For Keesja Gofers, mum guilt is real! In many ways, being a professional athlete and a mum don’t work in sync. As an athlete, you prioritise your recovery, your sleep, and your nutrition; but when you bring a little person into the mix, what you want goes out the window – You work to their schedule. 

Keesja quashes any negative self-talk or mum guilt by knowing that she is setting a great example for her daughter by pursuing her professional dreams. 

Can you tell us about your journey into motherhood and how it intersected with your athletic career? 

The first 20 weeks I suffered from extreme nausea and vomiting. During this time, doing normal daily activities like walking my dog around the block was difficult. I had salty snacks with me everywhere I went because getting hungry was the ultimate no no! I carried a Tupperware container with me, which came in use many times when nausea and the residual vomit hit. During the first 18 weeks, I didn’t compete or train with anywhere near the usual intensity, but I did manage to do my rehab exercises regularly, do pilates and go for very slow swims, which may not seem like a lot but at the time was a huge achievement for me. 

Another reason I didn’t train was because of anxiety. Before Teleri was born (we call her T), I was pregnant and had a miscarriage at 15 weeks. With T, I was extremely anxious to play games. Water Polo is a contact sport, however, I was cleared to play games and I know many woman do in these early stages. It is safe given the position of the fetus. For me, I was more comfortable not being involved in contact in any way for my entire pregnancy. 

I was very lucky at 22 weeks that my sickness symptoms subsided and while I was anxious the entire pregnancy, I started feeling kicks regularly soon after this. I returned to Water Polo training sessions working with my coaches to ensure temperature and heart rate never exceeded a certain limit and avoiding all contact. During the second half of my pregnancy I felt really good. I loved being in the water, it was my happy place, I felt light and weightless. 

I trained right up to the day of Teleri’s birth – she was born 21st March 2023. 

What was your journey back into elite-level form and what motivated your return?

I have had amazing support in my journey back to elite-level form. My homebase is NSWIS and my coaches there, Bec Rippon and Jacki Northam, have worked closely with medical support staff, including my women’s health physio. Water Polo Australia has also done everything they can to support my return. But without a doubt, I could not have done this with the unrelenting support of my husband and my mum. 

My daughter is my motivation. Recently, I brought T to the AIS for a national team camp and having my daughter see and be around the inspiring, strong female athletes day in and day out, cemented that it has been the right decision. Women/mothers should have the choice to go after their goals. I am lucky enough to have the support to do that. 

Did you encounter any unique challenges, obstacles or barriers as a mother returning to competition and how did you navigate them? 

In a lot of ways, being an athlete and a mum doesn’t work together. As an athlete, you prioritise your recovery, your sleep, and your nutrition – you prioritise yourself. When you bring a little person into the mix, what you want goes out the window! You’re on their schedule now. 

I can remember days when T didn’t want to sleep during the day (we’d get 45 minutes total and it was in a moving pram), and all I wanted was to take a nap too. Water Polo training, as an amateur sport, happens around work hours. So before I rejoined the national team I was doing 5am starts and training that finished at 9pm. When I got extremely tired, I had to ask for more help. In retrospect, I tried to “do it all” for much too long. 

Leaving T was and remains hard due to mum guilt. My first major competition was in Doha for the World Championships and T didn’t come with me. It was an 18-day long tour, and prior to this I hadn’t spent one night away for her, which was tough. My husband moved in with his parents to make it work. T was only 10 months old at the time and safe to say she wasn’t too invested in our FaceTime conversations for longer than 20 seconds. My way to navigate it was to get lots of photos and videos, and send videos of myself singing T’s favourite tunes (these videos will never see the light of day!). 

During your journey back into elite-level form, have there been instances where you have been pleasantly surprised? 

Yes! I’ve been an elite athlete for longer than I can remember, which means physical gains can be weeks, months or even years apart; or some so minor you don’t really notice. Returning to elite level form postpartum, physical gans, like being able to hold a plank or do a sit up was rewarding. 

Seeing my team with my baby is one of the best things, which is also a highlight. She absolutely loves them and they love her. 

I’ve also made connections with other athletes who are on a similar journey and am so inspired by them. One of which is another Bellamy’s ambassador, Alyce Wood! 

Can you share any strategies you used to manage stress or maintain resilience during this demanding time? 

