How Female Olympians Handle Periods – Then And Now
Updated: Jan 8
With the Olympics just around the corner, many female athletes are preparing to face what has become a regular part of their training – performing on their periods. Today, women have many options. Safe and effective pain killers to ward off cramps, and tampons to allow for water sports have changed the way women athletes train, to say nothing of even newer options like period panties and period swimwear.
But to really appreciate the advantages Olympic women have today, it's important to take a look to the past.
Lynn Burke, former Olympic swimmer, says that today, women take a lot for granted. “In the olden days.” she explains, “you didn't swim when you had your period.” Although that was the standard, it wouldn't work for an Olympian. Burke goes on to talk about how her coach insisted that she learn how to swim during her “special days,” because he guaranteed she would have her period on the days of the trials and during the Olympics. And he was right.
Burke said that nerves bring on menstruation early, and that every woman on her team had her period during the Olympics. Intensive training was necessary to allow the women to swim through cramps – and eventually alleviate them altogether. But cramps weren't the only problem. Bleeding was another issue entirely. And before tampons or period panties, the only way to avoid bleeding was to stay in the water, where pressure would prevent it.
Burke says “We used to sit in the locker room and wait until our event came, then run into the pool to stop it. So these young girls have it very easy.” It's true that tampons, and even period swimwear designed to be worn with a sanitary pad have revolutionized sports for women athletes. But these innovations came too late for some.
Greta Anderson was favored to win the gold medal in swimming, but lost everything due to poor understanding of menstruation and a bad decision on the part of the team's doctor. She recalls the event and what a terrifying turn it took: “They gave me an injection to delay my period, because my period was going to be right then… And that was probably the worst thing to do, because I felt like I weighed 500 pounds.”
Greta lost consciousness as soon as she entered the water, and nearly drowned before onlookers noticed and rescuers jumped in to save her. She not only lost the gold, she came close to losing her life. But the loss of her dreams is painful to this day. “[Before that race] I was in the lead,” she says. “Nobody could beat me on that distance. But the injection did me in. I fainted and went to the bottom of the pool.”
Today – thanks to better understand and a host of products that allow women to perform while on their periods – most Olympians train to work through their periods, rather than taking measures to avoid them. It's still a largely taboo subject, but today, menstrual cycles aren't a barrier to the gold. As Lynn Burke says, “We've come a long way, baby.”
Want to learn more about issues currently affecting women and teen girls, or how to empower yourself with products like period underwear? Check out hundreds of articles on our blog or shop our wide selection of period-proof apparel today!
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