James Tomkin's birth story

James Tomkins AOM tried his hand at rowing on his second day at Carey Grammar School in Melbourne in 1979. At six foot six, he was well suited to the sport and liked the water. Four decades later, he is a three-time Olympic gold medallist and one of only a few Australian athletes to have competed at six Olympic Games. James has won seven gold medals at the World Championships and is the only rower in history to win titles in every sweep-oared class at this event. His coxless four team earned the legendary nickname, the Oarsome Foursome, after winning gold in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and then again at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. At the Sydney 2000 Olympics, James raced in the coxless pair, winning bronze, and went on to win gold a third time in Athens in 2004. He has an economics and finance degree and has worked in the finance industry through much of his elite sporting career. James and his wife Bridget have three daughters, including twins. In 2008, James won the Victorian Father’s Day Council’s Father of the Year Award.

We thought we had miscarried our first daughter, Jessica. She was conceived while we were travelling in America and then a few weeks later, Bridget had all the symptoms of a miscarriage. We’re not sure, but we think we actually lost Jess’s twin, but we thought that Bridget was no longer pregnant. We went on with our travels and I coached the US rowing team for some of that time. We did some big hikes and went out a lot – not ideal for a pregnancy that we weren’t aware of. A little later, when we were in Switzerland, we did a six-hour hike up Mount Pilatus and Bridget was absolutely knackered, which was not like her. And there I was, thinking, ‘Come on!’


At sixteen weeks, we found out that Bridget was still pregnant. The doctor in the US said Bridget had a blood clot which made it a very high-risk pregnancy. We sent the reports back to Australia and were told that it was all fine. I think that’s the difference between Australia and the US. It was all about the worst-case scenario over there.


Giving birth is a bit like racing. You spend months preparing for it and then you wake up on that morning and it all comes down to this: you can’t back out. As a rower, you concentrate on one event each year for the World Championships and only once every four years for the Olympic Games. On the morning of a race, there’s this massive sense of dread. On that day, you can’t hide from your own performance. I think it’s the same for a woman giving birth. She can’t back out!


Bridget was amazing the day she gave birth. It was all natural, no drugs except for a bit of gas. The labour was about twelve hours long so I went off and did some training while she was in early labour as I was twiddling my thumbs with nothing to do. The midwives were all fussing around and her contractions were just little fluffy ones at that stage. She was laughing, thinking it was pretty easy, but she wasn’t dilating yet.


I think my wife contributed to the Melbourne water shortage because once labour really got going she sat on a Swiss ball in the shower for about six hours with the water running. I tried to give her something to concentrate on other than the pain. I sat on another Swiss ball in my boardies doing a bit of core stability work in the shower. I had my stopwatch and was checking her heart rate. I think I needed to check my own! And there was a bit of barracking to cheer her on. 


I suppose I approached the birth like an athlete. You have to sequence through the event in a structured way. A race only lasts for about six minutes but you have to have a strategy. Do it well and the outcome will be good. If only you could harness the intensity and endurance of childbirth and put that in a boat – you’d have a winner. Bridget’s endurance, her ability to hang in there just blew me away.


When Jess was born, it was amazing. I stayed up the bowler’s end and didn’t venture down to the batter’s end. It’s totally different compared to winning an Olympic medal. That’s all about you. This time I was more concerned about my wife. It looked like a shotgun murder in that room – the mess! I cut the cord, which was a bit gristly.


When we took our baby home we thought, ‘Now what do we do?’ It was easy in the hospital with help from the midwives, but when you get home, you’re on your own for the rest of your life. On the very first night at home we put Jess in a little alcove just outside our room. That lasted about two hours! She was too noisy so we put her down the hall.


Sport is structured and disciplined. We approached our newborn baby in the same way with a routine and a bit of self-discipline, which made things easier down the track. We tried to roll with the punches and work it out as we went and Jess is a delightful, gorgeous child.


After Athens it was time to think about another baby. With the first pregnancy, Bridget had the timing of her cycle all wrong. Only when she’d read the ‘instruction manual’, did we get the timing right and she fell pregnant. In fact, the second time, we only had to think about it and she was pregnant.


It was a massive shock to find out that we were having twins. The ultrasound doctor was checking everything: ‘Head, spine, heart; head, spine, heart.’ We said, ‘What?’ and he said, ‘I take it no one’s told you that you’re having twins?’ I was numb. Holy hell. We didn’t know anyone who had twins back then. Now they seem like a dime a dozen.


Our girls are fraternal twins and I thought I was pretty clever to be able to sire two kids in one go. I have good swimmers – as you’d expect. My wife’s had three kids with only one and half pregnancies.


Bridget’s belly was huge with the twins. She’s skinny but I thought her stomach was going to pop!

We had a scheduled Caesarean, which was a bit stressful. I was trying to be light-hearted and was all gowned up like the doctor, pretending to take her pulse. In the end the midwives asked me to move some furniture in another part of the hospital, just to get rid of me. Maybe I was getting a little over-excited.


The epidural didn’t work right away and this made Bridget anxious. I stayed up the bowler’s end again. Once they got in there, it was like rustling around to find a screwdriver at the bottom of a tool chest. They had to dig around and then the first baby was out.


We had found out the gender earlier because we didn’t want to have to think of four names. Holly was first and then Georgia. They looked beautiful. Bridget held them on her chest while they stitched her up.


When we arrived home from the hospital with the twins, the snoozers from ASADA [Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority] were standing on our doorstep saying I had been selected for a random drug test. Bridget wasn’t impressed.


Having twins was full on but it’s not double the work. Bridget breastfed using a big feeding cushion with a baby under each arm like a scrum. She thought it was great to have all the night-time sport to watch: the Ashes, Tour de France, Wimbledon, Masters Golf.


We took the government baby bonus and spent it on a night nurse who came and stayed with us three nights a week for about ten weeks. Bridget would get up at night to feed the girls and then the nurse would settle them and put them back to bed. This worked brilliantly. It was the best dough we ever spent.


Three and a half was the perfect age for Jess to have her sisters arrive. She was gentle with them and made them laugh. The three of them have distinct personalities. Holly came out squawking and hasn’t changed since. Georgia needed a little oxygen when she was born and is the more quiet, laid back character.


Being a father has helped me put sport into perspective. It made me see that rowing is just sitting in a boat and rowing on a lake or a river. It’s a pretty simple thing to do.


In elite sport, it is all about you, with your partner supporting you. You have a physiologist, physiotherapist, nutritionist, boat builder, weight trainer – an entire team. You have to be disciplined and selfish. When it comes to being a father, it’s not all about you anymore. I needed to fend for my wife to make sure she wasn’t exhausted. We didn’t pander to the child’s every whim but took a balanced approach to meeting the baby’s needs and Bridget’s needs for rest. I tried to be attuned to what Bridget needed but it was always a bit of a mystery.


Of the six guys that I rowed with in the coxless four, there are eleven kids between us and nine of them are girls. I’m told this has something to do with testosterone. There’s plenty of that in sport!

Copyright Lucy Bloom. This story first appeared in Cheers to Childbirth, the first edition. Pure Publishing 2010.

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