I do get strength from my ‘Why’ – which is showing my daughter that tough things are able to be overcome. I also like to set small goals. When I was completely sleep deprived, the goal was to get up with the alarm (sometimes at 5am) and get to the pool. Once I’m there, then I give all that I have to give. I figure, even if I feel below my best, if I give as much as I can then that’s my 100% for that day. 

I definitely try to enjoy my time at home with family and friends, as well as make sure that T gets some adventures in when we have downtime. She loves the aquarium, the zoo and messy play. 

What does your weekly training schedule look like? 

Monday’s, Tuesday’s, Thursday’s and Fridays comprise 4.5 hours of pool sessions, and an hour in the gym. Wednesdays and Saturdays comprise a 2.5 hour pool session. Sunday is for rest.. 

How has your experience as a mother influenced your approach to training and competition?

She’s is my engine to be better every day as an athlete and as a mum. Watching T learn skills in front of my eyes has been one of the most delightful things I have experienced. The best part is how determined she is. When she was learning to walk, she fell down again and again. That’s what I think of when I make a mistake in the pool – and like Michael Jordan said, “I have failed again and again and that is why I succeed”. Babies embody this, they don’t stop till they get it! 

I think in the scheme of things, as competitive as I am, and my drive to win a Gold Medal for my country is my obsession, having T as an anchor to reality has been great. When we have lost an important match, or I don’t think I have had my best game, I know that I have the most wonderful little girl to look forward to seeing and getting a hug from. I also know that no matter the result, that little girl needs her mum, and it is really important to me that I bring my best self to her. In elite sport, by its nature you have to be quite selfish in your pursuit – so having T has helped me have a bit of perspective there and help me put other people first, not only T, but seeing when my teammates are struggling a bit and how I might be able to help them rather than just focus on myself. 

In what ways do you think your experiences as a mother have enriched your athletic career?

I think when I look at the totality of my career and what I have been able to achieve, being able to return to the level I am at and have my daughter be a part of it is so special to me. Our sport is one of the hardest in the world in my opinion, and to know that on top of that I was able to get back with my daughter in tow, is an amazing feeling. 

What is your stance on the sporting industry and their support of professional athlete mothers? 

There has definitely been headway in this space, but we can do more. If I didn’t have the incredible support of my husband, my mum and dad, and my husband’s parents, this would not be possible for us. 

Logistical challenges include daycare hours that do not align with training hours and that babysitters don’t come with a government subsidy. Basically, everything about how our sport operates doesn’t really work with how childcare is set up. Probably the biggest challenge beyond this, is in order for all the girls to really chase the dream of playing for Australia and being a team capable of winning an Olympic medal, we can’t have full-time jobs, which means getting consistent income is near impossible. For our family, that means on top of having a child, we have to pay our mortgage, babysitters, daycare etc with my ‘return to work’ not providing me a full time salary. This is almost the case in every single Olympic sport – especially for women! 

I also believe it is my responsibility to be visible. Other athletes can see that they can start a family and continue to pursue their athletic goals, if they want to. I am a strong believer in the expression, “if you see it you can be it.” 

What advice can you give to working mums of young children when it comes to the internal tug of war – competing priorities between career and family? 

Mum guilt is real. I can only speak to my own experience, but the way I see it is that by doing what I am doing, that my daughter will have a role model that she is proud of when she is old enough to understand what I have done. It really does take a village to raise a child, so I know, when I am not there, that my village of people is doing a great job looking after her and letting her know how loved and cared for she is. 

What do you believe are the most significant values that the Olympics promote, and how do you embody them, especially since becoming a mum? 

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.” This was said by the founder of the modern games, Pierre de Coubertin and I think my journey back into sports as a mum really embodies that. I desperately want to win an Olympic medal – I can’t push that enough – but by taking part, I am hopefully showing Teleri and other female athletes that sport and family don’t have to be exclusive to each other and that if you have a goal and a dream, you can make it happen. 

How do you inspire children and young athletes to pursue their dreams in sports while maintaining a healthy lifestyle? 

I love what I do. I love playing Water Polo. I love being a mum. It doesn’t mean that I love every single moment, but every day there is at least one moment that I do love. Being an elite athlete can be grueling. The same with being a mum, it can be tough. But at the end of the day, find a moment that you loved, where you felt proud of yourself, where you felt joy, where you laughed with your friend at training, where you made an improvement on your time, or nailed a skill. Find those moments, remember them. When it is tough, go back to those. That’s why you do it. 

