Friday, June 6, 2008

Gold Medal Moms Prepare To Storm Beijing

Jennie Finch thought she was busy back in 2004 when she led the U.S. softball team to Olympic gold in Athens. Already arguably the most famous softball player of all time, the media requests and business opportunities only intensified after the Games, and Finch struggled to balance work and softball with her relationship with then-fiancé, now-husband Casey Daigle.

Then an 8-pound, 10-ounce bundle of joy named Ace entered their lives on May 4, 2006, and Finch learned the true meaning of the word "hectic."

"It's like having the world in your hand and throwing it up in the air and letting it fall wherever," Finch, 27, said. "You just collect the pieces and do whatever you can."

Finch didn't wait long to tackle life as a working mom. She was at the national tryouts just five weeks after giving birth, and she and Ace hit the road with the team soon afterward, with the diapers, bottles and toys packed up with the batting helmets, gloves and cleats. Today, two years later, Finch estimates her son has spent a total of just four months in his actual house, and Ace won't be adding to that number any time soon. After he and Mom meet Dad, a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins, at home on Sunday to celebrate his second birthday (and, of course, Mother's Day), Ace rejoins the softball team as they prepare for the Olympics. That means they'll spend all but eight days on the road in June and July before heading off to Beijing.

But time away from home doesn't mean Ace loses out on playmates his own age. Catcher Stacey Nuveman's 11-month-old son Chase and pitcher Lisa Fernandez's 2-year-old son Antonio are also often with the team, and at the Beijing Olympics their strollers won't be the only ones pulled up to the sidelines. With more and more women finding that having children and pursing an Olympic dream not only go hand in hand, but can actually provide a competitive edge, this might just be the summer of the gold medal mom.

Viewing competition through mommy glasses
"I find being a mother is a huge advantage," said Melanie Roach, mother of three and Beijing hopeful in weightlifting. "Of course, I'm probably a little more tired than I might be if I didn't have children, but I think they provide me the balance that I need to keep my mind off of lifting. When I'm in the gym, I'm in the gym, and that is my focus. But when I'm not in the gym, I'm enjoying being a mom and taking care of those responsibilities ... They really do provide me with the balance that I need to be a more complete athlete."

Roach tried for years - and in two different sports - to reach the Olympics. It was not until she'd had her three children, including a son, Drew, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2 ½, that she gained the perspective she believes will propel her to Beijing.

"I think I was a pretty selfish athlete," she said. Roach, 33, started as a gymnast, and made the unlikely transition to weightlifting 10 years ago. She found success quickly in her second sport, but injuries thwarted her attempt to make the Olympic team.

And then Drew was diagnosed with autism.

"That really brought into perspective all the things that I thought were so devastating in my early career, in my 20s," Roach said. "All of a sudden, not making the Olympic team seemed so minute compared to having a child diagnosed with autism ... [It] made weightlifting just a bonus part of my life. It's not a stress at all. It's really something very special, and just an exciting opportunity that I have to go back and finish what I started eight years ago."

Finishing that journey takes an entire team, Roach readily admits. Her husband, Washington state legislator Dan Roach, pitches in every way that he can, and her mother, Bonnie Kosoff, recently moved in to help with the children.

"I'd like my children to learn that anything is possible if you put your mind to it, and that when you make a decision to do something like pursuing the Olympics, like I have, it needs to be a family affair," Roach said. "It needs to be a group effort, and you hope it's something that would bring your family closer together."

The team behind the team
On a recent softball tour through the Southern states, Finch's aunt and uncle joined the team caravan, allowing the moms and kids to follow the bus in their motor home for a few days. There's always a grandma or aunt or dad in the mix of softball coaches, players and trainers, thanks to a donation by a UCLA alum that pays the travel expenses for a relative of each of the softball moms. USA Softball helps out by providing the moms with their own hotel rooms, rather than doubling up like the other players do.

"I'm just so grateful that [Ace] can be on the road with me," Finch said. "I can't get enough of him."

Three-time gold medalist and professional basketball star Lisa Leslie, 35, relies on her own mother to watch 10-month-old Lauren when they travel.

"I feel really comfortable when she's left with grandma," Leslie said. "I can focus and not worry about her too much."

Like many children of professional athletes, Lauren is already a world traveler, having been overseas and to more than 10 states. While the ability to take Lauren on the road allows Leslie to maintain some semblance of her previous life, more things have changed than stayed the same since she entered motherhood.

While her teammates jam to the latest hits in the locker room, Leslie can't get "The Wheels on the Bus" out of her head; when the team goes out after a victory, mom heads straight home to tuck Lauren in. And those are only the most superficial differences.

"Being a mom changes everything," said Kate Markgraf, USA soccer star and mother to 22-month-old Keegan.

Markgraf, a defender who holds the distinguished record for most games played for the U.S. without a goal scoring, has already won two Olympic medals. But coming from a team with a long tradition of soccer moms, she knows better than to let her new role stop her from pursuing a third.

"I think being a parent puts you at an advantage," Markgraf, 31, said. "I don't sleep nearly as much as my teammates. But my best game since becoming a parent was after I stayed up the entire night because my son was teething. And I ended up having the best game of the year. So I think it's definitely an advantage because it just puts everything in the right perspective."

Leslie agrees.

"It's just an awesome feeling to see her little face and her excitement in the morning. It really drives me."

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