The ping of an aluminum bat breaks the early-morning silence.
Surrounded by buckets of balls, Jessica Mendoza stands in the batting cage taking cut after cut to regain the timing of her swing.
She spends nearly an hour in the cage before moving to an empty softball field to practice fielding fly balls.
By the end of the workout, Mendoza is tired and trying to catch her breath.
But the Camarillo native doesn’t want to stop.
She wants one more fly ball, one more swing, one more throw.
Because this time it’s about more than just Mendoza.
It’s about the little boy with the infectious smile who is waiting for her at home.
It’s about all the women who came before her and all the ones she hopes will come after.
It’s about all the doubters who have snickered and questioned her motives.
Mendoza, 29, is attempting to return to competitive softball five months after giving birth to her first child.
The two-time Olympian was one of 31 players invited to the USA Softball Women’s National Team Selection Camp that will take place Monday-Friday in Chula Vista.
A team of 17 players plus alternates will be selected to represent the United States for the 2010 season.
“I want to do a good job for all the athlete-moms out there,” Mendoza said. “For me, this is a challenge to prove to everyone that I can have a baby and come back. It just fuels me that much more to be a much better athlete.”
Mendoza is part of the Title IX generation of female athletes who believe they can have it all.
More and more women are proving that the desire to start a family doesn’t mean having to abandon competitive sports.
Last year alone, Kim Clijsters became the first mother in 29 years to win a Grand Slam tennis title when she captured the U.S. Open, Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker returned to the court only two months after giving birth and golfer Catriona Matthew won the Women’s British Open only 10 weeks after her second daughter was born.
The ranks of active moms in the women’s professional leagues continues to grow.
The LPGA has 33 on tour, the WNBA has 11 following the recent retirements of Lisa Leslie and Yolanda Griffith and the WTA and WPS each have four.
During the 2008 Olympics, the United States team featured 20 mothers, including then 41-year-old swimmer Dara Torres and Mendoza’s teammates Jennie Finch and Stacey Nuveman.
“There is like this kinship that develops once you become a mom,” Mendoza said. “We are all able to go through these body-changing things to have a baby and come back and still be a kick-butt soccer player or a kick-butt basketball player.”
Joy Fawcett became the poster mom for the movement during the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s successful run of World Cup and Olympic titles in the 1990s.
Fawcett, a mother of three daughters, was dubbed the “Ultimate Soccer Mom” for her ability to juggle family life while playing every minute of three World Cups.
“I never saw myself as being a pioneer when I was doing it. I just wanted wanted to have a family and decided to do it,” Fawcett said. “If it worked, it worked. If it didn’t, having the family was more important and I was willing to give up playing for it. But I definitely didn’t want to give it up if I didn’t have to.”
Bodies in motion
Although they balance similar demands as most women in the working world, athletes encounter one big difference.
Their bodies are the tool of their profession, and pregnancy causes physical changes that can both help and hinder athletic performance.
Studies have shown that pregnancy causes an increase of oxygen and blood flow that can be beneficial, and other medical theories claim that childbirth can boost an athlete’s ability by increasing the flow of androgen and other hormones such as relaxin, which increases hip flexibility.
But added girth from pregnancy can change a women’s gait, and joints and ligaments can become more lax, which can raise the risk for injury.
Some women believe the rigors of pregnancy and labor made them stronger athletes, and Mendoza is a candidate for that group.
Mendoza endured 41 hours of labor while delivering her son Caleb in August.
“I think I deserve some kind of plaque for that,” Mendoza said. “I didn’t leave the house for two weeks after because I was in a cloud. I had nightmares about labor.”
Mendoza initially thought she had nine months to prepare for the national team camp. But once the dates were pushed up, her workouts went into overdrive.
During the first few weeks, Mendoza felt like she was running in place and could hardly hit the ball through the infield.
“I didn’t feel like my body was my own right away,” said Mendoza, who quickly shed the 25 pounds she gained partly by breastfeeding. “It took me a good two months before I could start sprinting and hang cleaning (weightlifting) again and having the energy to do those things.”
But staying in good shape during her pregnancy aided Mendoza’s recovery. She continued to work out and was doing spin classes until a few weeks before her due date.
