Vanessa Aniteye, NCAA Woman of the Year Top 30 nominee, shares how running took on a new meaning once she embraced the joy and challenges of motherhood. She explores how running has accompanied her life through her immigration from Germany, to her journey through the NCAA, and the birth of her son. As a mother and athlete, Vanessa is inspired to chase her athletic dreams and shatter the notion that motherhood and sports are mutually exclusive, even in the collegiate setting.

I was born and raised in Hamburg, Germany. At the age of 15, I went on a unique adventure as an exchange student in Anchorage, Alaska, a place I never expected to find myself. My sports world at the time revolved around soccer, and during the Alaskan chilly winter months, I found myself in the gym, diligently working on conditioning training on the treadmill.

The transition to track and field was proposed by my host dad, a former coach. Little did I know, this shift would become a defining chapter in my life. Returning home, I joined a local running club (Hamburger Sport Verein), steadily improving with the guidance of my coach. The excitement of getting better is what kept me going at the time. My dedication and passion for running eventually earned me a scholarship to the University of Alaska Anchorage. In college things got a lot more competitive and stressful, but running was always a huge part of my daily routine and identity. After my first year, I made the German national team, a dream I hadn't even dared to dream. Once I really got into track, I stayed because I loved the sport and community, as well as the satisfaction of getting better.

Vanessa photographed post race with her teammates at Alaska Anchorage, the German National Team, and her German Track ClubClub

After my junior year, I decided to leave the track team at the University of Alaska Anchorage and I entered the transfer portal. I’d had a hamstring issue the season before and decided not to run the relay prior to conference. This race was supposed to be another chance to qualify the relay for nationals. As a consequence, my scholarship was reduced. The following week at conference I earned my third consecutive outdoor individual 400m title, ran a college person best in both that event and the 200m, and qualified for nationals with the 4x400m relay. Nonetheless, I was faced with a reduction in my scholarship. Athletically, this was one of my best collegiate seasons, so the decision didn’t sit well with me and I decided I needed change. For me, that was the best and smartest thing I’ve done in my career, to put my body first.

While I was in the transfer portal, I found out I was pregnant. I was navigating a lot of changes at the same time. I knew I wanted a family and that was good news. Nonetheless, it brought a lot of fears. I was looking for a new college team, and I was very worried about what coaches would say or think. I was also very concerned in the beginning that this was going to be the end of my running career, and I wasn’t ready for that yet. The bodily changes were a huge adjustment for me as a young athlete.

Something that helped me during my pregnancy was watching Allyson Felix’s journey. She showed how incredible the female body could be, while she was also transparent about the ins and outs of pregnancy and returning to sport. She gave me hope especially as I experienced a high-risk pregnancy that prevented me from exercising throughout. My son’s birth was followed by a challenging four-week NICU stay. This experience and uncertainty increased my appreciation for health and life and fueled my eagerness to return to running. I felt an untapped potential within me as if I hadn't reached my peak in the sport yet. My son became my driving force to never give up.

left image: Vanessa with her son after his birth. right image: Vanessa with her son and family

Returning to form wasn't a smooth ride. Navigating life as a mother, athlete, and student all at once was a complicated task. Early gym sessions and late-night workouts became the norm, all tailored around my son's needs. The first 18 months were the hardest —physically, because breastfeeding made my joints loose and emotionally, because I didn’t feel like myself.

Even some close to me doubted the feasibility of being a student-athlete-mom. They thought it was unrealistic for me to balance going back to school, training, competing, mothering my son, and the many doctor’s appointments that came with it. Outside of those close to me, finding a coaching team that trusted that these responsibilities could coexist was a significant challenge. I’m very grateful for the coaches who chose to trust this unconventional journey. Returning to peak running shape required patience, listening to my body, careful coaching, and a vigilant eye to avoid injuries.

Proudly, I became the first young mom and student-athlete on my team, disproving the notion that motherhood and athletic success are mutually exclusive.

  Motherhood added a layer of purpose to my running, transforming me into a better athlete and a stronger individual. The joy I found in encouraging younger athletes and setting an inspiring example has become a source of fulfillment and drives me to use my sport as an outlet to share my story. My son inspires me every day to give my all in the sport and chase big goals for myself.

The fear of performing “bad” at nationals once haunted me. Pre-competition anxiety was a formidable opponent. However, earning my first individual All-American title post-motherhood became a defining triumph. Doubts turned into gratitude and joy, proving that motherhood can be a catalyst for success rather than the end of a career. I even secured my first National Title in the 800m at the Division II Indoor National Championships in 2023. I’ve since graduated from Seattle Pacific University with a Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science, and I’m continuing my running career. I hope to represent Germany internationally again one day.

Vanessa competing for Seattle Pacific University, and standing with her coach and NCAA Championship trophy

Reflecting on my journey, the influence of teammates and mentors stands out. Older teammates shaped my path, instilling in me the desire to pay it forward. The lasting friendships and unwavering support from the community, especially my GNAC (Great Northwest Athletic Conference) were truly priceless. Now, as a friend, teammate, and coach, I prioritize the understanding that the athletes and people I work with are human—imperfect, allowed to face challenges, and still worthy.

My journey as a mom and student-athlete has taught me to celebrate the privilege of running. Running for me is not only about personal achievements anymore, but also about leaving a lasting impact on those around me. Motherhood is my new superpower, but the work for women in sports is far from done.

Vanessa today, posing after practice

Navigating the world of sports, particularly for women, challenges like childcare and finding a private space to pump during competitions can present significant hurdles. I recall my struggle to find an outlet for my electric breast pump and a private space for pumping during my first competition back post-pregnancy. These experiences highlight the barriers women may face, underscoring the need to address and overcome these challenges for a more inclusive sports environment.

Here are 5 things I would share with other athletes:

  1. Embrace Your Unique Journey and Personal Growth: Your path is inherently yours—distinct, special, and filled with challenges that shape your resilience. Every twist and turn contributes to the story you're crafting. Focus on personal growth and measure your progress against yourself and no one else.

  2. Dream Big: In the world of sports, especially for women, the road may feel uneven. Assure yourself that your dreams are valid, and you're allowed to dream big. Your dreams don’t need to sound attainable to anyone else but you!

  3. Support Each Other: Your role on the team is significant, regardless of performance. Be a beacon of encouragement, uplift your teammates, and celebrate their victories, no matter how big or small.

  4. Rise Stronger from Setbacks: In the face of failure, remember, it's a part of the journey. Each stumble is an opportunity to rise stronger and more resilient than before. One setback doesn't define your entire story.

  5. Celebrate Little Wins: Recognize the privilege of being able to run. Running is not just a physical activity; it's an honor, a privilege that not everyone shares. Sometimes we need to sit back and celebrate little things, such as making ourselves or our children a meal, while other days we compete in our sport at the highest level possible.

Remember, your story is still unfolding. The world needs your strength, resilience, and unique contributions. Dream big, embrace your journey, support each other, and keep running towards your goals. I'm rooting for each of you on this incredible journey.

Support Vanessa as she chases big goals by following her on Instagram and TikTok, and learn more about her NCAA Woman of the Year nomination.

We thank Vanessa for sharing her story with our community! Do you have a story you want to tell? Let us know below, or email

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