Only six months had passed since I won my second gold medal with the U.S. Women’s National Team, which we’d earned at the 2012 Olympics in London. It was also the eve of the inaugural season of the National Women’s Soccer League. We were used to the buzz that came every four years, around World Cups and Olympic quests, but there was an excitement around women’s soccer again, this time heightened and seemingly sustained for a professional league. I was set to play for the Seattle Reign alongside my U.S. teammates Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe.
In all of my years playing soccer, I’d never been away from the game for any amount of extended time. I considered myself lucky. You see players get injured and watch as they work tirelessly to get back to an elite level of play and the game they love, never knowing if their body will be the same. I had never experienced that.
And then I got pregnant.
I can’t say it was totally planned, but my husband and I figured that whatever God had in store for us, we would be happy. I always knew I would have kids, but I thought it would be in a couple of years. It was a blessed surprise and of course one of the greatest things to ever happen in my life.
I actually had my 100th cap with the national team in a 2-0 win against China when I was pregnant, and I didn’t even realize it. But after the initial excitement came the sudden and scary realization: my body as I knew it would change beyond my control, and I had no idea what was to come.
Athletes condition their bodies to the ultimate level. Control is everything — control of your body and control of your mind. I’d come to know both very well, and that gave me confidence. But time away from the game for any reason, I learned, makes you question yourself. How would my body respond after pregnancy? Would I lose my speed? Would I be able to score goals like I did? Would there be certain expectations for me? I even wondered: Will I ever be able to play at the same level again? I knew I’d have to miss one season but I also knew I wasn’t ready to hang my cleats up forever.
Underlying all of my questions, however, was one truly positive and beautiful fact: I was going to be a mom.
My pregnancy was, by many measures, relatively easy. I didn’t have morning sickness. I tried to stay pretty fit. I ate really healthy and took care of myself. I worked with a physical therapist that specialized in prenatal and postnatal care. She really helped me, educating me on pregnancy exercises. During those nine months, I also had the mindset to prepare my body as much as possible to come back strong and quickly.
Still, it was really hard to sit out and watch all of my teammates play. I saw the National Team carry on without me. That’s the way it is. When a player can’t play, for whatever reason, another talented player steps up. All I could think was, Well, they don’t need me anymore. They’ve moved on. That’s an isolating feeling and messes with a player’s confidence. When you’re trying to come back from injury, or in my case, pregnancy, and you feel like everyone’s doing fine without you — that can be hard to deal with. I have always been a relatively confident player. I’m a forward; I like to score goals. When you score goals, you feel good. When you’re not — when you can’t even try — that confidence starts to wane.
My NWSL team must’ve had the same questions about me as I had about myself — mostly, would I be the same player? They traded me to Kansas City before the start of the 2014 season. That was heartbreaking. In Seattle, I had extended family on my husband’s side so I was really looking forward to playing there, especially as I was going to be caring for a new baby.
Luckily, one of my best friends and fellow U.S. teammate Lauren Holiday was also playing for KC, which was comforting and reassuring. It made everything a little easier.
I left Seattle with something to prove. They didn’t believe in me, I thought. U.S. Soccer had been great with me during the entire pregnancy and I knew I would get another shot, but still, I went from cloud nine off the Olympic gold to feeling like I may never get to have an experience like that again.
On August 6, 2013, my son, Ryan John Shilling, was born.
He became my motivation.
After Ryan was born, my body just wasn’t the same. I’d gained 30-plus pounds. My balance was off. Everything felt weird. I couldn’t work out for six weeks — doctor’s orders. But after those six weeks, I started going to the gym for some light weight training. Then, soon after, I started jogging. I remember that during some of my workouts I’d get really light-headed. One session in particular, I got really dizzy and started to cry. I wondered, Am I going to face this every time? Am I always going to feel this way? Am I going to be okay? I knew my body had changed but was this a permanent consequence?
It was around the two-month mark after I had my son when I started playing soccer again. I’d go out and play with younger boys’ and girls’ club teams. I also worked one-on-one with a private coach to get my touch on the ball back. Those sessions eased me back into competitive play. Within four months, I was ready to join the National Team again.
I was intimidated. I’d gone almost a full year without playing elite competitive soccer. But I felt good. I’d had enough time and training to get back to where I felt like my old self.
The first few games back with the team, I hardly got to play. The team was going through some transition, but for me, I was back with family. I was greeted and people helped me greatly, especially two other moms on the team at the time: Christie Rampone and Stephanie Cox. Stephanie had her baby just four months prior to me, so we were going through very similar experiences. I’d felt isolated before but now I was going through this with someone who understood. She made me feel really comfortable and helped me out with the adjustments.
I had to spend a lot of time away from my son to train to get back on the soccer field. I relied on the help of other people. My husband was amazing — he took such a big role in looking after our son during that time, as did my parents. My son has turned out to be so good and so well-rounded already — that’s a testament to everyone who’s helped us along. I was so lucky to have all of these wonderful people, and so was he.
It was hard, though. While my body was back, my mind was split between that desire and instinct to be with and care for my son, and to be the elite athlete I am and balance all that comes with it. Training. Traveling. Media. I’ve had to sacrifice a lot of “Mommy and me” time. And I can’t get that time back. It kind of tears me apart sometimes — to be on the road because of my job, which I love so much, but to miss Ryan’s first word or first tooth.
That’s the part no one can prepare you for.
Thankfully, the sacrifices that my family and I have made have been worth it. I never would’ve imagined that I’d be on this team heading into the World Cup. Just one year ago, my place on the National Team was up in the air. Even just a few months ago, I didn’t know if I’d make the 23-player roster. I knew that it was going to be tight, and I’d done all I could to come back and perform at the level I once did. I worked diligently with our fitness coach, doing extra fitness after practice every day. I worked on shooting, footwork, everything. I wanted this World Cup so badly.
And I got it. I made the roster.
Like my pregnancy, I don’t know what’s on the other side of this World Cup. But I’m comfortable with those questions now. I’ve got a chance to win the World Cup, and a wonderful gift of a son who’ll soon be two years old. So go ahead — call me a Soccer Mom. I’ve earned it.
Photographs by Getty Images