She wore a heart-rate monitor to make sure she wasn’t overdoing it.
“I really listened to my body because I could tell when I started to push myself too much and got light-headed,” she said. “Normally, I would push through that as an athlete. But being pregnant you are not just thinking for you, it’s for your baby.”
When Fawcett was attempting her comebacks, there were not many examples to follow. Her biggest resource was Fit Pregnancy magazine.
“As an athlete you kind of know your body and its limits so I tried to figure it out,” Fawcett said. “I learned going through it how hard you can push your body while you are pregnant and when you are coming back. I was more conservative with my first child than with my other two.”
Dr. Hannah Grossman, an obstetrics and gynecological specialist, says it generally takes three to four weeks before women can get back to some part of their exercise routine.
“A lot of it has to do with the question of are they breastfeeding and are they up multiple times a night and how much rest they need,” said Grossman, who was recently elected as the first female Chief of Staff at Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center in Thousand Oaks. “Very intense athletes tend to take two to three months to get the baby initially squared away before they get back to the same training.”
Los Angeles Sparks guard Marie Ferdinand-Harris gave birth to her son, Cedrick Jr., in 2006. The biggest challenge she faced in returning was remaining patient while her body recovered.
“I was always practicing shooting, but just because my shot was there didn’t mean my body was,” Ferdinand-Harris said. “My abdominal muscles and back muscles and the muscles around the groin still needed to time to get stronger.”
But the motivation to get back into shape allowed Ferdinand-Harris to exceed her expectations.
“I worked harder than I ever worked in my entire career. I was doing at least double everything, which made me that much stronger and that much quicker,” she said. “I was so in tune with the body and I knew different things about my body.”
Peace of mind
Although the physical changes from pregnancy are obvious, most mothers believe the biggest change is mental.
They say having a child provided them with a greater perspective on life and their career.
Professional golfer Leta Lindley, in her 16th season on tour, said she became a better golfer after her two children, ages 5 and 7, were born. The Carlsbad native captured her first career title in 2008 at the Corning Classic.
“Playing golf was easier because it didn’t necessarily mean as much to me,” Lindley said. “I didn’t live and die by every shot. If I missed a shot or missed the cut, it was not as big of a deal because I had something in my life more important than my work.”
Having her daughters immediately relieved the pressure Fawcett felt on the soccer field.
“You are a competitor and you want to win, but when it comes down to it you have this great family and kids and they are the most important thing,” Fawcett said. “When I had a bad game or bad practices I had to forget them instantly because when I got off the field I saw those smiling faces and they didn’t care whether we won or lost. They were just happy to see me.”
Lindley even noticed a difference in her mental approach to practice. She was more focused and efficient because she knew she had obligations at home and couldn’t afford to waste time.
“You just rise to the occasion. That is what women are the best at,” she said. “You never know what you are able to do until you are called to do something. Then, you find a way to make it happen and find a way to succeed.”
Back in the game
Mendoza never doubted she wanted to return to softball after having Caleb. But the support of her family made the decision easier.
Mendoza’s husband, Adam Burks, encouraged her every step of the way.
“He didn’t want me to have any regrets, and didn’t want kids to be the reason I stopped playing,” Mendoza said. “He said we were going to do anything to make sure I could live my dream as long as possible.”
Mendoza’s first live game action since having Caleb came in November during a PFX Tour game in Fresno. She recorded a hit off former Arizona All-America pitcher Taryne Mowatt.
“My fear was I would not even be able to foul off a pitch, but that let me know I could do it,” Mendoza said. “I can’t wait to get back to my normal self again. I am still working on being the exact same athlete I was. I feel good though. I don’t feel like I had a baby despite the fact I had one. It’s like my body forgot.”
Although Mendoza wants to make the national team again, she is not as nervous about the camp as in the past.
She knows regardless of her performance this week, Caleb will be there to provide unconditional love.
“He is the best eraser of negative thoughts,” Mendoza said. “When you are looking in his eyes, all you see is positive. It’s very hard to beat myself up mentally when I have the most positive thing in the world waiting for me at home.”
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