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Tick-Tock Goes the Biological Clock: Challenges Facing Elite Scandinavian Mother-Athletes

Max Bergström, Stig Arve Sæther, Guro Strøm Solli, and Kerry McGawley

Challenges facing mother-athletes (MAs) have aroused research and media attention in recent years, with an increasing number of sportswomen attempting to successfully combine pregnancy and motherhood with an elite athletic career. The aims of this study were to explore how MA-specific challenges manifest in elite cross-country skiing in Scandinavia and to better understand how female athletes balance their priorities as they initiate, maintain, and/or discontinue their role as a MA. Qualitative data were collected through semistructured interviews with 13 female cross-country skiers from Norway and Sweden. Thematic analyses revealed four MA-specific challenges facing the athletes: (a) Biological clock versus peak performance, (b) Maintaining fitness versus training safely, (c) Receiving support versus facing deselection, and (d) Balancing competing MA demands. Many of the athletes felt pressured into prioritizing either motherhood or athletic excellence, particularly in their early to mid-30s when the window of opportunity for building a family was considered limited. Further, maintaining fitness and training safely during pregnancy were perceived as a challenge, as was balancing the MA role after childbirth. In many cases, athletes felt uncertain about whether they would receive support from their team or federation. Moreover, there were expectations of incompatibility surrounding the MA role. More research and educational efforts to promote MA-specific knowledge, as well as developing structured processes and providing policies to support female athletes, are identified as vital future steps. These measures may prolong athletic careers and enhance well-being for elite female athletes.