Can you share any specific strategies or initiatives you have for time poor parents to adopt healthier habits? 

Plan ahead. People, especially parents, have to make so many decisions every day, it can be exhausting. I plan ahead as much as I can, whether it is packing my training bag the night before or writing out my schedule for the week and getting some meals ready in advance. It has helped me stay on top of the decisions I was making around food, because I wasn’t making them with limited options (like at a food court) or already hungry and tired. 

After T was born when I was starting to get back into general exercise, like mums and bubs pilates, it can be so much easier to just not go. But it got easier and easier to get out the door. Of course, there were some hiccups along the way! 

Fitness can be social. You can go to interact and engage with other people, strangers or friends. Outside of Water Polo, I like to organising catch up with friends where we do pilates or go for a walk or some form of exercise and then get a coffee. 

Be kind to yourself. You’re going to make mistakes for whatever reason – skip a session, make poor food choices. When I was younger, for me this meant the whole day, maybe the whole week, was a “rid off”. But it’s really not. It’s being human. Give yourself a break and try again next time. 

How has motherhood influenced your perspective on nutrition and maintaining fitness levels?

Teleri has food allergies. As someone who doesn’t have any intolerances and likes to eat basically anything, my eyes were opened to how difficult it can be to have a nutritious diet, especially to eat on the go, when you have limitations. 

Another thing I have learnt since being a mother is the importance of good quality nutrition, ideally organic. If you’re not getting 8+ hours sleep, you need to get your fuel somewhere else to support recovery. Also, I was shocked at how thirsty I was when breastfeeding and training, I would have drunk 5L of water a day! I was always parched! 

Can you share any personal experiences or challenges you’ve faced in ensuring your children have a balanced and nutritious diet? 

When T was 10 weeks old, we were told she had dairy and soy allergies and reflux. These foods caused her incredible amount of pain and she would cry for hours. As I was breastfeeding at the time, I had to avoid dairy and soy as well. This was very challenging, especially when trying to support the nutritional intake needed for high level training and breastfeeding and that soy is in absolutely everything. 

When we first found out, my mum and I spent over two hours at the supermarket checking every label and came out with only 5 things! So for me, planning ahead was crucial. I always had meals and snacks packed because I knew it was hard to get nutritious food on the road. 

Now, with Teleri on solids for about six months, it is challenging because she is limited in what she can and can’t have. Not to mention, the classic mum problem, you spend ages making something, and she throws it on the floor but inhales blueberries and bananas. 

Can you list five things that the Australian public may not know about you?

I have three sisters. One won a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics for Water Polo. One represented Australia in beach Handball and European Handball. And one is the best opera singer you’ve ever heard. My husband, Scott Nicholson, represented Australia at Beach Handball and Water Polo too! 

I’m a florist. When I’m not playing polo, I do weddings, christenings, baby showers and birthdays. Check me out @thefloralarchitect 

We have a dog called Magic, who Teleri is obsessed with. 

I’m studying to be a teacher 

I played my first game of water polo when I was 6, where I filled in for my older sisters’ team who were short players. I spent the entire game near the lane rope and away from anyone else! 

What advice do you have for athletes who are thinking of embarking on starting a family?

My advice for anyone looking to start a family is don’t take on all the advice you are going to get! I was getting advice from everyone, family, friends, even people in the supermarket. It can get overwhelming and what works for one person won’t work for someone else. 

As athletes, we have programmed ourselves to believe the harder I work at something, the more likely I will be to achieve it. With falling pregnant this is simply not the case. For me, this was an incredibly difficult thing to comprehend and to be honest I never really found anything, besides 2 lines on a stick, to deal with this reality. I asked for help, got medical advice, talked to friends, leaned on loved ones, especially Scotty and took space and time when I needed. 

Will your family take the journey to Paris whilst you compete on the world stage?

Our team hasn’t been selected yet, but if I’m successful, my husband, Scott, our baby, Teleri, my mum, Arlene, my sister, Taniele and her partner, Lasse, will all be coming to cheer me on! I have many other important people back home. Including my husband’s parents who will be looking after our doggo, Magic. I have the best support crew in the whole world.

IMAGE CREDITS: Elie Azzi, Social Media Studios | @socialmediastudiosau

@bellamysorganic #bellamysorganic #championparents