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Playdates for Mom

Today more female athletes than ever choose a competitive life after giving birth.

By GARY SHELTON
Published May 13, 2007


On the face of motherhood, there is a little sweat. Perhaps a little grime, too.

On the face of motherhood, there are narrow eyes and a set jaw. Also, the teeth seem to be clenched.

Look, honey.

Mommy's got game!

It is nothing new, this link between mothers and athletics. Everyone can tell stories of mothers who are influential and mothers who are inspirational. And it is true that a great many athletes found their way to the arena because of the strength of the women who bore them.

If you look around, however, you might notice this:

Some of those mothers can play.

In other words, moms aren't just for male athletes to wave to anymore. It has become increasingly common to see a female athlete walking toward an event with a child tagging behind.

Not long ago, motherhood was usually the end of an athlete's career. No more. These days, production is still possible after reproduction.

"You can do both," said golfer Juli Inkster, 46. "You sacrifice a lot of time, a lot of 'me' time. You sacrifice a lot of rest. But it's worth it."

Not that that was Inkster's plan. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom, and Inkster was concerned about traveling with her children for weeks at a time

"I was afraid I would raise a psycho kid," Inkster said. "I was within a nanosecond of quitting," she said.

Good thing she didn't. After giving birth to Hayley in 1990 (and Cori in 1994), Inkster's career blossomed: She has won 18 of her 31 tournaments and she has won more than $8-million of her $11-million-plus in career earnings. Also, her kids grew up to be "normal and well-adjusted."

There are working moms, and there are playing moms. Jenny Potter, who played hockey for the United States in three Olympics, has a daughter and a son. Joy Fawcett, who played soccer in three Olympics, has three daughters. Sheryl Swoopes won three MVP awards and four WNBA titles after having her son.

There are 28 mothers on the LPGA Tour. There are more than 30 in the WNBA. Even though Fawcett and Carla Overbeck have retired, the U.S. national soccer team alone has three.

Here's a question: Do they make a Hallmark card that reads "My Mom can outrebound your Mom?"

"I still think we're adjusting to the image," said Taj McWilliams-Franklin, an All-Star forward with the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks and mother of two. "It's not the norm. People don't want to admit that sports and motherhood go hand in hand, particularly in basketball where our bodies take such a pounding."

McWilliams-Franklin, 36, has been a mother for half of her life. She was a high school senior when she became pregnant with Michele, and she remembers how quickly the scholarship offers dried up before she ended up at St. Edwards, an NAIA school.

"In 1988, it was unheard of for a pregnant single teenager to even go to college," she said. "There was a stigma attached to it, and the more you heard it, the more you believed it. I was a smart girl, and I knew I would go to college to support my baby."

Her path was not easy. McWilliams-Franklin played one season at Georgia State, transferred to the small college in Austin, Texas, and traveled across the globe for meager paychecks before establishing herself. She remembers crying herself to sleep because there was only enough food for her daughter, not for herself.

Take a look at her now. McWilliams-Franklin is a college graduate, speaks four languages and she has played in 10 countries. She and her husband, Sgt. Reginald Franklin (who just completed a tour in Iraq), also have a 4-year-old daughter (Maia).

There was a time it worked differently. Chris Evert waited until her playing days were done to become a mother. Florence Griffith-Joyner, too. And Steffi Graf.

There were others, uncommon athletes who would not leave the field. Dutch track star Fanny Blankers-Koen, the Flying Housewife, was a 30-year-old mother of two when she won four gold medals in the 1948 Olympics. Margaret Court won three of the four Grand Slam events after having a child. Evonne Goolagong Cawley won Wimbledon in 1980, and no mother has won a Grand Slam singles event since.

There was Nancy Lopez and Evelyn Ashford, Pat McCormick and Valerie Brisco-Hooks. Still, it was an uncommon sight.

"You didn't see all of these moms in the gym a few years ago," McWilliams-Franklin said. "Now, there are a lot of us."

These days, you can find mothers in most sports, boxing and track, speed skating and hockey. They're fast, they're strong, they're talented. And they can have babies.

Sometimes, the timing is all wrong. Ask Potter. She had her first child (Madison) 87 days before playing in the world championships in 2001. She had her second (Cullen) in January, 83 days before the world championships.

"Maybe it wasn't an ideal time, but I don't think there is an ideal time," Potter said. "It was tough to get back in shape. But not a day goes by when I'm not happy that I had my kids."

Oh, there are still difficulties, particularly at the college level. Some schools still rescind scholarships, which can lead athletes either to abortion or to hide their pregnancy and possibly not get the prenatal care they require.

ESPN's Outside the Lines is scheduled to debut a story this morning in which it reports that seven Clemson athletes had abortions due in part to the fear they would lose their scholarships. Cassandra Harding, a triple jumper, said she had her scholarship taken away by Memphis after becoming pregnant and discovering it was too late for her to get an abortion.

In April, Syracuse junior Fantasia Goodwin had a child after starting 28 games for the basketball team. In 2004, Louisville's Connie Neal hid her pregnancy until the eighth month, playing 11 games.

"It's very shortsighted of colleges to rescind scholarships because someone is pregnant," Inkster said. "That's life. Are you going to rescind the scholarship of the guy who got her pregnant?"

For a young woman, the timing of motherhood is always a difficult choice. For athletes, it may be harder. Training gets tricky. Travel is more difficult.

For an athlete who finds herself pregnant, here is a mother's advice: "Just know what you want," McWilliams-Franklin said. "If you're confused, sit down and map it out. Having a child makes things difficult, but if you have the strength you persevere, you can get through anything. Not only for you but for the betterment of someone you bring into the world."

Added Christie Rampone, a soccer player for the U.S. national team and a mom: "You can do it. Having a child isn't a career-ending injury. You can have it all."

In other words, it is possible. A woman can balance a bib and a ball. She can rock a cradle and a competition.

Given the right circumstances, she can turn out to be one mother of an athlete.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.