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!”

Instagram Photo

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.

Natasha Hastings of the United States competes in the women’s 4×400-meter relay heats during Day 9 of the 16th IAAF World Athletics Championships London 2017 at the London Stadium.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

“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.

“I’m now entering a new world of mommyhood, and unfortunately our worst critics are other moms.” — Natasha Hastings

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.

From left to right: U.S. women’s 4×400-meter relay team members Courtney Okolo, Natasha Hastings, Phyllis Francis and Allyson Felix celebrate their gold medals on the podium during athletics competitions at the Summer Olympics inside Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 20, 2016.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

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 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 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.”

Natasha Hastings celebrates winning the gold medal in the women’s 4×400-meter relay final at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 20, 2016.

AP Photo/Martin Meissner

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.

Trailblazer Ora Mae Washington should be in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Her feats were ignored by white media but chronicled in the black press

UPDATE—Ora Mae Washington is a part of the newest Basketball Hall of Fame class.

Every year around this time, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announces who it will enshrine in September from among hundreds of eligible players, coaches, referees and contributors.

Since 2007, I’ve been publishing a list of African-American pioneers from the mostly forgotten Black Fives Era of basketball who, in my opinion, are its most deserving candidates for enshrinement in the Hall.

The Black Fives Era lasted from 1904 — when basketball was first introduced to African-Americans on a large-scale, organized basis — to the racial integration of the NBA in 1950. During this period, dozens of all-black teams emerged, flourished and excelled.

One individual, Ora Mae Washington, has been on my list since the first one in 2007. Few realize that this sports pioneer, born in Virginia on Jan. 23, 1898, and raised in the Germantown section of North Philadelphia, was perhaps the greatest female athlete of all time, regardless of race.

During the 1930s and ’40s, she won 11 straight Colored Women’s Basketball World Championship titles — 12 total. Washington also won nine straight women’s singles titles between 1929 and 1937 with the American Tennis Association, an all-black governing body formed to counter the racially exclusive United States Lawn Tennis Association (today’s USTA). She also won 12 straight ATA doubles championships, starting in 1925.

Washington is a forgotten trailblazer not only because the history of the Black Fives Era was long overlooked but also because she was at her peak during a time when female participation in rigorous athletic competition was frowned upon. Why? There were the standard concerns about exploitation and the risk of exhaustion for the daintier sex. Bowling, swimming, tennis and golf, were OK, but basketball? Not so much. What’s more, these archaic views were shared and promoted by some of America’s leading women at the time.

As a result, starting in the 1920s, sports educators and authorities began a systematic effort to curtail female hoops. In 1923, the Women’s Division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation launched a campaign against women’s competition in high schools and colleges as well as in the Olympic Games, under the leadership of Lou Henry Hoover, wife of Herbert Hoover, then the U.S. secretary of commerce. Lou Henry Hoover was also the national president of the Girl Scouts of America.

These efforts were devastatingly effective. By 1930, only about 10 percent of U.S. colleges had women’s varsity basketball teams, down from nearly a quarter just a decade earlier. Women’s basketball was nipped in the bud just as interest and participation were beginning to blossom, and right when the pipeline for its growth was being established.

The insidious hidden effect of these efforts was to solidify a warped perception of the roles that men and women were “supposed” to play in American society as a whole.

Nevertheless, Washington walked into this context without blinking an eye.

As a youngster, she was a tennis prodigy and had already become famous through that sport by the time basketball caught her attention. In 1930, she joined all-black Germantown Hornets, a squad connected to the country’s first Colored Branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association, established in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in 1918. She promptly led the team to a 22-1 record and the Colored Women’s National Championship title for 1930-31.

In late 1931, the Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s oldest black newspaper, organized a new African-American female team known as the Tribune Girls. Washington left the Germantown squad to join the Tribunes before the start of the next season, setting the “Newsgirls” up to dominate African-American women’s basketball for the next decade. Their trademark was “snappy playing and sharp shooting.” Soon, Washington was being hailed as “the best Colored player in the world” and became the first black female sports superstar.

African-American women’s basketball teams were commonly known by their once politically correct, now bewildering, nicknames, such as Sepia Amazons of the maple court, Chocolate Coeds, dusky hardwood lassies, bronze hoopettes, brown femme casaba squads and, my favorite, African floor queens.

