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From New Mother to World Cup, In Less Than a Year

Boyds, MD – Saturday May 6, 2017: Cheyna Williams prior to a regular season National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) match between the Washington Spirit and Sky Blue FC at Maureen Hendricks Field, Maryland SoccerPlex.

It was just after I learned I was pregnant that I heard the Jamaican national team would be having their first camp in two years, in the spring of 2018.

Fast forward to the fall, and there I was with Josiah, my eight-week-old son, biting my nails as I watched the national team go into penalty kicks against Panama with the first ever World Cup birth for any Caribbean team on the line.

We won. We were going to the World Cup.

I was so happy for the squad and for Jamaica as a whole. I immediately facetimed my mom, crying. Then I reached out to our head coach, Hue Menzies, and told him that I would do everything I could to be ready for our January camp. I had just been cleared to start running again, and I had my first session with my strength and conditioning trainer the day after the match. I walked into that workout as motivated as I’ve ever been.

Every athlete has been told that it’s all mental – that perseverance is simply a matter of having the right mindset. I’ve heard coaches say it at the end of training, when everyone is gassed but we still have more conditioning. I’ve heard teammates say it when I thought my arms were giving out but I still had another set of push-ups to do.

I even heard it in the delivery room. 27 hours, 18 of them unmedicated – all mental, I was told.

But even then, and even after hearing it again and again throughout my 21 years of competitive sports, it was only after I became a mother that the phrase truly began to speak to me.

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BRYAN BYERLY/ISI PHOTOS

I had no reason to think that I wouldn’t be able to compete again at the highest level. Besides a long labor, I hadn’t had any complications in my delivery. I knew other NWSL players who had returned to form after giving birth, and I had closely followed Serena Williams during her comeback. She has long been someone I admire, which made her return to the court as a mother especially inspiring.

But one thing I failed to anticipate was just how much hormonal change my body would go through post-pregnancy. I wasn’t prepared for how easily these changes would manipulate my headspace. For instance, right before we were discharged from the hospital, I couldn’t figure out how to adjust Josiah’s car seat. I had a complete, spontaneous meltdown, telling myself I should have practiced this ahead of time. It was such a small issue, but my emotions just snowballed out of control.

It was then that “it’s all mental” started to make sense to me. I realized that each and every day, I would first have to get my head right before I could tackle all of the responsibilities that came with being both a new mother and a professional athlete.

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HOWARD SMITH/ISI PHOTOS

My first months back in training were some of the most intense I’ve ever had. I would get up each morning, take my son to training, breastfeed him when I was finished, drive an hour back home, somehow find time to shower and eat, and then head back to the indoor facility for my technical session with my son in his stroller. This was my daily routine until I finally joined my club, the Washington Spirit, in DC for preseason.

It wasn’t easy, and the fact that I was rarely able to get a full night’s sleep certainly didn’t help. But the training itself always mellowed things out. I felt calmer after workouts and more in control of things.

My husband is also a professional athlete, and I will never forget how during my preseason (which was his offseason), before we could find a nanny, he would get up every morning at 4:30am to get all of his training done by 8 so that he could spend the rest of the day with Josiah while I was training. There were also camps in Jamaica when both my mom and my mom-in-law had to come along and tag team childcare, as I was still in the process of weaning Josiah and couldn’t leave him for a week. It means everything to me to know that my family not only believes in my dreams, but also sacrifices for them, too.

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COURTESY OF THE MATTHEWS FAMILY

On the one hand, being a mother means that everyday I wake up and am needed. I am loved so fiercely by this tiny human who wants nothing more than to simply be nurtured. On the other hand, being a professional athlete means having to prove myself every time I step onto the field. It means fighting every day to earn my spot, knowing there are always others working to take my place, and they don’t care that I might be a little sleep-deprived.

There are days when it feels like it’s been forever since I’ve played competitively. These are the days when I wonder if I’ll ever be as good as I once was, when it seems like every touch is a bad touch, or I keep forgetting to track back, or I’m simply too tired too early into training. Sometimes I can’t keep focus and start looking in the direction of my phone during drills, thinking about Josiah. I’ll stare at him after practice and wonder if I should step away from the pitch and focus on just being a great mom and wife.

But when I give myself the space to reflect on it, I know that by continuing to follow my dreams I am showing my son what it means to live an impactful life. I am showing him that it’s possible to be committed to both your passions and your family, that you can still serve others as you chase your own goals. I know that my purpose on and off the pitch is to set an example in the way I work and treat others around me. My hope is that when Josiah is older he can look back on what I’ve done and know that if I could play in a World Cup a year after giving birth, he can do anything he is willing to work for.

Through it all – the sleepless nights, the exhaustive training, the emotional and physical highs and lows of balancing motherhood and competitive soccer – I’ve had to dig deeper into myself and my faith than ever before. I’ve had to ask myself each time I see my son and each time I step onto the pitch, how can I be the best version of myself, for my family, my teammates, and my country?

