Commentary

These athletes balancing motherhood and Olympic dreams

Updated: May 10, 2008, 2:47 PM ET
By Amy Rosewater | Special to ESPN.com

Stacey NuvemanGuang Niu/Getty ImagesStacey Nuveman, a catcher for the U.S. softball team, is vying for her third Olympic gold in Beijing.
At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the Games were unofficially declared the Olympics of the Woman. The United States women's basketball, softball and gymnastics teams all garnered gold, and it seemed the generation that derived much from Title IX had reached its pinnacle.

But some of those women didn't stop there. Some are still competing today. And many of those athletes now find themselves in a new role -- as Olympic moms.

According to the U.S. Olympic Committee, nearly 20 women who have either already nabbed a spot on the U.S. Olympic team that will compete in Beijing in August, or are vying for one, are mothers in addition to being high-caliber athletes. For them, bringing their children to work might involve buying a plane ticket to China.

On Sunday, a handful of those Olympic moms -- two-time Olympic gold medalist softball catcher Stacey Nuveman, three-time Olympic gold medalist Lisa Leslie (who won her first Olympic gold medal in 1996) and 2000 Olympic tennis gold medalist Lindsay Davenport among them -- will celebrate their first Mother's Day.

Track star LaShinda Demus has two reasons to celebrate: She had twin boys last June. The 2005 world silver medalist took a year off from training while pregnant and is now preparing for the U.S. Olympic track and field trials June 27-July 6 in Eugene, Ore.

Some Olympic moms will be with their children this Mother's Day. Others, well, are busy competing.

"I'm so mad that this tournament is on Mother's Day," said judo Olympic hopeful Valerie Gotay, whose two daughters were staying with their father this week in Southern California while she is in Miami for the Pan Am Judo Championships and Olympic Zone Cup. "I'm fighting on Mother's Day."

Olympic swimmer Dara Torres, who turned 41 last month, plans to spend her special day with her 2-year-old daughter, Tessa, at the beach and later -- where else? -- in the pool. Next month, Torres will be in Omaha in an attempt to qualify for her fifth Olympics.

And then there's the mother of all Olympic moms: Melanie Roach.

A 33-year-old mother of three children (aged 6, 5 and 3), Roach is also owner/operator of Roach Gymnastics, a facility with more than 500 students, and she teaches at Sunday school. A few years ago, she found out that one of her children was autistic.

And it's not as if Roach's husband, Dan, has much free time. He's in his fourth term as a Washington State House of Representatives legislator. Oh, and by the way, she's a seven-time weightlifting national champion and is hoping to compete in the Olympics this summer.

So just how do these moms do it? With so many moms around the country trying to make it through the day-to-day routine of school, activities and grocery shopping, this generation of super moms is taking things to a whole new level.

Because Olympic moms have been athletic most of their lives, they are able to continue being athletic during their pregnancies, according to Dr. Linda Szymanski, a Johns Hopkins obstetrician who also has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology. The fact that these women have been able to rebound so quickly doesn't surprise Szymanski, who believes that exercise is important for most pregnant women -- those with Olympic aspirations or not. She said these moms should be an "inspiration" to other pregnant women.

"The only thing I would say is that if a woman hasn't exercised before, pregnancy probably is not the best time to start," Szymanski said.

A big factor for why these women are able to do it, Szymanski surmised, has almost as much to do with their mental frame of mind than their physical well-being. For the most part, these women have an exceptional competitive drive -- or else they wouldn't be fighting for a spot in the Olympics.

These moms also have other factors in common. They tend to be organized and goal-oriented and, perhaps more importantly, they seem to have a lot of family support. Some even have the support of their entire team and federation.

In the case of Nuveman, it would seem as if she wouldn't need to continue her softball career after having her son, Chase, on June 6, 2007. She had already been part of two Olympic gold-medal winning teams. Who needed three?

But Nuveman had no plans of stopping. A few months after delivering Chase, Nuveman was back playing softball and was even at Olympic team tryouts. Being a new mom had its challenges, of course, but it wasn't stopping her from preparing for Beijing. In fact, when her doctors told her that her baby was due at the end of May, she responded by telling them, "That doesn't work because I have to be working [TV] for the College World Series."

