Women continue to gain glory in professional sports, even as they struggle for equal opportunities in coaching.
Jessica Mendoza will never forget how it felt to stand at home plate three months after giving birth to her son, Caleb, worried she no longer had the stuff to make the U.S. national softball team. Or how it felt in her first at-bat when she smacked a home run into the stands. “I almost cried,” she says. “I thought, Thank God, I can still hit.” Yes she can. since becoming a mom—and gaining new perspective—Jessica has slugged the best stats of her career.
Forty-one years ago, Title IX gave women’s sports legitimacy. Now a handful of elite athletes are showing that motherhood and a pro career can mix. Beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh Jennings won her third Olympic gold medal with sons Joseph, now 4, and Sundance, 3, cheering in the stands. Later, Kerri revealed she’d been pregnant during the games. Her daughter, scout, arrived in April. All in all, Kerri’s performance was a huge So there! to naysayers who told her getting pregnant would be a career kiss of death. “I heard everything, the silliest things—your body will never be the same, you’ll hurt your shoulder from carrying a baby, you won’t make any more money,” she recounts.
Men aren’t hassled about starting a family while pursuing sports, and women shouldn’t be either, Jessica asserts. “I don’t want any woman to feel that becoming a mom means letting go of other dreams.”
Bodies in Motion
Of course, it would be naive to suggest that “starting a family” is biologically equivalent for men and women.
The pro athlete’s body is her tool, her livelihood. pregnancy stretches ligaments and muscles; afterward, there’s extra weight to shed and strength to rebuild. Recovery after childbearing “is a long journey back that can feel like a lifetime,” says Kerri. But she’s learned to embrace the process. “You have an amazing chance to reinvent your body after giving birth. Your muscles are softer. You’re like moldable clay.”
The physical challenges don’t end when maternity leave does. Children catch (and share) colds. Their sleep habits aren’t always predictable, or considerate of the next day’s big game. Christie Rampone, captain of the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic women’s soccer team, has played plenty of matches on short sleep after daughters Rylie, 7, and Reece, 3, had rough nights.
Even on ordinary days, motherhood can feel like a full-contact sport—hauling laundry around, hefting toddlers, refereeing playdates—which can have its competitive advantages. “People ask me how I got my arms,” Christie says of her buff physique. “I answer, ‘Try carrying a 30-pound kid around all day.’” And she hoofs it with a jogging stroller when she runs. “When you have kids, you don’t have endless time, so you work out smarter,” she adds.
Heads in the Game
The physical challenges are manageable (pro sports = no wimps). The tougher hurdles are mental, these moms say. It’s believing, despite few role models, that you can stay an elite athlete. That you can have both family and fans. Even when you insist you’ll return after pregnancy, the unspoken expectation is you won’t pull it off. “Essentially you have to prove it to everyone,” Christie says.
And to yourself. Having the faith to persist through rustiness can be tough. Jessica remembers slogging through the first postpartum weeks worried she’d never feel like a power-hitting outfielder again. Yet now that she’s on the other side (and expecting baby No. 2 in August), “I see the game clearer.” Adds Christie, “Motherhood has eased the mental side for me. I used to have a hard time shaking off a bad practice. Now I feel such joy in competing.”
Each time women athletes see another successfully navigate the work-family waters, it gets easier for everyone. At each Olympic Games, it seems, more children crowd to kiss their teary-eyed, medal-wining moms. More kids hang out on sidelines, ride team buses and travel the world with athlete parents, says Nancy Hogshead-Makar, senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation. It’s a welcome world of difference since Nancy won three swimming golds in the 1984 Olympics. Back then, she says, women athletes “were seen as freaks.”
Now they’re role models. Jessica, a regular commentator for ESPN, is also a goodwill ambassador to Nicaragua for Hillary Clinton’s campaign Empower Women and Girls Through Sports. She’ll keep both jobs after her playing days are over.
Locked Out of the Locker Room?
But here’s the irony. While women athletes continue to gain ground, female coaches are struggling. When Title IX was passed in 1972, women coached 90 percent of women’s teams. Now they hold fewer than half of those jobs, says Nicole LaVoi, PhD, associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women at the University of Minnesota. “There aren’t any positions available to begin with,” adds Jennifer Bruening, PhD, associate professor and director of Husky Sport at the University of Connecticut, “and as salaries for coaching women’s sports have grown, men have gone after the jobs.”
Likewise, women have been shut out of coaching men. None coach, at any level, for MLB, the NHL, the NFL or the NBA, despite some teams employing a dozen or more coaches. This gender bias gets perpetuated, says Dr. Bruening, because those who hire coaches—athletic directors, managers and team owners—are mostly men. “Overall, women are drastically underrepresented in sports’ positions of authority,” says Dr. LaVoi. Even considering that the all-time most winning NCAA coach is University of Tennessee head coach emeritus Pat Summit—a working mom.
It’s a loss, too, because coaching is fun and is often quite lucrative. Head coaches of women’s Big Ten basketball teams earn, on average, $370,000 annually. “I love the job, wouldn’t trade it for anything,” says Julie Hairgrove, an assistant coach with the WNBA Phoenix Mercury and mom of Madison, 7, Hailey, 5, and Grace, 3. She may work 80-to 100-hour weeks during the six-month basketball season, but there’s a beautiful thing in sports: the offseason. That half of Julie’s year is decidedly chill—with plenty of time to host playdates for her daughters.
Life in the Fast Lane
Yes, the season is hectic, but the “office” is family-friendly. Children can cheer at events, and if the sitter gets sick, well, gyms aren’t the worst places to bring kids. “I’ve had days when Madison is riding her trike on one side of the basketball court while I’m running drills on the other,” Julie says, adding that the players are like big sisters to her girls.
No desk jobs here. whether coach or athlete, if you’re in sports, you’re on the go. Plane and bus rides galore, meals eaten off snack bar menus, nights in hotels. Many team athletes play one season in the U.A. and a second abroad. That doesn’t make for traditional work life balance, but, with a little creativity, it makes for wonderful adventure.
Kerri’s younger sister, KC, has traveled the world taking care of the little Jennings boys. Christie travels about 250 days in a world cup year, often accompanied by her family. “Rylie and Reece can sleep anywhere—on a bus, in an airport lounge. They get it done,” she quips about her resilient kids.
Women’s baseball advocate Justine Siegal, director of sports partnerships for sport in society at Northeastern University, coaches girls in boys’ hardball tournaments worldwide and turns the lifestyle into a Montessori-style learning experience for daughter Jasmine, 15. “When we go to oversees tournaments, she’ll do media interviews and participate with dignitaries in opening ceremonies,” Justine says. “We’ll talk about stadium design, foods in different countries or the lessons in how girls handle sportsmanship.”
At one point, Jasmine traveled 800 miles in five days, watching her mom become the first woman to pitch batting practice for a Major League Baseball team. And though baseball is not her passion in life—she’s keen on the music industry—Justine says she believes in the mission, “giving women a chance to be who they want to be.”
Lessons from the Front
Hire a financial planner. Cash flow in sports (as in lots of careers) can be irregular—you get paid for the season or sometimes just for wins. A financial planner will help you budget and save for your post-playing days.
Relish travel rewards. Traveling moms should research the best credit card reward programs for the oodles of points you’ll collect. They come in handy for paying for the kids’ sitters and tutors.
Be smart about getting fit. Opt for interval training post kids. Max the results and minimize the time with short, intense bursts of activity.
Let kid athletes be kids. Put aside the pro perspective when you watch your kids play—really, they just want you to admire them. Sage advice for all high-powered moms.
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