Feature | Skeleton

Elisabeth Maier is showing the world how to 'Slide Like a Mother'

After a difficult pregnancy, the Canadian reveals how she has returned better than ever and why she wants to settle some unfinished business at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

By Andrew Binner ·

Skeleton racer Elisabeth Maier has found her new why.

Despite winning 11 World Cup medals and bronze at the 2015 World Championships, the Canadian often felt like her career lacked purpose.

But that all changed on Christmas Eve 2019, when she gave birth to baby Hendrix in Austria where she lives with her husband, two-time Olympian bobsledder Benjamin Maier.

Things were far from easy for her as a tough Caesarean section delivery was followed by Hendrix contracting meningitis during the coronavirus pandemic.

Given that Maier (formerly Vathje) had earlier lost her place in the Canadian team due to the pregnancy, these difficulties could have persuaded her to retire.

But the 26-year-old had other ideas.

Motivated by the desire to show other mothers that giving birth doesn’t necessarily mean giving up the thing you love, she returned to the sport.

After months of hard work, she reclaimed her place in the Canadian World Cup team at trials in October.

Ahead of her return to competition in Innsbruck on 11 December, Olympic Channel caught up with Maier to chat about her difficult journey back, her ambition to win gold at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and much more.

READ: 2020/21 bobsleigh and skeleton season preview

Elisabeth Maier celebrates winning the 3rd place overall in the 2017-2018 World Cup Skeleton in Koenigssee, Germany.

Tough pregnancy

As an international skeleton athlete, it is perhaps unsurprising that Maier wanted to stay active while she was pregnant.

She did core engagement exercises, some light weightlifting and as much running as her morning sickness would allow.

However, because of these strengthening exercises, her baby didn’t drop to where he needed to be, and the situation became serious.

“I was induced for six days and water broke on day three,” the Calgary native told Olympic Channel.

“They put me on heavy medication to try to induce labour even more which didn't work. It was just super painful for three hours.

“I decided that C-section is the way to go because the doctor thought that either my hips were too small and Hendrix would never have made it through.

“So we went up to the operating room, delivered Hendrix an hour later, and sure enough, my hips were far too small and I would have never been able to give birth naturally. So thankfully, there's modern medicine because had that not been the case, I would not have been so lucky and neither would Hendrix.”

But just as life started to settle down and Maier began light training again, disaster struck.

In April, Hendrix was diagnosed with meningitis and admitted to the Intensive Care Unit of an Austrian hospital.

Given the additional threat of contracting coronavirus, the situation caused considerable stress for the Maiers.

"Only one parent was allowed in the ICU at a time and, as my German isn’t that good, we decided Benjamin would stay first.

"I just sat on a park bench in the middle of Innsbruck having no idea what's going on and just crying because I was terrified.

"On day four in the hospital, they had to test his blood again. I consider myself to be a relatively strong person, but I struggled to hold him down so that they could take blood as he was screaming and thrashing and everything like that. I would never wish that upon my worst enemy.”

Sliding like a mom

As Hendrix's condition improved, Maier started to get back to training.

"I walked up and down stairs for hours, sideways, backwards, forwards, whatever. It was mind-numbing!" she said.

But progress was rapid and it wasn’t long before she was undertaking full gym and sprinting sessions.

Keen to make the most of every second, Maier even incorporated Hendrix into some of the workouts!

Maier decided to document her comeback story towards the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics on her website ‘Slide Like a Mother’.

“I think I struggled a little bit with my why, prior to giving birth, in my skeleton career.

“I love the Olympics and there was the goal to get a medal, but not much else. But now, I want to inspire my son to chase after his dreams.

“Secondly, I want to inspire moms worldwide to chase after their goals, because I think a lot of the time they get put on the backburner as soon as you have a baby. And that's great because sometimes the dream is to be a mom. But then there's also women that want to go back to school or want to go back into the workforce or in my case, try to chase an Olympic medal. And I want them to say, ‘Well, if she can do it, why can't I?’”

“There are actually a few moms on tour now, and on top of representing our countries, we're representing moms too which is pretty cool.”

Maier’s website has also highlighted her treatment by the Canadian federation.

When she first announced her pregnancy, she claims that instead of being supported in her journey back to competition, she was discarded.

"I was always an athlete that got some funding in the past due to my results and my Olympic potential," Maier revealed. "But in my federation, injury and pregnancy are considered the same thing.”

“Despite being the top finisher at the World Championships, I was taken off the Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton website as soon as I announced my pregnancy, and I struggled to get my maternity leave funding because I was not going to travel to Canada from Austria in my third trimester.

"In my own federation itself, I'm definitely a lone wolf, trying to break down those barriers in front of me.”

Jacqueline Loelling (left, silver), Lizzy Yarnold (centre, gold) and Elisabeth Maier (right, bronze) celebrate at the 2015 World Cup in Winterberg.

