Why heptathlete competed at U.S. Olympic Trials while 18 weeks pregnant

EUGENE, OREGON - JUNE 27: Lindsay Flach walks from the track after dropping out of the Women's Heptathlon 800 Meters during day ten of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 27, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)
EUGENE, OREGON - JUNE 27: Lindsay Flach walks from the track after the Women's Heptathlon 800 Meters during day ten of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 27, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

The most remarkable performance from the final weekend of the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials didn’t demolish a world record or send a teenager to Tokyo.

In fact, it came from a competitor who quickly fell hopelessly behind in her event.

Lindsay Flach competed in the heptathlon 18 weeks pregnant and showing off a growing baby bump. Though she finished a distant last among the 15 women who made it through all seven events of the heptathlon, her participation this past weekend was a victory in itself.

The 2020 season was supposed to be Flach’s farewell to the heptathlon, the sport that evolved into her obsession over the past decade. She intended to chase an elusive spot on the U.S. Olympic team one final time before marrying her longtime boyfriend and starting a family together.

In early 2020, Flach quit her job, temporarily left her soon-to-be-husband behind and moved nearly 250 miles south to train with her new coach at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. She intended to remain there through the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials. Then the pandemic struck three months into her training.

When the spread of COVID-19 forced the postponement of the Tokyo Games and cast doubt on whether they would ever happen, Flach, 31, decided she could no longer put her life on hold. She and her new husband began trying to have their first child even though a pregnancy would wipe out her slim hopes of qualifying for the Olympics.

In March, Flach began struggling to hit marks that had previously been routine to her. She took a pregnancy test that came back positive, an outcome that elicited a jumble of emotions from the Olympic hopeful.

“It was bittersweet,” Flach told Yahoo Sports. “I was really excited because I’ve always wanted kids, but it was also a shock knowing that just like that, my track career was over.”

The pregnancy sapped Flach’s strength and energy but not her desire to say goodbye to track and field on her own terms. This was a sport that had afforded the Wisconsin native the chance to live in Alabama, California and Texas and to travel to meets all over the world.

A decorated multisport athlete at her Wisconsin high school, Flach started at middle blocker for Watertown’s 2007 state championship volleyball team and captured state titles in the 100- and 300-meter hurdles the following spring. She accepted a scholarship from the University of South Alabama in 2008 because it was the first Division I program to offer her the chance to play both sports in college.

It wasn’t until Flach’s sophomore year of college that she first dabbled in the heptathlon. She displayed enough potential over the rest of her college career that afterward the coach of the Santa Barbara Track Club invited her to move to California and train with him.

“Before that I had never actually met Josh Priester in person,” Flach said with a laugh. “I told my mom, ‘I don’t even know if this guy exists. I’m taking a chance. Worst-case, I can move back home.’”

In her first professional season, Flach bettered her collegiate personal best in the heptathlon by 300 points. Encouraged, she dove headfirst into the pursuit of becoming the best heptathlete she could be. She cut unhealthy or processed foods out of her diet. She took great care to get 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night. She skipped family vacations or trips home for the holidays if they interfered with her training schedule.

Lindsay Flach, then Lindsay Schwartz, competes in the high jump at the 2014 USA Track and Field Championships. (Photo by Christopher Morris/Corbis via Getty Images)
The 2014 USA Track and Field Championships in Sacramento: Women's heptathlon, high jump- Lindsay Schwartz. (Photo by Christopher Morris/Corbis via Getty Images)

Those sacrifices helped Flach place ninth at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials and second at the 2018 USA Outdoor Championships, but the price of her competitiveness increased year after year. Flach didn’t have time to fly home to meet her first niece until six months after her birth. She and her now-husband also pushed back their timetable to get married and start a family for several years to accommodate her training.

The decision to try to have a baby this year was Flach’s concession that it was time to start the next chapter of her life. What Flach couldn’t bring herself to do, however, was to retire without competing one final time.

Upon discovering that she was pregnant a few months ago, Flach asked her doctor if she could keep training leading up to the Olympic Trials. The doctor gave her permission to work out in moderation as long as she heeded any warning signs from her body and was careful to avoid hard falls.

“My big concern,” she says, “was making sure that I was healthy and the baby was healthy.”

Flach trained as best she could through frequent heartburn and headaches, through waves of nausea and vomiting that struck her as often as three or four times a day. She says she needed intravenous fluid three times during the first trimester because she was dehydrated from not being able to keep food or liquids down.

“My pregnancy was very rough to start,” Flach said. “I had about 12 weeks of bad vomiting, which affected my training. If the Olympic Trials were three weeks ago, I don’t know that I would have been there, but I started to feel better and I was able to get some really good practices in.”

Last Friday, on the eve of the start of the heptathlon competition, Flach revealed on Instagram that she was pregnant yet intended to compete. She posted photos of her baby bump with the caption: “The secret 🤫 is no secret anymore.”

Flach’s friends and family were unanimously positive. The response from others was more hit and miss.

“I did have some negative reactions when I announced it,” Flach said. “You’re risking the baby. Women shouldn’t do this when they’re pregnant. You’re being selfish. You’re taking someone else’s spot.

“I kind of expected that to come, but at the same time I knew I was going to be very cautious and I knew I wasn’t going to take a chance of harming myself or the baby.”

One concern that Flach had was her occasional tendency to clip a hurdle while racing. She guarded against that by taking a more cautious step pattern, dooming her to a slow time but ensuring she wouldn’t trip and fall.

Another issue was how much arching of the back the high jump requires. Flach successfully cleared the opening bar at 1.54 meters and then bowed out of that competition, resisting the urge to push herself further.

It also did Flach no favors that the forecast in Eugene, Oregon, called for 110-degree heat on Sunday. Flach took no chances, electing to take only one attempt in the shot put and the long jump instead of the usual three.

The biggest test of Flach’s desire to push herself was the heptathlon’s final event. Rather than run the entirety of the 800 meters, Flach agreed to step off the track after 100 meters in order to ensure that she and her baby remained safe.

“My husband and coach were a little concerned that I was going to be stubborn and try to continue,” Flach said with a laugh. “It was so hard to step off the track, but I had no choice, knowing that there was a little one I had to worry about.”

While Flach’s final score was less than half her personal best, she’s trying not to dwell on that aspect, nor on the fact that she never qualified for an Olympics in her career. She’s excited for what’s to come in her life, elated she was able to participate in a third Olympic Trials and proud that she demonstrated how strong expectant mothers can be.

“It was hard mentally because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to compete at the level I was capable of 18 weeks ago, but I just wanted to prove what women are capable of,” Flach said. “To end one chapter and begin another on my terms was amazing.”

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