‘I take Albie to events because the thought of him waking up without me freaks me out’
Four-time gold medallist Laura Kenny tells Gabrielle Fagan about how she balances motherhood and cycling and why people need to be more careful when getting out of their cars.
With four Olympic gold medals, Laura Kenny is Britain’s most successful female Olympian. It’s a remarkable achievement for a woman who was born four weeks early with a collapsed lung, spent her first six weeks in intensive care and her childhood battling permanent chest infections due to asthma.
Advised to take up sport to improve her health, she defied the odds and went on to win two track cycling gold medals at the 2012 London Olympics, and two more at the Rio games in 2016.
The 26-year-old, who’s married to fellow track cyclist Jason Kenny, also got back into competing only six months after having their son, Albert, who is now 10 months old.
Here, she talks about how motherhood has changed her life, and why she’s more relaxed than ever before.
How has having your son changed you?
It’s completely changed both Jason and me. Becoming parents has made us realise there’s more to life than just bike riding. It’s totally altered our perspective and made us see everything in a completely different light — now we don’t stress about small, unimportant things.
We’re more relaxed than we’ve ever been before, because there can’t be a strict plan now Albie’s here. He’s the priority. If he was ill or I felt he needed me when I had a training session, it would be his needs first.
I still really care about training, though. As an athlete, every time you put your leg over your bike, you care about it — because it’s too hard to do half-heartedly.
Do you have the same struggles with a young baby as any other mum?
Of course, we’re a normal family. Albie’s an absolute nightmare about sleeping. He wakes up every couple of hours throughout the night, which is exhausting. I usually take him into a different room and co-sleep with him.
Some people criticise co-sleeping and say you should leave him to cry, but I can’t bear to leave him crying for even 30 seconds.
Every morning, Jase takes Albie off for two hours while I catch up on sleep. He’s an unbelievable dad — we share the parenting 50/50, so he does the cooking while I look after Albie.
Did you consider retiring when you became a mum?
No, I knew I’d be a working mum. Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill really inspired me — she returned to the track after having her son.
But it was hard getting fit again after I’d given birth.
I’d gone from competing in the 2016 Rio Olympics, where I was probably the fittest I’d ever been, to being pregnant and six months away from training.
I’d never really had a break before. My body definitely didn’t just snap back to peak fitness, so it was tough initially, but I’ve regained my strength far quicker than I expected.
Winning silver in the Women’s Team Pursuit in the World Championships in the Netherlands really vindicated my decision to come back.
Albie was there, looked after by my parents and Jason, which made it even more special. That success showed me that sacrificing time with Albie was worthwhile and that I was on track again with my career.
You’ve said you suffer from ‘mum guilt’ when you have to leave your son. How do you cope with that?
Tweeting about it really helped because people told me to think about how proud Albie would eventually be of his mum and dad.
It’s still really hard leaving him when I go to training, as I’m away for around five hours. I’ve taken him abroad for events, even though it breaks his routine, because I haven’t been able to leave him for a night yet. The thought of him waking up and wanting a cuddle, and me not being there, really freaks me out.
Has having a baby affected your sporting performance?
Oddly, I think it’s helped improve my performance. I always used to get very nervous before competing, not in the velodrome, but in the days before. Now I’m so busy looking after Albie that nerves are becoming a thing of the past.
Recently, I was in the shower before a race and my dad was looking after Albie. Through the door, I could hear him saying, ‘Albie, don’t eat the toilet paper’. Even just laughing at small moments like that distracts me from getting tense and worrying about things like I did before.
Are you still just as ambitious to achieve your sporting goals?
Totally. Although I’m the most successful female Olympian, I want to go even further. I want to be on the all-time list — not just the female list.
My goal is the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, so although we want more children eventually, we won’t be having any more before that.
Albie’s made me even more driven because I really want to inspire him, not necessarily to follow in our footsteps, but to lead an active, healthy life. He already has his first bike without pedals.
You suffer from asthma and acid reflux - are those conditions hard to deal with?
I think I’ve outgrown the asthma — I don’t use inhalers anymore. I get acid reflux, which makes me sick after exercise. I feel like my head’s going to explode. It’s annoying.
How do you look after your wellbeing?
I try to enjoy every moment of life because it passes so quickly. Being with my family, who just treat me as ‘Laura’, and not as some sporting superstar, helps to keep my feet on the ground. Being with Jase, Albie and our two dogs is the perfect way to relax and unwind.
Why are you campaigning about preventing accidents to cyclists from car-dooring?
Car-dooring is a real problem. It’s down to the fact that people don’t look and are too quick to get out of the car. I’ve had a few near-misses myself. Luckily, I’ve not been injured, but people in my cycling team have been hit — one had broken ribs. Addison Lee’s research found 65% of people either knew somebody who’d been hit by a car door or had been hit by a car door themselves.
Laura Kenny has launched the ‘Addison Lean’, which encourages drivers and passengers to use the hand furthest away from the car door to open it, to help spot oncoming cyclists. Visit addisonlee.com for more information.