[+] EnlargeDara Torres
Marcus Brandt/AFP/Getty ImagesAt age 41, Dara Torres is vying for an Olympic spot just over two years after having her first child.

Needless to say, she didn't make it to Oklahoma City for the College World Series, but Nuveman has made it back onto the Olympic team.

"I'm lucky," Nuveman said. "I'm able to continue with my life. I do feel fortunate because I do get to have it all."

Nuveman is one of two moms on the U.S. softball team. Pitcher Jennie Finch also has a son, appropriately named Ace, who was born in May 2006. Another longtime member of the team, pitcher Lisa Fernandez, has a young son, and was a surprise cut from the Olympic roster.

Nuveman and Finch have both been busy traveling around the country as part of the KFC "Bound 4 Beijing" Olympic tune-up tour. Between Feb. 19 and July 26, the team will play 46 games. Often, the players' sons will be on the road with them. There had been some precedent for this since Fernandez brought her son along with the team in 2004, but this year, a donor -- the Lauren B. Leichtman Arthur E. Levine Family Foundation -- decided to help out by funding nannies and paying for rental cars and extra hotel rooms for moms.

"The tour can be really grueling," Nuveman said. "So this is absolutely a wonderful thing. No longer do we have drum up the money ourselves."

Finch joked that her son has the "17 greatest aunts" -- her teammates. But the fact that her son can be with her makes a huge difference. "It's not about where you are but that you can be together," Finch said. 'I don't think my son even knows he has a home."

"It's a hard tightrope to walk," Nuveman said. "Sometimes, you need to be selfish."

In pre-mom life, Nuveman now realizes that she could be as selfish as she wanted. She could have full control over her training and sleep schedule. Nowadays, she sees some of her teammates after practice return to their hotel rooms for a nap.

"God knows, that's not me taking a nap," Nuveman said with a laugh.

On the plus side, being a mom has made Nuveman realize that if she has an 0-for-4 day, there's more to life than softball.

"I'm still an athlete and when I'm out there on the field, I'm not like, 'OK, I'm having a bad day, but my son will still love me,'" Nuveman said. "But now, I don't have the luxury of dwelling on a slump. I'm a catcher, so I'm cerebral and I tend to carry things with me, but as a mom, I really have learned to separate things."

Nuveman had not planned on becoming a mom, so when she discovered she was pregnant, she wasn't sure how she would be able to continue her softball career. She recalls calling her coach Mike Candrea and crying. She was going to give birth in June and tryouts were scheduled for September.

"It was very scary," Nuveman said. "For someone who has been on the team and had won two gold medals and to suddenly feel very vulnerable -- that was kind of scary."

But Candrea was encouraging.

"He said, 'It could be worse. You could be calling me a year from now and know it was over.'"

Fortunately for Nuveman, her Olympic dream wasn't over. Aside from Candrea, one unexpected source of encouragement came from Finch. Although Nuveman and Finch hadn't been too close as teammates, once they both entered motherhood, they became closer.

"I'd be feeling overwhelmed and then out of the blue, Jennie would send a text message," Nuveman said. "She would say stuff like, 'We can't wait to have you back.' She's someone who had been through the whole process, so that was a tremendous help for me."

[+] EnlargeJennie Finch
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesJennie Finch takes her son, Ace, on the road with her and the USA Softball team.

"It's an emotional time," Finch said of becoming a mom. "I told Stacey that it's OK to cry. Going on the road is not easy. I am super proud of her comeback."

Nuveman said she will not bring her son to Beijing, noting that traveling during the Olympics is not always an easy trip for adults, let alone children. He will stay with her in-laws during the Games. Finch isn't planning on bringing her son, either.

The softball team isn't the only one that has had support for its moms. Back in 1995, when Joy Fawcett had her first child, the U.S. Soccer Federation helped out by funding nannies for members of the women's team. U.S. Soccer also contributes by paying for flights, hotels and meals for nannies and children of players.

This is a huge help to the players because between January and August of this year, members of the Olympic team will only be home for about 40 days -- approximately a week per month.

The team's co-captains, defenders Kate Markgraf and Christie Rampone, are both true "soccer moms." Markgraf's son, Keegan, was born July 18, 2006. Rampone's daughter, Rylie, was born Sept. 29, 2005.

"When we go overseas, other teams are amazed that we could travel with our kids," Markgraf said. "On some other teams, they can't bring their kids and they have second jobs, too."

