The stellar career of Emilee Cherry has taken a pregnant pause, with the Australian women’s sevens star revealing she and partner Daniel are expecting their first child in June.
Cherry shared the life-changing news to coaches and teammates late last year and though the 26-year-old will miss the rest of this year, she is hoping to be back to defend the Aussie women’s sevens title at the Tokyo Olympics in July, 2020.
Under Rugby Australia's recently created pregnancy policy, Cherry is continuing to train alongside teammates in a non-contact program and will work in head office when she elects to stop.
Cherry, who re-signed last year through to the end of 2020, can then be re-introduced to training in a similar fashion when she chooses to return after the birth and maternity leave.
"I am nearly at 20 weeks, so nearly at the halfway mark,” Cherry told RUGBY.com.au.
"We found out at the end of last year, when I had my ankle surgery. So it was kind of good timing in that I wasn’t playing and not doing contact.
"At the moment the baby is due at the end of June so it puts me out for this whole season and this whole year.
"It’s been good to be able to keep training and do as much as possible. I have kind of been transitioning into my own thing.
"It was exciting to tell the team. They’re all putting their hands up for baby sitting, and Dom du Toit has even offered to move in. It is such a supportive environment, I am lucky to have them.”
If things go to plan Cherry will be back on deck at the Tokyo Olympics, trying emulate her former teammate Nicole Beck in being a gold-medal mum.
Beck was in the Australian team that won the first ever Olympic women’s sevens gold medal in Rio in 2016, and famously posed with her three-year-old daughter Sophie after the medal ceremony.
But it was the arrival of Beck’s second child Harper in 2017 that will help Cherry to hopefully do the same with her bub in 2020, and for all those who follow.
The rapid growth of professional women’s sport in the last five years brought to attention that while Rugby Australia had maternity leave, it - like most governing bodies - did not have a specific pregnancy policy covering female athletes becoming mums.
Rugby Australia and the Rugby Union Players Association had previously held talks about formulating a policy but Beck’s second pregnancy sped up the process, and steps established in real-time for her to have Harper and return to training were polished up and became the official RA policy.
Under the policy, an athlete can keep training (with no contact) until the point they choose to stop and take up an office-based “safe job". Regular maternity leave then applies and when the athlete chooses they can either return to training and playing (if medically cleared), or to the safe job.
For those who return to playing, Rugby Australia pay for a partner/carer to travel to tournaments.
If a player’s contract expires while they're off, they can return down the track on a three-month “train and trial” contract, for an opportunity to get back in the playing group.
Beck made it back to playing in the AON Uni 7s in 2017 after Harper’s birth but has since hung up the boots.
“I was roughly aware of the policy because I guess was thinking about it being something that might occur one day,” Cherry said.
"It’s all fairly new and it’s fairly flexible, which is good. Johnny (Manenti) and the whole rugby Australia has been very good, they’re flexible with my training and doing things that suits my needs or how I am feeling that day.
"I have been very lucky with Rugby Australia and RUPA setting up a way for me to still be involved within the team environment, training with the girls and being able to do gym with them, just staying in that environment. It’s been good for me and my mental state to not just get cut from the team and have to go do my own thing.”
Cherry, who was the 2014 World Player of the Year, says she isn't aware of too many examples of professional rugby players taking a break mid-career to have children, but has spoken with other athletes about juggling pregnancy, motherhood and elite performance.
“It is an individual type thing and that’s what the doctors say as well: there are no case studies or set guidelines on pregnant professional athletes so it is really taking it case by case and day by day, of your situation,” Cherry said.
"We have a pregnancy policy but it is also very flexible in the way it works, whether it is a safe job and going to that straight away, or sticking with training and trying to stay as fit and healthy as you can for as long as you can.
"I am really enjoying being out on the field and getting that running into the legs because obviously the more I can do now, the easier it will be afterwards - if all goes to plan - to come back to where I need to be.”
For a dedicated athlete used to rigid timetables and long-term goal-setting, Cherry admits she’s slightly unnerved by the open-ended question of when that return may be.
"It is one of the scary elements of it, not knowing exactly when I will be back playing, or if I will ever be back, or if I’ll be back in four to six months,” she said.
"There are some people who have those miracle returns and bounce back really quickly. It’s important that I keep as fit and healthy as I can now, so hopefully the body will be able to adapt. But yeah, I really don’t know. Best case scenario I would be back at the start of 2020 and that’ll give me a good six or seven months lead-in into Tokyo.
"It’s hard to still have those goals because it is such a big unknown. Obviously I would love to go to and dream of Tokyo but right now I can’t say I know what is going to happen.”
After inspiring hundreds of young girls with their professional careers and gold medal in Rio, Cherry wants follow in the footsteps of Beck and help break new ground for those girls to walk over in the coming decades.
"I hope young girls can look out there and not just think there is a short lifespan for female athletes, or if you are a female athlete that’s all you can be,” Cherry said.
"I guess Nicole has paved the way to show we are not just athletes, that there is a human aspect and we are able to have the best of both worlds - to have that family side of life as well.”