While skimming through the extensive photo albums shared by Tobias Albrigtsen during the U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships in Soldier Hollow this past January, one head coach caught my attention. University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) head coach Eliška Albrigtsen (Tobias’ wife) had an extra member of the team in tow: her then 11-month-old son, Viggo.
As most ski coaches know all too well, the demands of the job are multifactorial, and can make it challenging for women coaches who are looking to start a family. It’s a physically demanding job with frequent travel butting up against a physically demanding biological process that results in a tiny being that is, at least in the short term, still very dependent on its mother.
Yes, some women have a fairly smooth perinatal experience and (somehow?) enjoy the experience of pregnancy. And yes, a woman’s ability to grow a new life inside her body is a wonderful and sometimes mind-blowing feat, but the experience of pregnancy and childbirth can also undeniably leave behind a lasting impact. A woman’s uterus grows to be the size of a watermelon over the course of roughly 40 weeks, forcing supporting musculature to stretch well beyond its normal capacity, while other internal organs are forced to relocate elsewhere. And that’s just a small subset of what’s happening throughout the body.
The process of repairing this damage after birth is often nonlinear, leaving those who rely on their bodies for work, recreation, or both, in need of extensive postpartum physical therapy while making a careful progression back to activity.
And everyone’s experience is unique.
It’s the miracle of life, but it’s also a little bit like donating your body to science for at least 15 months. I can attest; as I write this, the daughter I’ve been growing for the last 30 weeks feels like she’s trying to claw her way out of my belly button, which remains herniated from growing her sister.
And, if you live in Fairbanks and spend weeks at a time traveling to races 3000 miles away (or more), it creates a logistical challenge. How do you bring the baby, who you continue to nurse, along with you while coaching your athletes to an historic seventh place at the NCAA Championships? In addition to benches, wax boxes, and heavy ski bags, you’ll need, at minimum, a cumbersome car seat, and plenty of spare clothes and diapers. And you’ll need someone to care for the child while you’re on the wax bench, testing skis, and otherwise supporting your athletes.
It turns out that the experience has been as challenging and rewarding as it sounds. Let’s start at the beginning.
Preparing for Baby
Though baby Albrigsten was conceived in the spring of 2020, he was not simply a “COVID baby”. The urge to begin a family came out of feelings of being “stupidly comfortable”.
“Our life started to be kind of plain, so we thought, ‘Okay, this is the time to do it’ – to go into another hardship, I guess,” Eliška said with a laugh.
With a few years under her belt, she felt efficient and dialed in her role with the UAF team, and she knew she could leave the program in good hands in her absence given the capability and coaching talents of her assistant coach, Jennie Bender. After her own NCAA racing career at the University of Vermont, where she became an All-American, Bender trained and raced professionally through 2017 in cross country, earning four national championship sprints, and standing on over 25 SuperTour podiums.
(Bender has since moved to Whitefish, MT where she is the executive director and head comp coach for the Glacier Nordic Club.)
While women coaches in the NCAA are already a minority, there are even fewer examples of women who have started families while in the head coaching role. However, Eliška was not without footsteps to follow. She explained that her friend, former UAF coach Christina Turman, had given birth to her first child while actively coaching, so she knew it was “somewhat possible”, and while racing at University of Colorado Boulder (CU) during her own collegiate career, then assistant coach Jana Weinberger had begun her family.
Looking to be informed and prepared, Eliška applauded the time and energy she and Tobias put into learning about the process in terms of what would be available to her for maternity leave, the amount of perinatal care her insurance would cover, and more. As her job included benefits and had flexible hours, she and Tobias agreed in advance that it made more sense for him to leave his job and become the full-time caregiver for their child, keeping her in a coaching role she loved. And then, they began trying to conceive.
Nailing the timing, Eliška knew that her baby’s predicted arrival in February would allow her to take three months of maternity leave, with an additional month of leave per her usual 11-month contract. This would bring her to June, when athletes are typically away for summer, allowing her to ease back in while writing summer training plans and handling the many other non-coaching aspects of leading an NCAA program.
