Sunday 20 October 2019

Sinead Kissane: Lee back in the elite bracket just months after giving birth

Cork Olympian finding form ahead of European Cross-Country Championships, just six months after birth of second daughter

Lizzie Lee on the day her daughter Alison was born in July earlier this year with her other daughter Lucy who is now three and a half
Lizzie Lee on the day her daughter Alison was born in July earlier this year with her other daughter Lucy who is now three and a half
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

The moment Lizzie Lee felt like herself again was during the women's senior race at the National Cross-Country Championships in Abbotstown two weeks ago. The leading group were into the final lap when Shona Heaslip and Kerry O'Flaherty surged ahead of Lee and she heard O'Flaherty's coach describe how much Lee trailed them by.

Hearing this gave Lee a boost because even though she had just been dropped by the leaders she knew she had become an athlete to be feared again.

"I just all of a sudden said to myself: 'You're back!' You're going home to your beautiful, lovely babies but you're going to feel like you," Lee says.

It's just over six months since Lee gave birth to her second daughter, Alison. When she found out she was pregnant, Lee did the calculations and set a target of making the Ireland team for the European Cross-Country Championships.

She took six weeks off running for the birth and post-natal recovery before she slowly built herself up with a tailored strength and conditioning programme.

Three weeks after giving birth in July, Lee started simple exercises like lying on a mat, lifting a litre of milk in each hand and trying to raise her leg off the ground.

She struggled to get her balance back and could barely stand on one leg. "Bambi on ice," was how she described herself to her friends.

"You're really back to basics. A lot of females come back too soon and there's awful injuries you could give yourself after childbirth," Lee says.

"The first three weeks I didn't want to do anything. I was learning my new baby and that was it. And you're tired!"

With her first daughter (Lucy, now aged three and a half), Lee was able to catch up on sleep while Lucy slept but down-time has been elusive following Alison's birth.

It also took longer for her to feel like an athlete again.

"I'm older, I'm 37. I was wondering whether it was going to come back. And then there was a sudden eureka moment on the track about three weeks ago on a Thursday night with the lads. I did a session, and I just smiled at Donie (Walsh, her coach). And I knew from the session it was game on, it was possible."

The possible became a reality when she finished fourth at Nationals last month to make the Ireland team for the Europeans in Slovakia tomorrow.

Lee's got form at Euro Cross-Country; she was on the team that won gold in 2012 and was captain when Ireland finished third two years ago.

But travelling to the Europeans comes with inevitable sacrifices.

There's a catch in her voice when she says she will miss Lucy's Christmas concert in pre-school and be away from Alison for the guts of four days.

It's probably around this point that some may wonder why there's a focus on Lee as a parent when it's something that's rarely brought up in interviews with male athletes.

But recovering from pregnancy and childbirth to return to competing in elite sport - while still breast-feeding for some women - needs to be acknowledged and discussed more because it causes such huge changes for women.

"It is 100pc relevant," Lee says.

"My body has grown a person and I'm running with that body, so it's incredibly relevant. To get your body through pregnancy, to grow a person and then be the sole nutritional need for that person for months - you'll never be the same. Your tool is your body as an athlete so it's completely relevant".

Lee loves running. She loves everything about cross-country which others dislike; the cold, the wet, the dirty conditions.

Her identity is tied up with being an athlete and so she struggled with not being able to train while she was pregnant. She found following Serena Williams and Alysia Montaño on social media a help because they were so open about their experiences.

Williams is set to defend her Australian Open title in January four months after the birth of her daughter while Montaño ran in the US trials of the 800m while five months pregnant last summer.

"People don't talk about it and I don't know why female athletes don't talk about it. The American ones do on Twitter. But you lose yourself, you lose your identity as a female athlete when you're pregnant," Lee explains. "Running is really where I feel like me.

"People treat you completely different when you're pregnant in a very, very nice, caring and nurturing kind of way. But I like being one of the lads.

"I would often do my long run on a Sunday and there might be one other girl but there might be 10 lads and I like that. And all of a sudden people are molly-coddling you and it's nature and it's normal and people should mind pregnant women but you just feel like screaming that inside you're still you," Lizzie says.

"Because it's what you love, it's what you do best and all of a sudden you can't do it best. And you're not injured. So it's a very strange feeling for a female athlete. I'm not complaining. But to get it back and to have a lovely baby, it's just the cherry on top."

Lee has learned to switch her living between the portrait of a mother as an athlete and the portrait of an athlete as a mother.

"Thinking about nappies on the start-line is not right," Lee says.

When she's on the start-line looking forward to feeling pain, Lee knows she's good to go.

More than anything, Lee feels running makes her a better mother. When she returns home after a long run on a Sunday, she takes one or both of her daughters out to something like swimming and feel invigorated doing it.

"I'm not sure if I'd be that happy if I didn't have my long run. Because I was gone for two hours in the morning, I'm here, I'm focused, I've endorphins running through me," Lee smiles.

"'Mom guilt' goes on forever and I don't want to call it 'mom guilt' because it should be 'parent guilt'. But I think: 'hang on now, the running has done nothing negative for this child, it's all positive'. And I am a better mummy when I come in from my run."

Tomorrow Lee and her team-mates will run for another European team medal. She'll run alongside one of her heros, Fionnuala McCormack, and she'll run for her daughters at home.

"Putting on the green singlet knowing there's a small baby at home, I've very proud of that," Lee says. "I'm even emotional talking about it now because there's such pride in running in green and with this group of girls. I hope it will make my two little girls proud when they're bigger."

No doubt they will be. Lee's daughters won't have to look too far from home to find their hero.

Irish Independent

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