‘I thought bing, bang, boom, I’ll be pregnant. But IVF didn’t work like that’

Kaillie Humphries
Kaillie Humphries has established a foundation to support athletes in fertility - Instagram

Kaillie Humphries is the most decorated woman in bobsleigh history, winning three Olympic gold medals – for two different countries in two different events – as well as five world titles. She is used to success. So, she was unprepared “for things not working perfectly” when trying to start a family.

When Humphries and her husband, fellow bobsleigher Travis Armbruster, struggled to conceive naturally, they sought medical advice and discovered that she had stage four endometriosis, a condition where tissue similar to the uterus lining grows elsewhere, such as the kidneys and ovaries. It can cause severe pain and infertility.

Doctors advised that IVF was their best option for having children and Humphries approached the process just as she did sport: full of confidence.

“I went into it thinking, ‘It’s no problem. I ace a lot of things in my life’,” the 38-year-old says. “In my head, before, I was like, ‘OK, I’ll do an egg retrieval. We’re going to get embryos. We’re going to implant them. Bing, bang, boom, I’m going to be pregnant’. I wasn’t aware that if things didn’t work, it was going to take a toll and what was going to happen. It was getting intense and starting to become a little bit depressive and hard.”

The couple did two rounds of IVF without success before feeling that, for her mental and physical health, Humphries needed a break. Another reason for that break is that, in order to retain their world ranking, athletes can have only one year off from competing.

After six months back on the ice track, the couple resumed the IVF process and on their fourth cycle conceived, with Humphries due to give birth in the next few weeks. “We had three failed cycles, two failed implants, and then one biochemical pregnancy, which is basically an early miscarriage, and then, on our fourth time, it worked,” she says. “So, now, I’m 38 and this is my first child.”

The difficult balance of pursuing a career in sport and raising a family is one many female athletes know too well, with many feeling it has to be one or the other rather than both. As Humphries says: “Growing up, I was always told, ‘You know it’s going to wreck your body? You’ll never be the same once you have a kid. You’re not going to be able to return’. I would always choose going to the Olympics. Being an Olympic champion was my goal.”

Looking back now, Humphries believes there is a lack of education for female athletes when it comes to their reproductive health and would have liked more knowledge about her options. More recently, some sports teams, particularly in the major United States basketball and soccer leagues, have started to help players pay to freeze their eggs – and Humphries wishes she had been offered something similar earlier in her athletic career.

“I wouldn’t have done it any other way, but I do have regrets regarding doing an egg freezing when I was younger. I would have liked to have that option,” she says. “I think if support can be there for a lot of young athletes, and the knowledge is there, they can choose when it’s right for them. They can have options and it can extend their career and they don’t have to choose between being an athlete and having kids.”

That education piece is an important pillar in the Kaillie Humphries Trailblazeher Foundation, which she set up recently. As well as aiming to “fill the gaps” for female athletes, such as funding equipment and coaching – “People have different dreams and aspirations, but they shouldn’t have to not be able to live them due to finances” – she also hopes to provide support for women in their fertility journeys and raise awareness about the reproductive options there are for young women.

“The education needs to be there. Educate young athletes, empower them. Whether they do egg retrievals or not, it’s up to them, but at least to have the power to make conscious decisions and not just wait until they’re 40, 41 and retired and trying to turn back the clock.”

Despite the growing amount of representation of female athletes having children, Humphries believes there is still a stigma around pregnancy in sport and an institutional lack of support and acknowledgement.

“Sometimes women being pregnant is looked at as an injury. There are similarities regarding the fact your body’s different and it’s changed and there’s a whole return-to-play programme, but it doesn’t make you weaker. It doesn’t make it impossible to train through a pregnancy. That mindset needs to be abolished.”

When asked if she has any worries about juggling motherhood and her eventual return to sport – she has ambitions to top the Olympic podium for a fourth time – Humphries is confident that she will be able to balance the two. “I know it’s not going to be easy, but I reached a point in my career where I needed that change. I didn’t want to have to sacrifice my family goals for my career any longer. I’ve seen other women go out and do it. I wish I didn’t need to see that, but I did. Women like Allyson Felix, Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. I look at the CrossFit women that go out and are just killing it super pregnant and it has encouraged me to go, ‘OK, I can do this.’

“I’m not worried. I want to be able to show my child or my children that they can go out and chase their dreams and be the best versions of themselves and that they don’t have to make sacrifices for that, that they can have it all.”

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