Maria Forsberg had won more money and titles in off-road motorcycle racing than any other woman by the time she was 26. She'd been racing for a decade and had won nine national championships, three X Games gold medals, and was the first woman sponsored by KTM Racing. She owned the sport. Then in 2013 she retired to have a child and start a family. She thought she'd never return to the same level of competition. She was wrong.
On Friday night at the X Games in Austin, Forsberg leaves retirement for the Enduro X event, a stadium version of off-road racing. She'll also be joining the small but growing class of professional women athletes that are also moms.
Off-road motorcycle racing, where Forsberg earned her most of her success, is essentially ripping through the forest on tight trails. Bright orange arrows and torn-up soil mark the course that winds tightly between trees, often with enough space for only a single rider. The races, which can last for two hours and are usually laps on a looped trail, are highly physical, nearly as dangerous as any other motorcycle race, and punishing on the body.
"You have to pace yourself," Forsberg says. "It's not like an all-out sprint, because you can't really sprint for two hours."
The Enduro X is the closest version of off-road racing that will fit into an arena. For the short course, riders race over a series of obstacles that include deeply rutted dirt, ramped jumps, troughs of tire-sized boulders, and large puddles of muddy water. Twelve women compete head to head. They crash, they block each other's way, and they jam their bikes in the rocks and bog them in the mud. Racers rely on momentum—the bikes weigh more than 200 pounds—to carry them through most obstacles.
"You'll get your front tire jammed in a rock, and you have to get off and pick [the bike] up to move it out of the tough section," she says. "You can't go into things slow...Speed is always your friend."
An Enduro X race lasts about 12 minutes, with the riders circling the course 6 times. Forsberg won gold in the event in 2011, '12, and '13. But having given birth less than a year ago, the top of the podium isn't necessarily her goal. "I'm just trying X Games for like a starter, really," she says.
Forsberg was never sure she would return to professional motorcycle racing, much less an X Games-level competition. The reality is that the body goes through physical changes during pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. Those changes mean physical challenges for female athletes. Baby-weight, says Forsberg, is not the issue.
"It's how your whole body changes, and your hormones, and how your hips widen," she says. "You have to figure out a whole new body, one you are not used to...I just thought, 'Oh, I'm going to have this kid and I'm going to be back at the gym the next day, probably.' And it's like, no."
Most professional female athletes who leave their sports to have kids never return. The mom athlete is enough of an anomaly to warrant lists such as "13 Moms Who Are Professional Athletes" or "Top 10 Athlete Mothers". A mom athlete in Enduro X, though, is new; Forsberg doesn't know of any other racers who are moms.
Given the intensity and physical requirements of motorcycle racing, that's not much of a surprise. Even though mom athletes are rare, other sports are seeing more women return to professional-level competitions after pregnancy. Leading up the London 2012 Olympics, Jon Schuppe penned a piece for NBC that looked at the "rise of mothers in elite sports." Schuppe argued "the list [of Olympic athletes who are also mothers] keeps getting longer, to the point where these so-called "comebacks" seem less extraordinary and more mainstream."
Outside of the Olympics, the WNBA alone has seen plenty of their players take time to start families and then return to the court. Kim Clijsters and Lindsay Davenport both did it in tennis, with Clijsters winning the US Open, the first mom to win a tennis grand slam in almost 30 years. In long-distance running, marathon-record holder Paula Radcliffe trained alongside, Kara Goucher, while both were pregnant. Goucher credited Radcliffe with inspiring her.
"I watched Paula win New York, basically leading from the starting gun to the finish tape, and afterward she picked up her baby," Goucher told The New York Times. "I realized I can do both. And I want to do both."
Forsberg at X Games. Photo: ESPN Images, Scott Clarke
Before she retired, Forsberg worked in Everett, Washington as a mechanic for Boeing during the week and traveled to races on the weekends. She did not return to Boeing after pregnancy, but she did start riding the bike again. Through workouts—while her baby hung out in a portable crib in the gym—she found herself rebounding physically more quickly than she expected.
"I got back on the bike and I felt really good and I felt pretty confident and so I was like, why not?" she says.
Forsberg says that her plan for Friday night is only to be competitive. While she's been in retirement, her fellow racers have been training, racing, working out. She's not looking to finish among the top three in this first back from retirement, but she is looking to set an example, as an inspiration to women who've had children and want to return to sports at all levels.
Being a mom, though, changes more than just your body. With her eight-month-old daughter and husband watching from the stands Friday night, the stakes are higher when it comes to taking risks. "My daughter is first priority, I care for her every day," she says. "I have to stay safe and not get hurt and kind of think long-term now, which I didn't have to before as much."
At the same time, she's aware of the competitiveness that earned her nine national titles and three X Games gold medals. Before retirement, she was the best. That drive to win, she says, could surface at the starting line.
"There's been so many times at races where I'm like, I'm just going to take it easy and get some ride time," she says. "And then right when the helmet goes on, I just take off. I can't control it almost, and so, I don't know. I don't really know."
Joining the ranks of professional athletes who are moms subjects Forsberg to the contrasting forces of conservative riding and riding to win. On Friday, we'll likely see a composite of the two sides of her as she begins the second phase of her career.
As I wind down the interview with Forsberg, some of her last words to me are quiet: "Hopefully, I'll do ok."