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Running with purpose: Ex-UAA track star Vanessa Aniteye balances being an elite athlete, a student and a mother

Vanessa Aniteye, her husband Brandon Nicholson and their son Josiah

Vanessa Aniteye was a six-time All-American before she stepped away from competitive running in 2019.

But Aniteye, a former University of Alaska Anchorage and Chugiak High School track star, returned in 2022 and is running faster than ever with a new source of motivation: motherhood.

“I think before, I was really just focused on me and on the time,” Aniteye said. “Now I feel like I run 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 her son, Josiah, and married to her husband, Brandon Nicholson, who was a jumper on the Seawolves track team.

Her pregnancy didn’t factor into her decision to leave UAA. She had already made the decision to leave the program prior to that, citing uncertainty with finances and the retirement of former head coach Michael Friess.

Aniteye returned to competition with Seattle Pacific University, where she earned All-American honors again this spring. And despite constantly juggling studies, competition and parenting, 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, giving birth to him, then the whole process of finding a new school and then doing these things. I’m definitely running with purpose and it feels like this is what I am supposed to be doing.”

The global COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of the 2020 season for everyone in the country, but it wound up being somewhat of a blessing in disguise for Aniteye, who wouldn’t have been able to compete that year anyway.

“For most people it was kind of a bummer, but it actually worked out perfectly for me because it felt like I didn’t miss anything,” said Aniteye, who was born in Germany.

One major hurdle that Aniteye was weary of after deciding to continue her athletic career was being able to find a coaching staff that would be empathetic to her unique situation.

“You don’t know if a coach is going to trust you because you have your stats but nobody knows if you can run the way you did before,” she said.

Aniteye was on a trip in Seattle over a year after having her son when she met up with the staff at Seattle Pacific to discuss the possibility of her joining the team.

She said it was a “big leap of faith” for them to bring on an athlete they didn’t know, who had been pregnant and had spent time away from the sport.

“I was training my butt off but nobody saw that,” Aniteye said. “They had never signed anyone like that before so I definitely had to prove myself.”

SPU’s gamble was well worth the risk. Aniteye sprinted her way to titles and new program records. She was a key member of the Falcons’ blazing 4x400-meter relay team and had her best season as an individual sprinter in the 400 meters.

Vanessa Aniteye runs the 400-meter dash at the GNAC prelims

Gaining a new outlook and finding inspiration

Aniteye said that while she was happy when she found out she was pregnant, she was sure it meant an end to her athletic career.

“For a couple months I was like, ‘Well no more track for me,’ until I realized that it doesn’t have to mean that it’s over,” Aniteye said. “If you really want something, you can still do it.”

Following her final season at UAA, Aniteye felt like she was nearing her personal best. But finding a role model helped push her back into competition.

“I felt like my body could still do more and I really wanted to do that,” Aniteye said. “While I was going through all of that, Allyson Felix set the best example that anyone could have set to show that women can have children and still compete in track.”

Felix is a 36-year-old recently retired Olympic sprinter who competes in the same events as Aniteye. After giving birth to her daughter in 2018, she returned to competition in 2019 and won a gold medal and a bronze medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Her bronze medal came in the 400 meters, and she helped Team USA win gold in the 4x400 relay for her 11th and final Olympic medal and seventh gold.

That was very encouraging,” Aniteye said. “Obviously it’s different for a sponsored professional athlete compared to an NCAA athlete.”

Vanessa Aniteye and her husband Brandon Nicholson

Balancing motherhood and track

Her son, Josiah, just turned 2, and even though the couple now has day care options, it’s still a struggle to find equilibrium.

“It definitely gets crazy at times,” Aniteye said. “My first semester when I transferred to SPU, he wasn’t in child care so I got really lucky with having online classes and practice was at 7 a.m.”

She would go to practice from 7 to 9 a.m. and hoped that by the time she got home, her husband and son would still be sleeping.

“I would take over from there and (Brandon) would go to work,” she said. “I would try to get (Josiah) to nap specifically during class time but that wouldn’t always work.”

She and her husband were able to secure some child care for the last quarter of the semester, and it was a huge relief.

“Letting him go to child care was like ‘Wow,’ that’s some relief because it was crazy before that and still is crazy with that,” Aniteye said. “I have to drop him off, go to practice, go to school, pick him up.”

During times when she isn’t having her best days at practice, her coaches regularly remind her that track serves as an escape and brief reprieve from her parental responsibilities.

“I don’t really have much time to myself, so I can really just channel in and use that time,” Aniteye said. “It’s a distraction from all the stress that I might have with him or other things.”

Neither Aniteye nor her husband have any family in Seattle, so she’s grateful that she can rely on Nicholson for support as they navigate parenthood together.

“If he wasn’t there to watch him, I don’t know how I could do it,” Aniteye said. “I don’t know how people do it all by themselves.”

Vanessa Aniteye takes a relay handoff

Postpartum challenges and a return to competition

Despite having what was deemed a high-risk pregnancy, Aniteye was able to give birth naturally, but their stay in the hospital was prolonged.

“We were in the NICU (newborn intensive care unit) for four weeks, and then you have to wait six weeks before you can even do anything,” she said.

She wanted to jump right back into training, 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 at the six-week mark, I started to move my body more,” Aniteye said.

She earned her seventh All-American honor and first individual after finishing sixth in the finals 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 SPU’s program record for the second time during the course of the meet.

“I think it really exceeded all my expectations,” Aniteye said. “To me it was God’s plan from the beginning.”

She hopes that coaching and training staffs will learn to be more patient, understanding and compassionate with student-athletes recovering from childbirth, because it’s not like bouncing back from a typical short-term injury and their bodies are still undergoing changes.

“Don’t expect them to perform 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 to tell her story with the hope that it will inspire and motivate others who may find themselves down a path similar to her own.

“For me it wasn’t linear,” Aniteye said. “I was training while I was breastfeeding. There’s physical things that change in your body that make it harder for you to do it. I think that it is important to think about these things so that women can have support with that.”

Josh Reed

Josh Reed is a sports reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He's a graduate of West High School and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

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