'We can do it': A Paralympics return 17 years in the making for Eliza Ault-Connell

Paralympian Eliza Ault-Connell stepped away from wheelchair racing to start her family and after 10 years, she was back. Picture: Getty
Paralympian Eliza Ault-Connell stepped away from wheelchair racing to start her family and after 10 years, she was back. Picture: Getty

Every four years the Olympics and Paralympics reminds us of the extra elements female athletes factor into their careers, one being pregnancy and their time away from their sport.

Athletes such as Canberra-based Eliza Ault-Connell are continuing to pave the increasingly common path of female athletes returning to their sport after starting a family.

Although Ault-Connell has taken it a step further, after taking about 10 years away from wheelchair racing.

Despite the increasingly common return of athletes after giving birth, other obstacles can lie in the way. Allyson Felix, Alysia Montao and Kara Goucher highlighted the gaps in sports sponsorships deals for pregnant athletes, when Nike refused to guarantee salary protections for them back in 2019.

Changes are afoot with national team contracts, and top league contracts such as the Super Netball, in Australia making changes to support athletes post-pregnancy. However, there are still gaps in the system preventing athletes from returning to their sport, hingeing mostly on financial security and support for babysitters when travelling or training, time away from competing and travel allowances for children to accompany them.

Ault-Connell retired back in 2008 to focus on starting a family. Before it was one of her three children, with former Paralympian Kieran Ault-Connell, who made her get back in the race chair.

She said returning was not a problem, but she did have her family's support along the way.

"I guess a lot of mothers think that once they have children, not so much their lives are over, but they put on hold a lot of things in life and think that they can't go back ... or 'I couldn't do what I did before', but we're amazing, we're resilient, and we're strong," she said.

"If we want to, we can do it."

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The 39-year-old is among a number of Paralympians, Olympians and top female athletes around the world returning to their sport after becoming a parent.

She is competing in the T54 100 metres, 400 metres and marathon in Tokyo this week, and was averaging between 100 to 150 kilometres a week in her training in the lead up.

Ault-Connell said during her long time away from the sport she got up to a range of different things and this time, they were put on hold to get her to the Paralympics.

"I did many different things, many different jobs during that time. Obviously starting a family was my number one achievement during that time," she said.

"I had day jobs like many of us have as well, I was a personal trainer and just being able to, I guess, get back to having ... a regular kind of life.

"After we decided to make the come back, some things were very much put on hold to make 2020 the focus."

However, sponsorships, financial support and contracts are not the only factors, timing is another big consideration. The time needed away from training, for recovery and to get back to pre-pregnancy fitness takes several months.

With factors such as the four year cycle of the Olympics, World Cups, yearly World Championships or a professional contract expiring also heavily weighing in on their decisions.

Nevertheless, athletes are showing it is possible, with support and financial guarantees in place, to return to the world stage.

This story 'We can do it': Canberra star returns to racing after 10 years first appeared on The Canberra Times.