Coaching Through Pregnancy
As winter approached and the 2020-2021 race season loomed, Eliška began to step back from her usual involvement with team training, “which for me, is not standing on the side of the trail and watching the athletes. It’s to be there with them when they’re struggling, to see where they can improve in the highest point of their performance.”
Her knowledge and expertise as a coach are rooted in both her academic studies in physiology and her own accomplishments as an athlete. Growing up in the Czech Republic, she was named to the national team at 14. During her junior career, she earned a silver medal at the European Youth Olympic Festival in Switzerland in 2005, then went on to place in the top ten at three World Junior ski championships, and helped her relay team to a bronze medal.
Heading to CU for college with World Cup starts under her belt, she went on to become one of the most accomplished skiers in the school’s history, if not the NCAA more broadly. Of the 48 races she entered, she missed the top-10 only three times, and stood on 33 podiums. Eliška (then Hájková) was NCAA champion in classic in 2011, and contributed to two NCAA team titles for the Buffaloes.
In short, she is an incredible athlete and skier. And yet, perhaps both in spite of and because of that strength and athleticism, she was significantly challenged by the toll pregnancy took on her body.
Eliška identified that she has a very short torso relative to her height at roughly 5’5”. In the context of growing a human, this means that there is nowhere for the baby to go but out.
“It literally looked like I swallowed basketball,” she laughed as she described her body toward the end of pregnancy.
Even earlier in the process, she found herself regularly adjusting to her rapidly growing belly, and she had to be creative in ways to remain active for the sake of her health and maintaining her usual active lifestyle. She abandoned running early, and had to stop biking halfway through pregnancy “because my belly was just so big.” Because of the risk to the baby of a crash, she did not feel comfortable rollerskiing. “I did an insane amount of hiking with poles.” And, she enjoyed prenatal yoga throughout pregnancy.
Returning to the impacts on coaching, as she entered into the third trimester, the physical demands of pregnancy began to significantly impede her ability to work with athletes as she was accustomed.
“I was at the practices, but not really skiing. I skied until the end of the year, and then, my feet were so swollen, I couldn’t fit into my boots. But I was still walking to the practices, and [timed] some time trials until halfway through January. And then I was just too pregnant to move.”
Outgrowing her ski clothes long before winter, she also had to be creative to stay warm for practices. She began wearing spare team jackets in a men’s extra-large to accommodate her belly, and could be sometimes found sporting a large fleecy Chewbacca onesie.
As the competition season began, team leadership responsibilities began shifting to Bender, who would assume the role of interim head coach, giving her the authority to call the shots on the road while Eliška remained in Fairbanks.
Still shrouded in COVID precautions, the 2021 RMISA calendar was contained to Utah and Colorado, with most races happening in Soldier Hollow. This worked out well for Bender, who was able to rely on contacts from her racing career to fill in for wax support, primarily Josh Korn, who is the events coordinator in SoHo.
Had Bender not been available and able to fill in so seamlessly as head coach, the program might have been compromised during the season. While the skillset of a high level coach already narrows the pool able to cover a maternity leave, Eliška explained that the clearance process to become an NCAA coach adds another barrier.
“With all the college or university regulations, it’s quite hard to just hire a coach as an independent contractor… it’s so much easier to actually hire someone as a wax tech because they don’t have to [go through the whole process].”
Ever problem solving and adapting, with Bender at the helm, the race season rolled by. And on February 25th, midway through the RMISA championships, Eliška gave birth to her son.
Delivery Day: The Baby is Born
With her aforementioned background as an athlete, combined with participating in training with her athletes and fueling her own passion for outdoor recreation, Eliška explained that she came into pregnancy “quite fit”, which she believes was helpful as she adapted to the load of a growing and changing body. “Honestly, sometimes I was thinking ‘how do women who are not in [good] physical shape do this?’ Because when I was eight, nine months [along], I could barely walk and I was quite strong.”
However, it proved to be a double-edged sword that she felt complicated her delivery. “I had a lot of tightness in muscles, which we want for sport, but not for giving birth.” In particular, this applied to the muscles of her pelvic floor.
