Prior to the 1950s, cultural norms (supported by the medical establishment) reinforced the notion that pregnant women were quasi-invalids, in a fragile state of health that required avoidance of fatigue, overexertion, and much physical or mental activity beyond “light housework.” As the science has advanced, with a few exceptions, it supports the idea that most pregnant women are able to partake in the same activities and work they pursued before they were expecting.
For the women in our list below, that meant continuing to excel, accomplishing things that would be impressive by any standard, all while bringing their unborn children along for the ride. Here are the amazing things these pregnant women did…
10. Ran a Marathon
Running a marathon while pregnant – showing an impressive ability to field two intense physical challenges simultaneously – isn’t that unusual. Elite distance runners often train while pregnant. However, Amber Miller’s 2011 Chicago Marathon stands out even amongst those of other expecting marathoners. Miller, an avid runner, had previously twice completed marathons while pregnant—at 17 and 18 weeks along. But for the Chicago Marathon, which she had registered for days before she learned of her pregnancy, Miller was almost 39 weeks along. With the permission of her doctor, and pursuing a slow walk-run pace, Miller decided to play it by ear and see how far she could go. As Miller explained, “I was feeling really good… so I just kind of kept on going,” all the way to the finish line, though she took almost 3 hours more than her typical marathon times to do so. Shortly after reaching the finish, Miller felt her first contractions.
Hours after finishing the marathon, Miller completed her second physical feat of what had to feel like a VERY long day—giving birth to a healthy baby, daughter June, who weighed in at 7 pounds, 13 ounces. “The race was definitely easier than labor,” according to Miller, who also noted, “We are extremely happy, but very tired.”
9. Won a National Golf Tournament
Fore? Actually, five. That’s how many months pregnant golfer Catriona Matthew was when she won the HSBC LPGA Brazil Cup. Matthew finished the 36-hole exhibition tournament, which offered a $500,000 purse, with an impressive 6-under 138. Interviewed after her win, Matthew suggested her pregnancy had not impacted her stamina. “When you play well you don’t feel tired,” Matthew noted. “Maybe tomorrow I will feel it a bit.” Matthew went on to compete in another tournament the following month, before she took a break from competition until after the birth of her daughter, Sophie.
While Matthew took some time off late in her pregnancy and shortly after giving birth, she quickly returned to top form, hitting the gym five weeks after giving birth and returning to the golf course. Just eleven weeks after welcoming Sophie, her second child, Matthew won the British Open. Some suggested that the physical effects of pregnancy had actually boosted Matthew’s performance, but Matthew attributed her postpartum excellence on the course to taking a short break from golf during her maternity leave and returning to the game “mentally fresh.”
8. Swam the English Channel
Swimming the English Channel is a grueling physical challenge. Even if the tides are in your favor, it’s at least a 21-mile distance in water with a peak temperature of 61 degrees. You’ll likely be dodging jellyfish, driftwood, and the 800-odd ships and tankers that traverse the Channel, which is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, on a daily basis. The best swimmers (in the most favorable tides) can finish in a little over 7 hours, but some finishers have taken more than 26 hours to complete the swim. As of March 2018, the Channel Swimming Association, which keeps records of Channel crossings, had logged fewer than 1,500 successful solo swims since 1875.
One of those successful channel crossings was by American Regan Scheiber, who swam from England to France in 2001 in 9 hours, 30 minutes, the fastest woman to cross the Channel that year. Scheiber, who had been swimming since she was 9, attaining success during her collegiate and post-collegiate swimming careers, accomplished her lifelong dream of swimming the Channel on her first attempt. Making Scheiber’s feat even more impressive is that she was 11 weeks pregnant at the time, a factor Scheiber said didn’t worry her, explaining, “It just basically made me really tired.” After completing her endeavor, Scheiber, a pastry chef, surprised her mother with a cake… and with the news of her pregnancy. The icing on the cake Scheiber presented to her mom spelled out, “Congratulations, your grandchild just swam the English Channel.”
7. Played Wonder Woman
Gal Gadot has balanced her beautiful exterior with her physical toughness for all of her adult life. After being crowned Miss Israel, and launching a modeling career, Gadot stepped back from the glam life to complete her mandatory two years of service in the Israeli Army. There, she did so well in boot camp that she became a combat instructor.
This trajectory seems like an apt one for a woman who would later be cast as Wonder Woman, first in Batman vs. Superman and later in Justice League and her own film, Wonder Woman, which was a box office smash, taking in over $100 million in its opening weekend.
In Wonder Woman, Gadot’s combat prowess is on fully display as she portrays the Amazonian princess, jumping, kicking, and fighting her way through an intense series of battle scenes. What isn’t visible on screen makes Gadot’s performance even more impressive—she was pregnant during the filming of Justice League and during some of the filming of Wonder Woman. Gadot hid her pregnancy on Justice League, which was filmed early in her pregnancy, wearing dark sunglasses and running off to throw up between takes.
However, when doing reshoots for Wonder Woman, Gadot, who was five months pregnant at the time, relied on special effects to keep her pregnancy from showing on screen (a “green screen” type fabric was applied over her baby bump, which was edited to appear as Wonder Woman’s taut stomach in post-production). Gadot was nonchalant about the impact of her pregnancy, saying, “It didn’t hinder the process, I could still do the action stuff and the physical scenes. And now, it’s nice to look at the movie and know that Maya [the daughter Gadot was pregnant with during filming] is in the movie with me in some way. I love that.”
6. Completed an Ironman
An Ironman triathlon, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile run, all completed on the same day, is an exhausting test of human endurance. However, elite triathlon competitor Meredith Kessler was more than prepared to tackle Ironman New Zealand on March 4, 2017, having completed the Ironman 59 times before, and pursuing a regimen of 25-30 hours per week of training in preparation for the race.