Leaning on Elana Meyers Taylor

One of the other sliding mums making her way back to competition is American bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor.

The three-time Olympic medallist also had her baby, Nico, by C-section. He was diagnosed with Down syndrome shortly after.

Maier and Meyers Taylor were already close friends from the tour, and have supported each other on the journey back to the ice.

“It'll be really great for Nico and Hendrix to be spending time together on tour together because they're only two months apart. It's kind of cool to walk this journey together,” Maier said.

But a stark difference between the journeys of Maier and Taylor comes in the reaction of their national federations.

“Elana was really supported. There were press releases, and the United States Bobsled Skeleton Federation was super excited for Elena,” Maier said.

“She's a two-time world champion, three-time Olympic medallist, and they wanted her skills back in the sled.

“I ended up with a lawyer trying to get my maternity leave funding. Of course, I'm happy for her that she didn’t have to deal with what I had to deal with.

"I hope Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton can kind of give their heads a bit of a shake and help athletes more in the future.”

Elana MEYERS TAYLOR

United States of America
Bobsleigh
See More

Number of medals

3 Olympic medals

2
1

Olympic Games

3 Olympic Games

Rule changes to support mothers

Perhaps due to Maier’s story, things appear to be changing for the better.

In October 2020, the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation announced that athletes who missed a season due to giving birth will be able to return to competition without re-qualifying.

Essentially this means that athletes are being encouraged to return to the sport after having children.

The only snag for Maier is that the ruling will come into place after the Beijing 2022 Olympics, meaning that she will not benefit from it this time round.

“My pregnancy meant that we (Canada) lost a World Cup spot and an Intercontinental Cup spot. So we went from six national team places to four. Then both of our pregnant athletes returned, so now we have seven athletes fighting for four spots,” she revealed.

“Had this rule been put in now, we would have had seven athletes for six spots so a totally different scenario, different situation. I'm thankful that the IBSF is bringing that in, but it’s just too little, too late, unfortunately for us."

Returning to set a Canadian record

Despite getting less than four hours of sleep per night, dealing with hormonal boosts from breastfeeding and the additional pressures of looking after Hendrix, Maier is in the form of her life.

I just got back from two or three weeks in Whistler where we did the Canadian trials for the team and I had to re-earn my spot,” she continued.

“I had to compete with girls who didn’t take a year off, didn't have major surgery. I definitely got a little banged up for the first few weeks, but I ended up winning the first race and getting a Canadian record."

With Canada’s decision not to send bobsleigh and skeleton athletes over to Europe for the season due to COVID-19, Maier - whose permanent base is in Austria - will be her nation’s sole competitor at the World Cup events in Innsbruck.

"I really hope people can see what moms can do, and that we should support them because I think moms are pretty powerful."

Less than a year after giving birth, Maier is back to full fitness.

Unfinished business at Beijing 2022 Olympics

Maier was in red-hot form heading into the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics.

She had just finished third overall in the World Cup and was well fancied to make the podium in Korea.

However, a sled malfunction meant that her first run was well below what she was capable of.

“I was super bummed and kicking myself,” she recalled.

“I met with a coach from a different nation who then got right up in my face, telling me repeatedly that I had messed up and berating me for about five minutes. All my own coach did was agree with him.

“I had to physically remove myself from the situation and now, in addition to my mistakes on the track, I had no confidence.

“My strength and conditioning coach was able to help me re-group through lying down and breathing, and I put down the fastest run of the second heat.

The next day, Maier’s third run was error-strewn before she re-grouped once more to put down the second fastest time of the fourth and final run to leave her in ninth overall.

She said, "So 50 percent of my race was Olympic-medal winning, 50 percent not.

"It took a while for me to regroup. I was mad at my Olympic experience, and that I didn't show what I'm capable of there.”

Maier finished a disappointing ninth at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics.

Harnessing the power of mindfulness

After taking a break from the sport to get married and have Hendrix, Maier decided to improve her mental game.

She started practising mindfulness with her sports psychologist in order to block out any distractions that could come her way again.

“It’s just another tool in the toolbox,” she said. “If something like what happened at the last Olympics happens again, it's not going to completely throw me off, and I’ll be in the best situation possible to fight for a medal.”

“I want to definitely finish my Olympic story differently than when I went there the first time.”

Asked what she feels she’s capable of doing in Beijing, her answer was automatic:

I’m going for gold!” she said with a smile.

Maier has been on a roller-coaster journey since the last Olympics, both physically and emotionally.

But those trials and tribulations have helped her become an even better athlete than she was before - a point proven by her recent Canadian record.

With Hendrix in her corner and the experience of having already been to a Games, the skeleton world had better watch out for this sliding mother.

events

4 - 20 Feb 2022

Beijing 2022 | Olympic Games

China