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Marathons, heroic rescues, halftime shows — here’s some of the incredible things pregnant women have done

Beyoncé, Rihanna and Serena Williams and countless others have pushed themselves during pregnancy. (Photos: Getty)

Earlier this month Rihanna commanded the attention of 113 million people around the world at the 2023 Super Bowl, using the moment in the spotlight to subtly announce her second pregnancy. She sang from high platforms, aced her modified low-impact dance routine and gave new meaning to do-it-all mama. For pregnant women who have been told to do less, slow down and focus on being a sacred vessel, the singer’s hugely public performance was refreshing.

“Rihanna, with all her grace, athleticism and growing belly, proves that a pregnant person has very few limitations, if they are thoughtful and in good physical condition,” says Dr. Sherry Ross, an OB/GYN at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.

And the superstar isn’t alone in powering through a pregnancy. Below, a round-up of some of the incredible feats women have achieved while pregnant — and a reminder that it’s also totally OK to not do those things.

Hitting the stage

In June 2011, Beyoncé — a rare female headliner for the British music festival’s coveted main stage — performed to adoring crowds at Glastonbury, dancing her heart out in a glittering gold blazer worn over a bodysuit. It wasn’t until a couple of months later, at the MTV Video Music Awards that August, that fans realized she did it while secretly pregnant. At the end of her VMAs performance, the singer paused to unbutton her jacket and rub her pregnant belly, revealing to the world that she and husband Jay-Z were going to be parents. Daughter Blue Ivy was born a few months later, in January 2012, followed by twins Rumi and Sir in 2017.

Going the distance

Runner Cathy Huang didn’t realize she was pregnant when she ran the Boston Marathon in the fall of 2021, completing the 26.2 mile run in three hours and 42 minutes. By the time the 2022 Boston Marathon came around the following April, she was 32 weeks along. This time, Huang — who altered her training ahead of the race — finished in just over four hours.

“For a lot of women, when you get pregnant, the first thing they tell us is you can’t do this, you can’t do that. And I wanted to be able to keep running if my body allowed me to because I wanted to stay healthy throughout the pregnancy,” she told Boston.com.

Running a country

New Zealand may have a message for the world when it comes to women and mothers holding public office. In 2018 Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s third female prime minister, became the world’s second elected woman leader to give birth while head of state (the late Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan was the first, 28 years earlier). Ardern was also the first world leader to take maternity leave.

Dominating the tennis court

In the lead-up to the Australian Open in January 2017, Serena Williams took a pregnancy test to disprove a friend’s suspicions that she might be having a baby. After feeling her “heart drop” — and taking more tests to confirm — when seeing the positive result, Williams decided to play anyway. She ended up winning, defeating sister Venus to pick up yet another Grand Slam title.

Playing hero

At five months pregnant, Alyssa DeWitt was swimming in Lake Michigan in 2021 with her three children when she noticed a group of three girls in trouble. Because nobody else was around, DeWitt had no choice but to step up, ushering her own kids out of the water and saving the girls. “They were literally drowning in front of my eyes, and there was not one person on that side of the beach I could scream to for help,” she told the Independent. She credited going into “mama bear mode” for the save.

Going for gold

While competing in the London Olympics in 2012, beach volleyball player Kerry Walsh Jennings noticed she had more moodiness than usual, but just chalked it up to stress from the games. But her volleyball partner, Misty May-Treanor, guessed that she was pregnant, which turned out to be right. Jennings was five weeks pregnant with her third child when she won her third gold medal, telling Today later that husband Casey Jennings jokes that she gets a baby for her gold medal.

Just making it through the day

Pregnant women needn’t feel like they have to overcome nausea, mood swings, pelvic pain, backaches and sleepless nights to live up to these superhuman-seeming moments some moms achieved in pregnancy. Keeping up with family life and work is plenty heroic enough, says Dr. Beth Oller, a family physician in Stockton, Kan., who has delivered babies for various patients, including one woman determined to keep her busy veterinarian practice bustling until going into labor.

“She was still out delivering calves, doing surgeries on cows in the field and everything in between up until she delivered,” says Oller, who admits she too has felt compelled to work up until delivery, to ensure a smooth transition for her own patients.

“However, with my patients, I try to tell them to ‘do what I say, not what I did,'” she adds. “I encourage my patients to take time off and slow down at the end of the pregnancy if you need to. I also try to work with them on a plan for how long they’re going to take off, and encourage them to take off as long as they can.” In the end, she notes, every pregnant woman is different and there’s no “one size fits all” approach to ambition in pregnancy.

She says, “I encourage women to not be afraid to examine and differentiate between what they want to do, and what they feel that external factors are telling them they should do, and make their decisions based on that.”

Adds , a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in perinatal mental health, “A woman has the right to choose what is right for her body. If rest is right, then she should rest. If achievement is what is right, then she should achieve … Rihanna chose what was right for her, her career and her pregnancy.”

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