Motherhood or an athletic career? An impossible choice no more thanks, in part, due to the rise of esports
For too long, top athletes have faced impossible choices. The pursuit of motherhood and family has invariably meant the end of world-class competition. But recently there has been a seismic shift.
In 2018 former road racing world champion, Lizzie Deignanbecame an example of the modern professional cyclist when, with the full support of her Trek-Segafredo group, took parental leave to have their first child. She returned to the peloton the following season in top form, winning the first Paris-Roubaix Women with her firstborn baby looking at her.
When Deinyang’s group of fans grew to a second child in 2022, the Trek-Segafredo team once again sided with Deinyang and extended her contract until 2024, thus challenging her career as an athlete and motherhood.
Although rare, Deinyan’s story is not the first and, by all means, should not be the last. Add names like Christine Armstrong to the list of successful athletes who pride themselves on calling themselves mothers first and also cyclists.
However, for moms who aren’t at the forefront of any cycling discipline or are choosing a different career, there are still few options, but more than ever. Enter the era of elite women’s esports. With the advent of virtual cycling competitions, female endurance athletes no longer have to sacrifice motherhood and professional careers. Meet four esports athletes who successfully balance motherhood or high-paying jobs with a career as a cyclist.
Ariel Verhaaren, US Olympian
Ariel Vehaaren is a 37-year-old former US Olympian who trains with the USA Cycling Elite BMX program.
A decorated rider, Verhaaren competed for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team and was the first American woman to win the UCI BMX World Championship when she triumphed at Chula Vista in 2011. In addition, she was the silver medalist of the Pan American Games in 2011. , champion of the UCI BMX SX series in 2008 and placed second in the UCI BMX series in 2013.
“I left my full professional life behind when I retired from BMX, but esports gave me the opportunity to enjoy some of that without all the demands and risks of outdoor racing,” she says.
Verhaaren currently lives in Williamsburg, Virginia with her children three and eight and her husband, a US Army helicopter pilot.
“The main reason I continue to do this is for the convenience and safety of a mom of two, for whom I am primarily responsible,” she shares.
Verhaaren started virtual cycling in 2019 to improve her fitness and ride safely while pregnant with her son. After he was born, she continued to make training plans on the virtual cycling platform. Zwift.
“I didn’t understand the community aspect, but I got an email that USA Cycling was launching a series of virtual races, ‘so I decided to give it a try and that’s when I started racing,'” she recalls.
Verhaaren now races in Zwift’s elite level – the Zwift Grand Prix Premier Division – for the Aeonian Racing Team, a women’s e-racing team that promotes women’s cycling for all abilities and across all categories.
She also represented Team USA for the second time at the world level in 2023 UCI Cycling World Championships where she placed fifth. Verhaaren’s Aeonian teammate, Loes Adegest of the Netherlands, defended her title and became the first multiple world champion.
“Now it’s a big part of my life,” admits Verhaaren, who has memories of the Olympics and World Championships.
Rebecca Larson, 13-time US National Champion, Zwift #1 and Ph.D. holder
Another woman who has found Zwift as an extension of her cycling career is 13-time U.S. road racing champion Rebecca Larson.
Larson is now 41 and also holds a Ph.D. She has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology and spends her days juggling a job as an exercise physiology professor at the University of Oklahoma, raising her eight-year-old daughter, and racing Zwift.
“I raced professionally and raced for Team USA for many years until my daughter was born,” she notes, “and I still love racing and fast racing.”
And it does so, repeatedly ranking #1 in the Zwift World Rankings and earning a solid seventh place in the 2019 US National Zwift Championship.
The virtual cycling and esports competitions have allowed Larson to “do everything I love, including being a wife, a mom, a physiotherapist and keeping my fitness at a high level.”
She admits that it would be difficult to balance it all without esports.
“Virtual cycling and esports have changed the game!” for Larson, who “happily continues to not only lead by example, but enjoys riding with (my) family for extra ‘mom-daughter’ and ‘date night’ time.”
Anna Russell, professional triathlete and esports influencer
Without esports, 40-year-old New Zealander Anna Russell could not imagine how she could compete with three children at home.
Russell has had a successful career as a triathlete, in which she has qualified to race at the Ironman World Championships as a professional, has placed on the podium at several Long Course World Championships as an amateur triathlete, finished 4th at the Amateur Triathlon World Championships in the short distance while pregnant with an 18-month-old son and qualified for the World Championships 70.3 while still breastfeeding.
Despite Russell’s great talent and tenacity, she admits, “If I was still a professional triathloner, I would be out for weeks, I would have huge training days, that would be seriously just unfair to other athletes.” family and not sustainable.”
Instead, Russell is heavily involved in the elite Zwift Grand Prix for Saris-No Pinz, juxtaposing the demands of a mother of three and an endurance coach.
“Once I had a family, the family was much less affected if I went down into my cave of pain and had a session or a race instead of traveling the world,” she says.
However, virtual cycling and cybersport much more than for Russell. She is the co-host of The Wrap, a Zwift racing podcast, and shares her talents with Zwift Community Live event streams. There are more and more options for a new generation of elite virtual cyclists, but they are always based on a competitive spirit.
“Esports is just picking up steam and it will be interesting to see where it goes. The competition has now reached a new level, so in 5-10 years, I think I will be more involved as a commentator, producer and expert than an expert. top-level racer,” she says. “However, I will always be racing in the community because it’s such a blast.”
Jacqueline Godbey, ITU World Champion, radiologist and chemist
At the 2023 UCI Cycling and Esports Championships all eyes were on three-time US esports champion Dr. Jacqueline Godbe.
In the end, she had to settle for bronze, becoming the first American woman to stand on the UCI esports podium.
Her story is different from that of motherhood, but no less important to female athletes looking for competitive options. Former triathlete, Dr. Godbe was the 25-29 International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Champion in the 25-29 age group in 2017 and a five-time Chicago Tri winner. She is also a radiologist with a Ph.D. in chemistry.
The 32-year-old St. Louis, Missouri resident got into online racing while attending Northwestern University Medical School.
“It was a way to race and train that was sustainable even in the face of life’s big challenges and busy schedules,” she explains.
Dr. Godbe is currently a radiology resident at the University of Washington School of Medicine and continues to find his competitive edge in virtual racing.
She admitted to being very competitive and feared that the labor-intensive nature of triathlon would greatly limit her ability to compete regularly.
“While I could still compete locally, I certainly wouldn’t be able to regularly compete against world-class athletes,” she says.
On the other hand, virtual racing requires no travel time at all, allowing her to continue racing — something she was afraid to give up for her medical career.
Dr. Godbe is more than just a competitive outlet. Her list of virtual victories includes several Virtual Tour of the Gila titles on the Wahoo-RGT platform, a Zwift Premier Division victory for her Saris-No Pinz team, three national titles, and a UCI eSports bronze medal.
Dr. Godbe is surprised at how many women who ride a virtual bike have advanced degrees. She regularly competes with a chemistry professor, medical student, and practicing orthopedic surgeon.
“The flexibility of this format has really allowed those of us with busy professional schedules to keep competing,” she says.
No need to make hard choices because there are options
Many elite cyclists and triathletes share the opinion that elite-level competition is too big a part of their lives to choose.
Virtual cycling and esports provide an opportunity to prioritize family and become a pro at something other than cycling while continuing to compete at the world’s elite level.