But despite the growing list of independent female all-black basketball squads, the Tribune Girls had no real rivals, so they looked to historically black colleges and universities for competition.

During the Great Depression, while most black colleges were discontinuing their women’s basketball programs in favor of “refinement and respectability,” Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina, did the opposite. The school enthusiastically focused on basketball, recruiting top players nationwide to become the best African-American women’s collegiate team, and perhaps the best overall black female squad, in the country by the mid-1930s. Between 1933 and 1937, the Bennett Girls lost only one college game.

Naturally, folks had to know which of the two teams was better, so a showdown was scheduled in 1934: a weeklong, three-game series in Greensboro to decide the national black women’s basketball championship.

For their first game, the Tribune Girls showed up in new red-and-white uniforms with script “Tribune” lettering sewn onto sleeveless tops and matching socks. At halftime, they changed into fresh purple-and-gold outfits. Their hot new looks set the tone. Behind shooting that was described as “almost supernatural,” the Tribunes swept the series. “They just had it all together,” Bennett player Ruth Glover explained in a modern-day interview. “They could dribble and keep the ball and make fast moves in to the basket which you couldn’t stop.”

Washington’s ferocious intensity made her unstoppable. “I didn’t believe in long warm-ups,” she once told a reporter. “I’d rather play from scratch and warm up as I went along.” Despite her size, Washington was the core of the lineup. “The team was built up around her,” said Glover. “She wasn’t a huge person, or very tall,” the Bennett player recalled. “But she was fast.”

The Tribunes-Bennett series of 1934 was a turning point for women’s sports, as it ushered in a renewed interest in female intercollegiate athletic programs overall, beyond the African-American community and beyond basketball. During the 1937-38 season, the team reportedly traveled more than 5,000 miles to fill their schedule, which included a tour of Southern states.

Together with her tennis accolades, Washington’s presence on the sports stage shattered many previously existing notions about race and gender.

She almost single-handedly filled the two-decade void between the 1920s, when Lou Henry Hoover locked down female athletes, and the 1950s, when African-American tennis star Althea Gibson burst onto the national sports scene.

I mention Gibson, specifically, because in 1950 she became the first black player to compete in any United States Lawn Tennis Association event. A year later, she was the first African-American athlete invited to compete at Wimbledon.

Gibson won the French Open in 1956 and then won back-to-back titles at the US Open and Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958 before retiring from official competition. The Associated Press named her its Female Athlete of the Year for both of those seasons, signaling to the world that African-American women in sports could no longer be denied.

Where did Gibson grow up as a young tennis prodigy? Who was her tennis mentor? You guessed it — in Philadelphia under the watchful and protective wing of Washington. Washington not only trained her but also was her teammate in ATA doubles competitions during the late 1940s.

Gibson was followed by new women’s sports icons such as Wilma Rudolph and then, of course, many other female athletes, all who could trace their lineage back to Washington’s original superstardom. It would take another generation of achievement and breakthroughs before the advent of Title IX in 1972 allowed collegiate athletic scholarships for women.

Today, record numbers of female Olympians represent the United States; 292 competed in the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, actually outnumbering men for the second Olympiad in a row, and 109 competed this year at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Their athletic lineage can be traced back to Washington’s original pioneering efforts.

Unfortunately, Washington’s fame as an athlete did not last and she was mostly forgotten. After retiring from basketball and tennis in the late 1940s, there were few career options open to African-American women, so she made a living as a housekeeper. Sadly, her death in 1971 went virtually unnoticed.

However, in 1975, Washington was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame, and in 2004 a historical marker commemorating Washington’s legacy was dedicated outside the original Germantown Colored YWCA building where she began her sports career.

Washington’s pioneering contributions to sports went far beyond basketball. Based on her hardwood achievements alone, she deserves enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

An Undefeated History: The life and times of Wilma Rudolph How her accomplishments on the track pale in comparison to the work she did off it

When Wilma Rudolph was four she contracted polio. By the time she was 21, she was one of the most dominant track athletes in American history. But it is what she did off the track that caused her legacy stand the test of time.

Here, Damion L. Thomas, curator of sports for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, shines a light on the overlooked story of Wilma Rudolph.