Ex-UAA track and field athlete Vanessa Aniteye balances as a top athlete, student and mother
Vanessa Aniteye was a six-time All-American before retiring from competitive sports in 2019.
But Aniteye, a former track and field star from the University of Alaska Anchorage and Chugiak High School, returned in 2022 and is running faster than ever with a new source of motivation: motherhood.
“I think before that I was really just focused on myself and time,” said Aniteye. “Now I feel like I’m running with a purpose.”
After racing at UAA from 2017 to 2019, Aniteye decided to leave the program. A few months later, she was pregnant with their son, Josiah, and married to her husband, Brandon Nicholson, who was a jumper on the Seawolves track team.
Her pregnancy played no role in her decision to leave the UAA. She had previously made the decision to leave the program, citing financial uncertainties and the retirement of former head coach Michael Friess.
Aniteye returned to competition with Seattle Pacific University, where she again received All-American honors that spring. And while she’s consistently juggling study, competition, and parenthood, she’s happy with where the journey has taken her.
“It’s more about how I got here,” Aniteye said. “Where I was with my pregnancy when I gave birth to him, then the whole process of finding a new school and then doing these things. I definitely run on purpose and it feels like I should.
The global COVID-19 pandemic caused the 2020 season to be canceled for everyone in the country, but for Aniteye, who could not have competed that year anyway, it was a blessing in disguise.
“It was a bit of a shame for most people, but it actually worked out perfectly for me because I felt like I wasn’t missing anything,” said Aniteye, who was born in Germany.
A major hurdle Aniteye was weary of after deciding to pursue her sporting career was finding a coaching staff that would empathize with her unique situation.
“You don’t know if a coach is going to trust you because you have your stats, but no one knows if you can run like you did before,” she said.
Aniteye was in Seattle over a year after having her son when she met with Seattle Pacific staff to discuss the possibility of her joining the team.
She said it was a “huge leap of faith” for her to bring on board an athlete they didn’t know who had been pregnant and spent time outside of sport.
“I worked my butt off, but no one saw it,” said Aniteye. “They had never signed anyone like that before, so I definitely had to prove myself.”
The SPU’s gamble was worth the risk. Aniteye sprinted to titles and new program records. She was a key member of the Falcons 4×400 relay team and had her best season as an individual 400-meter sprinter.
Gain new perspectives and find inspiration
Aniteye said that while she was happy to find out she was pregnant, she was certain it would mean the end of her athletic career.
“For a few months I was like, ‘Well, no more trace for me,’ until I realized it doesn’t have to mean it’s over,” Aniteye said. “If you really want something, you can always do it.”
After her final season at UAA, Aniteye felt like she was nearing her personal best. But finding a role model helped her get back into competition.
“I felt like my body could do more and I really wanted to do that,” said Aniteye. “While I was going through all of this, Allyson Felix was the best example anyone could have set to show that women can have kids and still compete in athletics.”
Felix is a 36-year-old Olympic sprinter who recently retired and competes in the same events as Aniteye. After giving birth to her daughter in 2018, she returned to competition in 2019, winning a gold medal and a bronze medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
She won her bronze medal in the 400 meters and she helped Team USA win gold in the 4×400 relay for her 11th and final Olympic medal and seventh gold medal.
“That was very encouraging,” said Aniteye. “Obviously it’s different for a sponsored professional athlete than for an NCAA athlete.”
Balance between motherhood and track
Their son Josiah has just turned 2, and while the couple now have day care options, it’s still difficult to strike a balance.
“Sometimes it definitely gets crazy,” said Aniteye. “In my freshman semester when I transferred to SPU, he wasn’t in childcare, so I was really lucky that I had online classes and was able to practice at 7am.”
She used to work out from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and hoped that her husband and son would still be asleep when she got home.
“I would take over from there and (Brandon) would go to work,” she said. “I would try to specifically get[Josiah]to take a nap during class time, but that wouldn’t always work.”
She and her husband were able to secure childcare for the last quarter of the semester, which was a great relief.
“Having him go into childcare was like ‘wow,’ that’s a certain relief because it was crazy before and it’s still crazy with it,” Aniteye said. “I have to drop him off, to training, to school, pick him up.”
At times when she’s not having her best days in training, her trainers regularly remind her that the track serves as an escape and brief respite from her parenting duties.
“I don’t really have a lot of time to myself, so I can really just channel that time and use it,” Aniteye said. “It’s a distraction from all the stress I might have with him or other things.”
Neither Aniteye nor her husband have family in Seattle, so she’s grateful to have Nicholson for support as they navigate parenthood together.
“If he wasn’t there to watch him, I don’t see how I could do it,” Aniteye said. “I don’t know how people do it all on their own.”
Postpartum challenges and a return to competition
Although Aniteye had a high-risk pregnancy, she was able to give birth naturally, but her hospital stay was prolonged.
“We were in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) for four weeks and then you have to wait six weeks before you can even do anything,” she said.
She immediately wanted to get back into exercise, but her body wasn’t ready even after she was medically cleared to resume physical activity.
“I had to start walking, and after that I slowly started jogging. But I think after six weeks I started moving my body more,” said Aniteye.
She earned her seventh All-American honor and her first singles after finishing sixth in the final of the 400 meters at the 2022 NCAA Division II Outdoor Track and Field Championship.
Her time of 53.64 seconds broke her own personal record and the SPU program record for the second time during the meeting.
“I think it really exceeded all my expectations,” said Aniteye. “For me it was God’s plan from the beginning.”
She hopes the coaching and coaching staff will learn to be more patient, understanding and compassionate with athletes recovering from childbirth because it’s not like recovering from a typical short-term injury and their bodies change still.
“Don’t expect them to show up on day one. They might be breastfeeding, their hormones might be changing, they have a kid at home and you don’t know how much they’re sleeping,” Aniteye said.
She wants to continue telling her story in hopes that it will inspire and motivate others who may be on a similar path to hers.
“It wasn’t linear for me,” said Antieye. “I exercised while breastfeeding. There are physical things changing in your body that make it difficult for you to do this. I think it’s important to think about these things so women can get support.”