to motherhood and didn’t win any medals. Her daughter, Alizé, was only 1 year old.

“It was hard to compete. I was just finishing breastfeeding, it was complicated,” the Mexican said. “Now I have a structure that suits me so I can do the job of being a mother and also for training.”

Vega said she knows other sailors from Spain, Finland and France who compete and bring their children along for competitions.

“It is great to get together and see how they managed to do it and how I managed to do it. It is also interesting to see the concepts of motherhood in each country,” Vega said.

Despite the difficulties they have faced to continue with their sporting careers, these mother-athletes are unanimous in naming the two biggest reasons why all their effort pays off — having stories to tell the little ones and see them in the crowd when they compete.

“I really try to look at it as being about the opportunities of where I get to be and the things that I get to do while I’m away, so later I get to tell them the adventures when I come home,” said Kiejko, the Canadian shooter. “I just want to be able to show my kids that you can do whatever it is that you set your mind to do.”

Pedroso couldn’t agree more.

“I am just getting started about competing as a mother, but I sometimes think of myself winning a medal and Nicolinhas watching it all, cheering for me,” the Brazilian diver said. “He will do it one day, I am sure. And it will be like having my private fan club. He is the one who gave me the strength to move forward, he transformed my life. For him, I will face any obstacle that I need to.”

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Savarese reported from Sao Paulo, Rey from Buenos Aires.

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Associated Press writer Carlos Rodriguez in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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AP sports: https://apnews.com/sports

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© 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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