Naomi Folkard, who is going to her fifth Olympic Games this Summer, has been busy freezing the breast milk for her four-month-old baby Emily ahead of leaving for Tokyo
Credit: ANDREW FOX
British archer Naomi Folkard is still struggling to process the thought of having to leave her five-month-old daughter behind when she competes at next month’s Tokyo Olympics. Having only given birth to baby Emily in February, she has been forced to navigate an obstacle to which organisers have seemingly given little thought – she is still breastfeeding.
The Japanese government’s Covid-enforced ban on overseas spectators at the Games has resulted in the 37-year-old going to extraordinary lengths to ensure she can provide for her daughter while fulfilling her dream of competing at her fifth Olympics.
For the past six weeks, Folkard, who has featured at every Games since Athens 2004, has spent her evenings pumping breast milk into bottle-sized bags and storing them in the freezer at the family’s Shropshire home. Batches of the milk will be defrosted and fed to her baby by her partner during the fortnight she plans to be in Tokyo.
So meticulous has the 2019 European champion and three-time world bronze medallist been in her planning that she even intends to breast pump on the plane to Japan and while she is at the Games, in case her baby is not weaned by the time she is back.
“It’s crazy. The freezer is now full and we need to get another one,” says Folkard, telling her story for the first time. “At the moment, I’ve got just over 50 bottles. I’m aiming for about 80 by the time we get to Tokyo. When it really dawned on me that Emily wouldn’t be coming, I was like, ‘Right, I need to get on schedule and make at least one bottle a day.’ ”
Folkard has been busy freezing the breast milk for her four month-old baby Emily ahead of leaving her for Tokyo
Credit: ANDREW FOX
The International Olympic Committee has said it is “highly unlikely” that entry to the Games will be guaranteed for non-accredited individuals from overseas, although it is aware of a “small number” of national Olympic committees that have been dealing with requests from athletes to bring their children.
Despite making initial inquiries with the British Olympic Association about obtaining an exemption to bring her daughter, it quickly became apparent to Folkard that it would not be possible. “It wasn’t an easy decision at all to make,” Folkard says, on being forced to choose between the Olympics and her baby. “I really considered not going at all. I’d be away for 15 days – it’s a big chunk of time for an infant. Is it really fair on her for me to be away for that long?”
Around the world, Tokyo-bound Olympians who are mothers have voiced their resentment at how the stringent rules are skewed against nursing mothers. Aliphine Tuliamuk, the United States marathon runner, even started a petition to bring her five-month old baby, Zoe, to Tokyo. “If I’m going to perform my best, she’s going to have to be there with me,” Tuliamuk, whose training days are still thought to be structured around breastfeeding, told the Washington Post.
Serena Williams, the joint-most successful Olympian in tennis history alongside sister Venus, having won one gold medal in singles and three in doubles, has said she is undecided whether she will go to Tokyo as she has not spent 24 hours apart from her “best friend”, three-year-old daughter Olympia.
Meanwhile, Allyson Felix, the American nine-time Olympic medallist who gave birth to her daughter Camryn in 2018, has called for sensitivity towards Olympic mothers who are still nursing, saying: “When I competed when Cammy was under a year old, you needed to be near your child.”
Footballer Alex Morgan, who remains in contention to be selected for the US women’s Olympic squad, has also spoken of her uncertainty about whether she would leave her one-year-old daughter, Charlie.
British sprinter Georgie Hermitage, who is targeting her second Paralympics at Tokyo nearly a year after the birth of her son, Heath, can relate. “If I was breastfeeding still, and I could not take him with me, I wouldn’t go,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to be one of those mothers right now. It does feel like it’s not as well set up for mothers in sport.”
That sentiment is echoed by Ros Bragg, director of the UK’s maternity rights charity Maternity Action, who has labelled the IOC’s stance – which would also affect bottle-feeding mothers – as “fundamentally unfair”. She adds: “Women with new babies, and particularly those who are breastfeeding, are not just providing childcare, they are bonding with their baby and feeding their baby. Competitors need to be able to focus on their sport, rather than feeling the stress and anxiety of travelling without their baby.”
Folkard, despite finding breastfeeding painful early on, is glad she persevered with it, which is a comfort source for babies and promotes mother-infant bonding. “It was hard to leave Emily the first time I went training on my own without her,” she says. “But we got that bond when I went home, so I could make that reconnection with her.”
Women who breastfeed are thought to burn up to 500 more calories a day, some 200 more than during pregnancy, meaning pumping mothers who express more milk than they actually need can find themselves even more exhausted. “It is draining, especially making more milk than Emily needs now to go in the freezer,” Folkard says. “I feel like I have enough energy, but I find it really hard to wake up.”
That has impacted her concentration at training. “That’s one of my biggest challenges,” she says. “Typically, I’m doing four to five hours a day training and I split it up to make it easier, into two sessions.”
It is little wonder, then, that Folkard is not dwelling on the Olympic medal that has so far eluded her. “There’s not much time to sit back and think how I can approach this one,” she says of Olympics number five. “I’m doing everything to make sure I’m ready as an athlete.”
Against the odds, the matriarch of the British archery team is doing everything in her power to ensure she is ready as a mother, too.