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Iron Moms

They've Reached the Pinnacle of Their Sports --
And They're Moms, Too

By Tracy L. Ziemer
May 12, 2000

Ironman champion Karen Smyers has mastered the three elements of a triathlon -- swimming, biking, running -- but just try the joint effort of breast-feeding and competing in a race.

"I nursed her as close to the start of the race [as I could] without being afraid I'd miss the start," Smyers said of daughter Jenna, who was 2 months old when Smyers was competing in the 1998 Goodwill Games in New York.

"But by the time I was on the bike and we were doing loops around Central Park, Jenna decided to have a crying fit. My dad held her up and said, 'Your daughter needs you -- hurry up!' It was a new incentive for me to finish quickly."

Smyers, winner of the 1995 Ironman World Championship, is part of a growing breed of athletes: Moms who are fierce competitors at the highest professional level but then go home to change diapers and play Chutes and Ladders with arms sore from training.

Kids Think It's Cool

Shine a television camera on an athlete's face, and inevitably he'll say, "Hi, Mom." But increasingly, professional athletes are the moms and it's their kids who are cheering for them on the sidelines.

"My son thinks it's so cool and so exciting that his mom is a professional basketball player," said Suzie McConnell Serio of her 9-year-old son Peter, who watches his mom play for the WNBA's Cleveland Rockers. "He has become a huge WNBA fan, wearing my practice jersey to games. He truly loves it."

The WNBA, which provides paid maternity leave for players, had 16 moms among its 132 players last season. The U.S. Soccer Federation pays for a nanny for its two player-moms: co-captain Carla Overbeck and defender Joy Fawcett. Other famous professional athlete-moms include Hall of Fame golfer Juli Inkster and Olympic champion figure skater Ekaterina Gordeeva.

It used to be that college sports or the Olympics were the pinnacle for female athletes, who would start a family after retiring from sports. But with better prize money and expanding professional opportunities available to women in sports -- the WNBA is in its fourth season and women's soccer will get their own professional league in 2001 -- many moms are finding that they can have a family and make a living as an athlete, too.

Smyers Conquers Obstacles

"I was an athlete before I was a mom. It's been only two years, but I'm still learning how to do both," says Smyers, who won the 1995 Ironman World championship and had Jenna in May 1998.

Now that she's getting older, Jenna can cheer for her mom -- and Smyers is going to need it. She will compete in the U.S. Olympic triathlon trials in Dallas on May 27-28 before going for her second round of treatment for thyroid cancer. She had cancer surgery in December 1999, two months after finishing second in the Ironman in Hawaii.

"I take each thing as it comes and, fortunately, there's never really been anything that hasn't been conquerable," says the 38-year-old triathlete, who suffered six broken ribs, a lung contusion and a separated shoulder when she was sideswiped by an 18-wheel semi while bike riding in 1998.

"I'm making a living at a sport I love, I have a great daughter, wonderful husband and supportive family -- I'm in no position to complain."

Training and Traveling with Mom

The traveling lifestyle of professional athletes means their babies rack up frequent flier miles quickly and get used to life in a hotel. Serio said her four kids, who are between the ages of 3 and 9, think "the summer is one big vacation" because they travel from Pittsburgh to Cleveland to watch mom play. Overbeck's 2-year-old son Jackson has been to Portugal twice and will go to the Olympics in Australia in September.

All-Star Sheryl Swoopes of the WNBA champion Houston Rockets gets help from a nanny when 3-year-old son Jordan travels with the team. A portable DVD player is a lifesaver, too. "It was the smartest investment I ever made," Swoopes said, laughing. "He watches movies during the entire flight and in the hotel."

She says she has it easier than other working moms, who can't bring their kids to the office. Swoopes, who lives near her ex-husband in Houston, can always bring Jordan to her workplace: the gym.

Overbeck agreed. "I'm extremely fortunate in that I can bring my son on the road with me, because a lot of moms can't do that."

Smyers incorporates Jenna in her training as much as possible, including running with her in a baby jogger on her shorter runs. When Jenna was younger, Smyers would keep the napping baby poolside in a car seat while mom swam. Moms, take note: "The sloshing of the pool is music to a baby's ears and lulls them to sleep," Smyers said.

Sacrifices for Sports Lifestyle

Still, all the travel and high pressure of professional sports can become wearying for moms, many of whom crammed in extra workouts to get back into shape after a pregnancy, then realized that the tough part was having the stamina to be both super mom and super athlete.

"Some days I come home and I've had a long and hard day at practice or a tough game, and I'm tired and wish my son was staying at his father's," said Swoopes, echoing the thoughts of many working mothers.

"Sometimes I worry if I'm doing the right thing by bringing [my son] along and dragging him from country to country," said Overbeck, whose husband tries to fly from North Carolina to wherever mom and son are about every two weeks.

"In the early years, Jackson was a baby and changing every day. And that would wear on me, knowing that my husband was missing important days and weeks at a time of his son's life."

Couldn't Do It Without Help

Fathers often become Mr. Moms and other family members pitch in to help sports moms succeed.

Serio, a member of the 1992 bronze-medal winning U.S. Olympic basketball team, relies on her husband and mother to help with the kids. "It allows me to concentrate on what I'm doing, knowing that my children are well taken care of and are content. They love my mother, and my husband is a great father, so that helps a lot."

For these brawny moms, which is tougher: the physical demands of sport or labor?

"I'd do 10 Ironmans in a row before going through that labor again," said Smyers of her 48-hour ordeal. "It definitely was not my dream birth, and I was absolutely convinced she would be an only child after going through that. But now we're planning baby number two after this season...The mind forgets pain."

Sidebar: NFL Moms Organize For Sons

Some mothers are playing a role in professional football as well -- as advisers, not players. Cassandra Sneed Ogden formed the group The Professional Football Players Mothers Association, a nonprofit organization with more than 60 participating moms, to offer support services to NFL players and their families.

"When Jonathan was drafted, I was looking for a network of moms who could assist him in making the transition into pro football, and there wasn't such a network," she said of her son, a tackle in his fifth season with the Baltimore Ravens.

She and other mothers of Ravens players met informally at games at Memorial Stadium. After developing a sense of kinship over two years, they organized a teleconference to reach out to other NFL moms nationally. In 1998, they formed the association, which is modeled after The Mothers of Professional Basketball Players for NBA moms.

This year, the association will meet with an NFL representative to talk about the benefits, such as pensions and insurance, the league offers their sons.

"Our sons have the same kinds of problems that most young men have in transitioning to adulthood," Ogden said. "But they've also been given a lot of money early and they haven't learned how to handle that just yet."

The association also wants to hold seminars for mothers of college players, to help educate them about what to look for in an agent and a financial planner should their sons sign a big contract.

But some veteran players aren't wildly enthusiastic about their moms' financial and career advice.

"They think they don't need us," Ogden said, with more than a hint of skepticism. "They think the younger players need us more than they do."

Copyright 2000 ABCNEWS.com

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