Rejoinder: Is Serena Williams’s Pregnancy Making Her A Better Athlete?
On 19 April 2017, tennis superstar, Serena Williams revealed that she was twenty weeks pregnant. Upon the announcement, social media went into a frenzy as people realised that Serena won the 2017 Australian Open while she was eight weeks pregnant. To put this into perspective, Serena beat seven players in a total of 9 hours over a period of two weeks.
The day following the announcement, you wrote an article titled: Is Serena Williams’s Pregnancy Making Her A Better Athlete? , which was published in the New Scientist. A video was also posted online to support the article.
In the article, you suggested that Serena’s pregnancy could have aided her performance as an athlete. To support your assertion, you note that pregnancy causes the heart to get bigger and increases the volume of red blood cells, which helps deliver more oxygen to the muscles. You also state that the changes in hormones resulting from pregnancy could help performance. You argue, “ The surges in oestrogen and progesterone that pregnant women experience can change metabolism — encouraging the body to break down fats for energy instead of carbohydrates. This would allow pregnant women to hold onto their carbohydrate energy stores for longer, enabling them to push themselves further as competitors hit a wall. You then bring up the issue of ‘abortion doping’, which occurs when women are encouraged to become pregnant before competing (to have a competitive edge) and later aborting the pregnancy. You also interviewed the head of science and medicine at U.K. Anti-doping to find out his views on whether pregnancy can be construed to be a form of doping. In response to your question, he said, “Pregnancy wouldn’t be recognised as doping, there is nothing in the regulations about pregnancy, and it would be very difficult to prove that someone was doing it.”
With all due respect, your article is unfair to Serena Williams as the subtext behind the paper insinuates that Serena engaged in a form of ‘pregnancy doping’ to enhance her performance.
If we are to assume that pregnancy did play a part in Serena’s triumph at Melbourne, then your headline title is flawed. Your suggestion that pregnancy makes her a better athlete is without merit. This is because you have frozen Serena to a moment in time and disregarded her other accomplishments, which she had already achieved before her pregnancy. Prior to winning the Australian Open, Serena had already won twenty-two Grand Slam titles, five WTA Tour Finals and four Olympic gold medals.
You fail to take into consideration the fact that Serena is an extraordinary hard working athlete who has a long history of defying the odds. At the 2007 Australian Open, an out of shape and out of form Serena defied the pundits by winning the title. In July 2007, despite collapsing to the ground with a calf injury in her Wimbledon match against Daniela Hantuchova, she still managed to win the match in three sets. In March 2011, she revealed that she suffered a hematoma and pulmonary embolism. She nearly lost her life and had part of her lungs removed. Despite this setback, she bounced back by winning ten Grand Slams, three WTA Tour titles and two Olympic Gold medals. At the 2015 French Open, Serena had a serious viral infection. Despite coughing and sneezing severely, covering herself with a blanket of towels and cutting short her training sessions, she once again overcame the odds by winning the French Open title. If these setbacks couldn’t stop her, should it be any surprise that an eight-week pregnancy couldn’t stop Serena? Or should we extend your logic by arguing that calf injuries, hematoma, pulmonary embolism and the flu make Serena a better athlete?
Serena isn’t the first woman; neither will she be the last woman to compete in sports while pregnant. One then wonders why the New Scientist will rush to publish an article about the enhancement benefits of pregnancy moments after it was revealed that Serena won a title while pregnant. When women like Kerry Jennings and Kim Rhode won Olympic gold medals while pregnant, where were the articles in New Scientist suggesting that their pregnancies made them better athletes? A review of the pregnancy and birth section of the online version of the New Scientist reveals that there has never been any article written about the impact of pregnancy on sports for a specific athlete except for Serena Williams. Is it one rule for Serena and another rule for the rest?
For every pregnant woman who excels in a sporting endeavour, there are many who don’t prevail. Yet your article fails to discuss this. For instance, Martina Valcepina, an Italian skater who competed in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver came 31st overall. Sara Cooper competed in two triathlons while pregnant and came 56th overall. DeAnne Hemmens was two months pregnant when she canoed for the USA at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. She was eliminated in the semifinals of both the K-2 500 m and the K-4 500 m events.
The New Scientist is one of the world’s most reputable science magazines, which reaches a global audience of over 3 million readers every week through its print and digital channels. It is for this reason that care must be taken to ensure that the articles published are robust. This article would have been more authentic if you had included a control group of non-pregnant athletes and compared their performance with athletes who were at various stages of pregnancies. You could have also compared the performance of athletes competing in the same sports who were pregnant at different time frames and analyse any variation in performance.
Perhaps you should have equalised Serena’s performance with another tennis player who also competed while pregnant. The most appropriate person to analyse is Victoria Azarenka, the two times Australian Open Champion. Like Serena Williams, Azarenka plays tennis. She also plays in the same era as Serena. And like Serena, Azarenka was also pregnant while competing. On 20 December 2016, Azarenka gave birth to her son Leo. If we are to calculate backwards, Azarenka probably became pregnant sometime around 30 March 2016. By applying your logic, one would expect Azarenka’s performance to improve as a result of the increased volume of red blood cells, a bigger heart and surges in oestrogen and progesterone. We should expect Azarenka to push herself further as her competitors hit a wall.
Let’s examine the facts. On 3rd of April 2016, Azarenka won the Miami Open, however on that day Azarenka would have been four days pregnant. Azarenka competed in the Madrid Open and on 7 May 2016, while she was five weeks pregnant she withdrew from the competition citing a back injury during a match against Louisa Chirico. The next stop was the Rome Open where she lost to Irina-Camelia Begu in the second round on 11 May 2016 when she was six weeks pregnant. At the French Open, when she was eight weeks pregnant on 24 May 2016, she lost in the first round against Karin Knapp. To put things into perspective, at the same stage of pregnancy, Serena was crowned Australian Open champion. On 23 June 2016 when she was 12 weeks pregnant, Azarenka withdrew from the Wimbledon Championships. So, Jessica, you can see that pregnancy is not a sufficient and necessary condition to conclude that Serena’s performance has been aided by her pregnancy.
White supremacy has often used science as an excuse to undermine black excellence in sports. When black folks excel in their sporting endeavours, it is often punctuated with the word “But.” Science tells us that Usain Bolt is a great runner and the best that has ever lived, but his genetic makeup gives him an unfair advantage. Science tells us that Kenya has produced its fair share of long distance champions, but this is because the athletes are psychologically motivated to run faster in order to escape poverty. Science tells us that Simone Biles is a phenomenal gymnast, but her anatomy enables her to perform unbelievable gymnastic routines.
In addition, Serena’s accomplishment has often been diminished. Whenever she wins it is often attributed to her serve, her muscles or her anatomy. When she won the Olympic Gold medal at the 2012 Olympics, she was condemned for her victory dance. When she dominates her opponents, commentators suggest that she is playing in a weak era. Now that it has been that she won a Grand Slam while pregnant, she is now accused of pregnancy doping.
I understand that two days after your article was published, the title was changed to: “How pregnancy could affect an elite athlete like Serena Williams.” Furthermore, the video supporting the article was withdrawn. However, the content of the article remained unchanged. I hope that in future the New Scientist will be more diligent in what it publishes and refrain from sensational click baiting articles.