On the rare trips when these soccer moms don't take their children with them -- for example, at the Olympic qualifier in Mexico last month -- Rampone says she uses Skype, an Internet telephone connection, so she can remain in touch with her daughter. She also uses it so her husband can see his daughter when she's on the road with mom.

Markgraf (who played as Kate Sobrero, her maiden name, when she won a gold medal in Athens four years ago) said the minute she learned she was pregnant, she planned on playing soccer again. In fact, six weeks after the birth of her son, Markgraf was playing in her first international match.

How does she do it? "A lot of caffeine," Markgraf said.

Sure, a grande Starbucks latte helps, but it takes a lot more than that. The hardest part, most of these women said, was getting back into peak training condition. Only one woman, Dara Torres, said she had a flat stomach shortly after giving birth. Markgraf said it took her nearly a year to be able to sprint like she could before becoming a mom.

Judo Olympian Valerie Gotay said she had two uneventful pregnancies and delivered both of her daughters naturally.

"They tell me my deliveries were easy," Gotay said. "But I don't really know what that means, because for me, it was not that easy. But they told me, because I was an athlete that was probably why it was so easy."

Even though Gotay was no longer competing in judo when she became pregnant with her first daughter, she continued participating in the sport. She said she was fighting and falling on the floor until the eighth month of the pregnancy. When she became pregnant a second time, however, she suffered an early miscarriage and vowed not to do any more judo if she were to become pregnant again. So, when she got pregnant a third time, she pretty much limited herself to yoga.

"I didn't really keep in shape for about a year after each pregnancy," Gotay said. "I really didn't get back in shape until I started training again in 2004."

In addition to regaining their athletic form, the other major part of competing in the Olympics as a mom is having a good support network. Nearly all of these moms credited their families for helping them piece their often-fragmented schedules together. Nuveman said she was lucky that her husband, Mark, an attorney, saved up much of his vacation time and used time from the Family Leave Act, to help take care of their son. She also has family close by in California.

"This baby is being raised by a village," she said.

Some moms have tackled much of the child-raising duties on their own. Gotay, who competed in the 1992 Olympics when she was 17, is now making an Olympic comeback as a 34-year-old mother of two.

When Gotay decided to make her comeback in 2004 -- eight years after she had last competed -- it was because the Olympic trials were being held in San Diego, near her hometown of Temecula, Calif. Her daughters were 2 and 7 at the time, and she wasn't thinking about making some great statement about being able to compete after motherhood. The plan was to compete this one time and be done -- for good.

But her plan of training for one year only didn't work out as she planned. She finished second at those trials, and the following year, she had taken over the top spot in the 57 kg division. Because Gotay did not want to drag her children around town to train, she converted much of her home into a training facility. She homeschooled her children for several years and even incorporated judo into some of her lesson plans.

Did watching mom train for the Olympics count as gym?

"No," Gotay said with a laugh. "More like math. My daughter would time me a lot. I just didn't want to drag them everywhere, and I never had a babysitter."

Training as a mom certainly was a lot different than training as a teenager. Before, she could just go and practice and take a nap afterward. As a mom, especially when she was homeschooling her kids, she had to make sure they ate and took their potty breaks before she began practice. Being efficient in her training has been essential to her success these days.

"When I was training as a kid, I could be 100-percent selfish," Gotay said. "With kids, when I was finished training and I wanted to collapse, I couldn't. I had to make dinner."

Gotay hopes she will be able to take her daughters to China, but she remains unsure of whether they will make the trip because she has to finalize child-care plans.

That's the hard part of the job. With Gotay away from her kids this Mother's Day, she'll have to wait to receive her present until she returns home from the Pan Ams, where she won a gold medal in the 57 kg division Friday.

"They didn't give it to me yet," Gotay said. "They told me, 'It's not Mother's Day yet, Mom.'"

This weekend, these Olympic moms might be showered with all sorts of gifts from their children. In a few months, the moms might return the favor with something from China. Perhaps in gold, silver or bronze.

Amy Rosewater, a freelance writer based in Baltimore and frequent contributor to ESPN.com, balances motherhood and reporting, and says she has no chance of qualifying for the Olympics. Her two daughters are Katie (age 6) and Josie (4).

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