Laura Kenny: ‘I didn’t want gold medals, I wanted a baby’

laura kenny womens health july 2024
Laura Kenny: ‘I wanted a baby, not gold medals'Hearst Owned

When she announced her retirement from cycling in March – four months out from the opening ceremony – Laura Kenny was baffled that so many people cared.

‘I obviously thought it would be on BBC Sport and the news channels, but I guess I totally underestimated how much my career has affected people,’ the five-time Olympic gold medallist tells me, without a hint of affected modesty. ‘There were lots of people… who are like 18, 19, who said, “Oh, we got into cycling then because we watched you in London 2012.”’

On the day we speak – on a Zoom call from Laura’s living room in Cheshire, her sheep sloping past the French doors in the background – it’s six weeks on from that shock announcement.

Only, it wasn’t the fact that the most successful British female Olympian of all time was saying sayonara to the velodrome that captured the public’s attention. It was her reasoning; that, as a mother – Laura and fellow audaciously decorated cyclist Jason Kenny have two sons, Albie, six, and Monty, who turns one in late July – the ‘sacrifice’ she was making to continue her career at the most elite level no longer felt worth it.

laura kenny womens health july 2024
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The sentiment struck a chord, sparking outspoken newspaper columns and lengthy Instagram captions from working mothers who had felt first-hand the tension Laura spoke of; the tension of trying to do it all.

With that decision, then, does Laura think elite sport and early motherhood are incompatible? ‘Well, no. But it comes with sacrifice,’ she begins. ‘And you’ve got to be prepared for a non-perfect build-up… do I think I went into Tokyo absolutely 100% at my best? No, of course I don’t. Because rest days weren’t rest days and any time I was at home, I wasn’t sat on the sofa like Jase and I used to be. I was out on the trampoline, I was playing in the sandpit… So do I think it was harder? Yes. [But] it doesn’t need to be incompatible.’

What did those sacrifices feel like when she was making them? ‘Just heart-wrenching,’ she says, simply. Per Covid-19 rules, she tells me, athletes’ families couldn’t travel with them to the Tokyo Olympics. ‘I’m not really a crier… and the only time that Albie ever remembers Mummy crying is when I had to leave him to go to the Olympics. And it just felt like someone literally ripped my heart out and was just throwing it away. It was awful. I remember messaging Jase when I was in the [Athletes’] Village, just saying, “I hope that I never feel like this again.”’

laura kenny womens health july 2024
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Despite the emotional agony behind the scenes, Laura won silver in the team pursuit and gold in the madison (or relay) events.

Still, things might have been different had Laura’s subsequent pregnancies not been so traumatic. She suffered a miscarriage at nine weeks in November 2021. The following January, she underwent surgery due to an ectopic pregnancy (in which the embryo attaches outside the womb), during which she lost a fallopian tube.

‘I cannot tell you how sad I was for a year to 18 months. I mean, you could ask Jase how I was, I was a different person,’ she says. ‘I just went within myself because it was consuming. And all I wanted was this little baby; I didn’t want gold medals, you know, I didn’t want to go and race in the Commonwealth Games. I wanted a baby. And it just wasn’t happening.’

She recalls the daily temperature checks; the ceaseless questions: ‘Why isn’t this happening for me today? Why is it happening for other people? But what did I do so wrong?’

When, just eight months after her miscarriage, Laura landed silver at the Commonwealth Games, the achievement was cold comfort. ‘I was like, why will [my body] do that and it won’t do the one thing that I just want the most... I felt like I was living in this yin and yang world where you could only have one of them,’ she recalls. ‘And when you’re an athlete who has had so much control over their body for so long, it literally just felt like the carpet had been ripped out from underneath me because all of a sudden I wasn’t in control of it, and there was nothing that I could do.’

The sadness of the picture is such that I enquire if Laura felt she ever tipped into depression during this period. ‘I always feel like these words are thrown around too easily these days,’ she says. ‘Everyone has different ways of explaining and describing how they feel. And I don’t necessarily think putting a label on it is the right thing to do,’ she reflects, before adding, ‘Jase actually said to me – this was maybe when Monty was like three or four months old and we started speaking [about it], because it’s still quite difficult to speak about, the time that we went through – “Do you think you were depressed?”’ It took her by surprise. ‘I’d hate to put a label on myself, but that was the lowest I’ve been – 100%. It was mentally the toughest period of my life.’

Support came from her mum who, only upon learning of her daughter’s sad news, revealed that she too had had a miscarriage. And of course, there was Jason. ‘No one asked him if he was okay, and how he was feeling. And so I guess I totally underestimated how much I was using him and how much I was talking to him and never actually saying, “Jase, are you actually okay yourself?” And it wasn’t until quite a long time after that… he could even tell me how bad it was for him, too.’

laura kenny womens health july 2024
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Laura was determined to return to competing after having Albie – and the ease with which he was conceived and carried allowed this (albeit with training on laughable amounts of sleep, ‘rest days’ that were anything but and some seriously managed expectations). But after the pain and struggle to conceive her second child, she no longer wished to do both. ‘That really changed my mindset,’ she says. ‘I felt so privileged to be able to have been pregnant again and then bring him into the world [that] I was just struggling to leave him. I couldn’t leave him for training sessions because, why would I? All I wanted was him.’

Has she thought about how she might feel watching from the stands, I wonder? ‘We always say, “It’s just another bike race.” And I know the Olympics is a bigger deal to everyone else, but when you go and compete, you are literally just riding your bike again, you’re just doing another bike race.’

laura kenny womens health july 2024
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She’s excited to watch her former colleagues –and make her prime-time punditry debut on BBC Sport. Not that she’s pinning her colours to the mast of a new career just yet. She’s taking her time, figuring out what fits and learning by doing. ‘I’m still in that phase where I’ll say yes to [doing a favour for] the school mum’s group… and I’m like, I haven’t physically got time!’ she laughs and shakes her head.

But for now, she’s cool with the chaos. ‘I just want to try everything and then find the one thing that has my heart again; that I can really throw myself at. And unless I say yes and try things, I’m just not going to know what that is.’ Winning advice, if ever I’ve heard it.

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