Women's Euros - Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir: You don't need to choose between football and motherhood

The Iceland and Lyon midfielder is determined to show female athletes that they don't have to sacrifice their career to start a family:  "I want to show people I can do both," she said.

By Courtney Hill
Picture by 2020 Getty Images

On the pitch, you may find Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir anchoring the midfield of the UEFA Women's Champions League's (UWCL) most successful club, Lyon.

With multiple football's league titles to her name, including the Bundesliga, and a 2020 UWCL medal around her neck, she strives for success whenever she goes.

But off the pitch, Björk has her sights set on a different kind of goal.

The 31-year-old is determined to prove that female athletes do not have to choose between motherhood or their career, showing that they can have both.

“No woman should have to choose between a family and a career,” says Björk.

“Female athletes achieve remarkable things in sport, give birth, and then come back to do it all over again.

“My goal is to be one of them.”

Four months after giving birth, she achieved that goal.

Björk on the importance of receiving club support

In April 2021, the Icelandic international announced that she was pregnant.

When Björk shared the exciting news, Lyon immediately published their support for her.

More importantly, they outlined their intentions to "ensure her return to the club occurs in the best possible conditions."

The same security was not afforded to former Iceland teammate Gudbjorg Gunnarsdóttir when her girlfriend Mia Jalkerud fell pregnant.

Both players were forced to seek opportunities elsewhere after Jalkerud's contract was not extended at Swedish club Djurgården following a period away on maternity leave.

"That's really sad because it's a package, you have to make it work. There has to be a lot of compromise from the club with the loss of a player," Björk said in an interview with Forbes.

"Are the clubs doing everything in their power to support the player so she is able to focus 100% on her sport? So she can manage to do that as well as raising the baby.

"You need all the support you can get. Unfortunately, from what I read, the club didn't give her that, so she needed to leave."

Things changed for the better in 2020, when FIFA introduced new laws allowing athletes to take maternity leave with a peace of mind.

The rules would see that the club pay at least two-thirds of their salary, and reintegrate players upon their return to football.

But the idea of stepping away from your career to start a family can still be ‘terrifying’, according to Björk.

“It’s scary, you don’t know if you are sacrificing your career,” she said.

“You don’t have so many examples or role models to show you that it’s possible.”

Now Björk wants to lead by example and be open about the realities of becoming a mother while at the top of your career.

More importantly, she wants to show that it can be done without being forced to choose one over the other.

Björk: I wasn’t really sure how to train during pregnancy

Teaming up with her sponsor, Björk went on to document her pregnancy journey with the hopes of erasing any stigma that comes with having a baby during your career.

The midfielder was entirely candid about the changes she endured during the nine months she was pregnant.

“I wasn’t really sure how to train during pregnancy because it’s not something people know about. I think many women expected to just rest the whole pregnancy,” she revealed in the documentary.

“I think when you’re a professional athlete for 12 years, I have to train. I have no knowledge of what’s the best training for a football player being pregnant – how she should train, how much, the intensity.”

She ultimately reached out to other athletes who had gone through the same thing for advice.

“There are women around me that I’ve seen do it and therefore gives me a lot of inspiration that I can do it too.”

Despite the positive outlook, Björk admitted to feeling frustrated a lot of the time, saying she wanted to “feel fresh and fit all the time but the reality is you’re not – especially when you’re pregnant.”

But all these factors ultimately reinforced her desire to document the journey, for herself and for others.

“I’ll be forever thankful that my journey to motherhood has been captured, to inspire others, to remind myself of the challenges I overcame and to show we can break down barriers and not be limited to other people’s perceptions,” she said.

Sights set on 2022 Euros

Björk gave birth in her home country of Iceland in November 2021.

Remarkably, on 4 January 2022, she returned to training with Lyon in France.

“In the beginning I couldn’t even pass a long ball because so much pressure on the groin and the pelvic,” she admitted.

“But then [next] training got better and better and it amazes me how body has adapted quite quick, but it took a lot of work.”

Her full return to club football came in March when she got 45 minutes in a 3-0 win against Dijon.

The following month Björk returned to international action, called up for World Cup qualifiers against Belarus and Czech Republic.

And while it will be a bonus to be involved in Lyon’s Champions League final against Barcelona in May, the goal has always been to be ready in time for the Women's European Championship in the summer.

“The goal is close – I can see the Euros, yeah, for sure,” says Björk.

“Putting in the blue jersey will be a proud moment. I want to show people I can do both.”

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