Like an extension of the core that line the pelvis, these muscles have a myriad of important roles. They’re responsible for the support and stability of the joints and organs surrounding the pelvis, including regulating the function of the bladder, bowels, and reproductive organs, and they interact with larger muscle groups of the hips, legs, and abdomen used for movement.
For Eliška, her pelvic floor was so strong and rigid that they were unable to sufficiently relax and stretch to allow the baby to pass through her birth canal.
Her due date had come and gone, and time began to run out for her to deliver at the local hospital.
“I was 41 weeks already. And in Fairbanks, they don’t have the NICU specialty, so they don’t let you go over 41 weeks because if something happens, they have to fly you to Anchorage.”
With no signs of the onset of labor happening naturally, she awaited an induction, but Alaska was experiencing a surge in COVID cases in February 2021 and beds in the hospital were at a premium.
“I was just sitting at home with my cup on my belly just waiting for them to call me that they have a space, because the hospital was overwhelmed. They had so many emergency cases coming in that week.”
When she was finally called to come in, she and Tobias headed to the hospital, but her body was reluctant to respond to the Pitocin used to kickstart labor.
“For three days, they kept inducing. The second day, my water broke, and then suddenly, it was happening. Then I was in contractions for like 18 hours, every two and a half minutes a contraction, and it was just so painful that I started to throw up.”
Worn out from the previous 18 hours of labor, her body began to tighten in response to the pain, rather than relax to allow the baby to make progress. Her doctors recommended an epidural in hopes that pain relief would improve her ability to relax and allow her pelvic floor muscles to release.
“After the epidural, I was like, ‘Oh, this is hilarious. I don’t feel anything.’ But then the baby’s oxygen started to drop with every contraction. They put me on oxygen, and that helped, but when they took me off, [his oxygen] was dropping. And the heartbeats were dropping as well.”
The doctors felt it was no longer safe for her to continue trying for a vaginal birth, and instead prepared her for an emergency C-section.
“That was like 11:30 p.m. on the 25th. And he was born at 11:57. It was just so cool.”
Returning to the concept of “donating your body to science”, Eliška recounted a strange experience resulting from the inability to eat during the induction process. Most hospitals do not allow women to eat in case they need to be put under anesthesia for an emergency procedure.
“At that point, I was three days without food… they were giving me sugars through IV, but I was shaking like this,” she said as she demonstrated full body tremors. “They had to have extra nurses to hold me down during the C-section because my body was just trying to shake all the glycogen from my muscles out into the bloodstream… physiologically, I literally shook all the sugar that I had in my whole body out into the bloodstream to make this baby happen.”
Despite the complications, both Eliška and baby Viggo were fully healthy, and the remainder of their hospital stay went by without a hitch. She fondly remembered his perfectly round head, a mark of a baby delivered via C-section, and proudly showed a picture of her sweet newborn.
Reflecting on the unexpected hurdles she faced, she voiced the opinion that, like her athletic body had been “detrimental to the birth” process, her athlete mindset stood in her way of entering the labor and delivery room with open-minded acceptance.
“I had a ‘perfect’ birth plan. I knew that I’m going to go there and I’m not going to push until I’m [dilated to] 10. And then I’m going to have the baby. But it does not work that way. No one told me that.”
As skiers, we’re accustomed to the notion that diligently following a training plan and putting in the work during the build up to a key race will lead to a somewhat predictable outcome: ideally, an optimal performance, or at minimum, an improvement from previous cycles. But for Eliška, this expectation proved to be crippling as she was faced with the realities of her birth experience, which differed greatly from her “plan”.
“That’s how I raced. I trained hard and I did a lot of technique, and then I was the best skier out there because I prepared… If I went there without any plan, I would be so much happier. When they came and said, ‘You have to get the epidural’, I cried. But at that point, I was throwing up every two and a half minutes with pain. When they came and said, ‘He has to come out, we have to do a C-section,’ I totally lost it.
“So that’s kind of what I would do differently next time. Now knowing that, you know, birth really messes people up. It’s not this perfect thing that just happens.”
Stay tuned for part 2, discussing Eliška’s postpartum recovery, return to coaching, and year one on the road to competitions with baby in tow.
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646