Kessler was hoping to achieve a six-peat victory in that Ironman, but faced what she called a “severe lack of stamina that I couldn’t pinpoint at the time,” and contended with nausea that left her vomiting throughout her nine-plus hours completing the Ironman. Kessler still finished third and was “over the moon” when she discovered the reason why she hadn’t felt like herself on the course the day of the competition. Kessler didn’t know it at the time, but she was four weeks pregnant when she finished her 60th Ironman. Kessler, who blogged about her pregnancy journey, continued to train throughout her pregnancy, though she reduced her running distance after the first trimester. After his “running start,” Kessler’s healthy “Ironbaby” was born November 11, 2017.
5. Climbed the North Face of the Eiger
Mountaineer Alison Hargreaves is remembered for several firsts—as the first person to ever solo all the six major north faces of the Alps in a single season, the first woman to solo climb the north face of the Matterhorn, the first woman (and second person ever) to summit Everest without supplemental oxygen or help from a Sherpa team, and as the first British woman to ascend the Eiger’s treacherous North Face.
Climbing the Eiger was Hargreaves’ first notable mountaineering accomplishment, and one she accomplished while six months pregnant with her son, Tom, in 1988. Hargreaves described her decision to tackle the Eiger while pregnant as “quite conservative,” noting, “I had planned a trip up Denali, but my physician said it wouldn’t be wise to go above 12,000 feet—so I went to the Alps instead.” While Hargreaves was criticized for climbing while pregnant, she noted her stomach was still quite flat and she was “pregnant, not sick.”
Hargreaves died 6 years later, along with 5 others in her climbing party, engulfed by a storm as they descended from the summit of K2. Her son, Tom Ballard, inherited his mother’s love of the mountains, becoming the first person to solo climb all six of the north faces of the Alps in winter. Ballard culminated his accomplishment on the North Face of the Eiger, where he had traveled in utero, noting that he believed his mother would have been proud to see him following in her footsteps.
4. Won Olympic Gold
Kerri Walsh Jennings and her partner Misty May-Treanor have often been celebrated as the greatest female beach volleyball pair of all time. They won back-to-back-to-back gold medals in three Olympics, winning 21 consecutive matches and losing only one set. However, at the 2012 London Olympics, another gold wasn’t the only “third” on Walsh Jennings’ mind. Walsh Jennings and her husband, already parents of two, had recently begun trying for a third baby. When her period was late and May-Treanor pointed out that she was probably pregnant, given her recent moodiness, Walsh Jennings realized she had conceived earlier than she had expected.
Walsh Jennings, who was 5 weeks pregnant when she and May-Treanor won their 3rd gold medal, said she started “feeling something,” while competing at the Olympics, but noted that, “Aside from getting me really excited and hopeful, it didn’t change a single thing about what I was doing in London.”
3. Took over and ran a major company
July 16, 2012 was a big day for tech executive Marissa Mayer. Mayer, who had been Google’s 20th employee, was named as Yahoo’s new president and CEO, effective the following day. That news alone would have made headlines, but that same day, Mayer made another surprising announcement—sharing that she was six months pregnant, and expecting a boy.
While the pregnancy was news to the public, Mayer had disclosed it to the Yahoo search committee, prior to her hiring. She noted that the board’s lack of concern about her pregnancy showed “their evolved thinking.”
Mayer was criticized for taking limited maternity leave (2 weeks after she gave birth to her son, less than a month after giving birth to her twin daughters). She defended herself against complaints that she was setting a tough example for other working moms, noting that other parents at Yahoo felt comfortable taking more extended leave, saying, “I understand I am the exception, and need to be… I find other ways/times to bond with my kids.”
2. Won the Australian Open
Serena Williams’ 2017 Australian Open victory, her 7th Australian Open title, was impressive for a number of reasons. First, the win returned her to the No. 1 position in women’s tennis. Secondly, the victory was her 23rd Grand Slam singles title, setting a new Open-era record, and making her the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam title in the Open era. The third reason, which was not publically revealed at the time (and wasn’t even known to Williams’ coach), was that Williams was pregnant when she won.
Williams revealed the news of her pregnancy, perhaps accidentally, 12 weeks later, when she posted a picture of herself on Snapchat, seemingly showcasing a small baby bump, with the caption “20 weeks.” Williams’ reps confirmed the good news shortly thereafter. As the public did the math, they realized that Williams’ Australian Open title, which she won in straight sets, beating her sister in the final, had been earned when she was 8 weeks pregnant. While Williams faced some post-partum complications after her C-section (linked to her history of blood clots), her baby was born healthy and Williams quickly returned to the court, competing in the March 2018 Miami Open.
1. Ran a Country
In mid-October of 2017, New Zealand politician Jacinda Ardern received two pieces of very good news. One immediately made headlines around the world: her party (the Labour Party) was able to form a winning coalition, making her the youngest female Prime Minister in New Zealand’s history, and taking back a seat the National Party had held for nine years prior. The second piece of good news was that, after a history of fertility struggles, Ardern was unexpectedly pregnant. Only Ardern’s partner, Clarke Gayford, and her doctor knew she was pregnant when she was sworn as New Zealand’s leader. The pregnancy was publically announced in January 2018, with Ardern playing down the idea that her pregnancy was special, noting she wouldn’t be the first woman “to work and have a baby,” though she did say that secretly battling morning sickness while forming her government was “awful.”
Ardern was not the first world leader to be pregnant while in office. Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto did so in 1990, returning to work the day after giving birth by C-section. Bhutto’s now-grown daughter Bakhtawar tweeted her congrats to Ardern upon learning another world leader would be following in her mother’s footsteps.