Olympic mountain biker Catharine Pendrel enjoys balance of competition, motherhood

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Set to compete in her fourth Olympics — her first as a mother — Catharine Pendrel, who resides in Kamloops, B.C., has closely watched Mandy Bujold and Kim Gaucher's battle with the IOC. (Tara Copeland/CBC - image credit)
Set to compete in her fourth Olympics — her first as a mother — Catharine Pendrel, who resides in Kamloops, B.C., has closely watched Mandy Bujold and Kim Gaucher's battle with the IOC. (Tara Copeland/CBC - image credit)

As a two-time world champion and Olympic bronze medallist there aren't many things in the world of mountain bike racing that are new to Catharine Pendrel.

But as the 40-year-old Pendrel prepares to compete in her fourth Olympics — her first as a mother — her five-month-old daughter Dara has become a priority.

"I definitely feel it is different. On the bike, I'm able to focus and do what I need to do but it is harder to get into the smaller details when you get home, you're pulled in a lot of different directions," she says. "But I think for me, especially at this point in my career, it's really nice to have that balance in my life. That's not all about the bike."

As a new mother, Pendrel has been watching the stories of Canadian boxer Mandy Bujold and basketball player Kim Gaucher very closely.

Originally it looked like Bujold, an 11-time national champion, would not be going to Tokyo. Due to the pandemic, the Olympic qualifications were revised and Bujold was unable to compete during the new time period because of her pregnancy.

Gaucher considered skipping the Games after IOC officials said she would be unable to bring her recently-born baby to Japan in order to continue breastfeeding.

Last week, both athletes were able to claim victory as Tokyo organizers ruled Olympians could bring newborns to the Games, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that Bujold was indeed qualified to box at the Olympics.

Catharine Pendral/Instagram
Catharine Pendral/Instagram

Pendrel says Gaucher had actually reached out to her for advice and guidance before going public with her fight.

"When I was pregnant and still thinking about if I could make it to Tokyo, I was wondering what that was going to look like, and just knowing how regulated the games are. We knew we had to plan for the inevitability that maybe Dara wouldn't be able to come with me to the Olympics," Pendrel recalls.

Pendrel says she contemplated staying home from Tokyo because of her role as a new mother.

"It was very early in having a child and being forced to think about the decision, that that might mean I can't also be an Olympian. And that's a tough position to make. People have to choose that. It's been really inspiring to see these women like Kim really fighting."

IOC decision arrives too late for Pendrel

In the end, Pendrel says the IOC decision to allow athletes to bring their babies to Tokyo came too late for her family. Instead her husband and daughter will spend some time with their grandparents in B.C. while she competes in Tokyo.

She says it's unfortunate that IOC officials didn't contemplate this scenario much sooner, especially since more and more Olympic athletes continue to be at the top of their sports after having children. She says it's clear there is a long way to go when it comes to actualizing the rhetoric around women maintaining their careers while having a family.

"It feels like [female athletes] are behind the eight ball and it's 2021 and these things should just be a given with breastfeeding and infants," Pendrel says. "I know the Japanese government and the IOC are trying really hard to make sure that it is a COVID-safe environment but things as simple as breastfeeding an infant get lost in that.

"It's not that difficult to make those adaptations so that women can compete at the highest level. I know at least three moms [who] have babies this year that are at the Olympics."

As a four-time Olympian, Pendrel will lead Canada's largest-ever Olympic cycling team.

Cycling Canada announced its 23 nominated athletes today in road, track, mountain bike and BMX. The list includes potential medallists like road racer Michael Woods, who is competing in his second Games, and first-time Olympians including BMX racer James Palmer.

"My first reaction was relief. The past few years trying to get to this point have been tiring, exhausting and stressful," the 26-year-old Palmer told CBC Sports. "It's been fun too, but to finally see all of the hard work pay off was just a huge relief."

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