Little routines can help. Everyday during my commute, I listen to a sermon. It helps me feel like I’m putting on armor before I even step onto the field. I also take time each morning to reflect on what I’m most grateful for. Almost always, it’s my family that tops the list.

I can honestly say that being a mother has only grown my love for the game of soccer. I can’t imagine myself working toward anything else at this point in my life. Knowing that it’s not my sole purpose has allowed me to better focus while I’m on the field and play with a sense of peace. I know that no matter how I play, my son will be waiting to greet me with love.

Being able to compete in a World Cup just nine months after giving birth to a strong, healthy boy was a unique and precious blessing that I didn’t take for granted. When I stepped onto the field in Paris as a new mother, representing both my country and my family, I knew I had already won.

Rose Lavelle hoping to return to play ‘in the next couple of weeks’

uswnt midfielder rose lavalle trains on a soccer field in florida
When healthy, Rose Lavelle is a trusted asset in the USWNT's midfield. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Rose Lavelle is hoping to return to the field soon. 

The 28-year-old midfielder has been sidelined with a lower leg injury since the Gold Cup in early march. Since then, she has yet to play for new club Gotham FC in the NWSL. She also missed a potential USWNT appearance at the SheBelieves Cup in April, where senior team newcomer Jaedyn Shaw saw success assuming Lavelle's role in the attacking midfield. 

At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media showcase on Monday, Lavelle told reporters that she’s doing well and hopes to be back soon.

"I’m doing good — I’m hoping I’ll be back in the next couple weeks," Lavelle said. "It’s frustrating to start the year off with an injury, just because I feel like you come off preseason and you’re revving to go, so it’s so annoying."

Lavelle is still looking to compete for one of just 18 Olympic roster spots. When healthy, she ranks as one of the national team’s most trusted assets, but considering this most recent injury, her health is an obvious concern. Faced with an onslaught of experienced competitors and young talent, incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes will have some big decisions to make when selecting the Paris-bound squad — a reality Lavelle seems to be taking in stride as she works to regain full fitness.

"We have so many special players, we have so much depth, and so many different weapons to utilize on and off the bench," Lavelle said. "Unfortunately that means really good players are going to get left off, too. And I think for all of us, it’s just about being ready for whatever role is given to us, embracing that, and looking to put it into a collective picture so that we can go into the Olympics ready to go."

Kate Paye tapped to take VanDerveer’s place at Stanford

new stanford head coach kate paye spins a basketball on the court
Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye has officially been promoted to head women's basketball coach. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Stanford has found its replacement for legendary head women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer in associate head coach Kate Paye.

The Cardinal confirmed the hiring on Tuesday via a press release. Paye was largely expected to replace the longtime head coach, as the college mentioned they were still negotiating Paye's contract when they announced VanDerveer's retirement.

In Tuesday's statement, Paye reported that she was "humbled" to have been tapped to lead the women’s program.

"Stanford University has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember and I am humbled to have the opportunity to lead its women’s basketball program," Paye said. "I’d first like to thank Tara, who has played such a pivotal role in my career for her friendship and guidance. It’s not what she’s done, but how she’s done it, that has had such a profound impact upon me."

A Woodside, California native, Paye played under VanDerveer from 1992 to 1995, taking home a national title her freshman year. After graduation, Paye briefly joined San Diego State as an assistant coach before making her professional debut with the ABL's Seattle Reign in 1996. After finishing her playing career with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, she joined the team’s coaching staff in 2007 and has been with the organization ever since, picking up another national title win — this time as associate head coach — in 2021. Paye's brother John played quarterback for Stanford from 1983 to 1986, while also serving as a point guard on the basketball team.

In her own response, VanDerveer said that she was "grateful" that Stanford picked Paye to follow in her stead. Last week, the decorated coach stated that this year would be her last after 38 seasons at the helm and three national titles under her belt.

"She has long been ready for this opportunity and is the perfect leader for Stanford at this time of immense change in college athletics," VanDerveer noted. "Kate was the choice for this job and I am confident she will achieve great success as head coach."

After a record-breaking Draft Night, WNBA roster cuts loom

2023 WNBA no. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston playing for the indiana fever
Despite going No. 1 overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Aliyah Boston had to fight hard to make it onto Indiana's roster. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2024 WNBA Draft has officially concluded, leaving the newly minted rookie class facing a tough road ahead.

Only 144 roster slots are available throughout the league’s 12 teams, the reason why the players are sometimes referred to as the “144.” And Monday’s draft picks are set to join a large group of established players competing for those same roster spots, from seasoned veterans to young athletes determined to prove their value on the court.

Last year, just 15 of the league’s 36 draftees made it onto their drafting team's opening-day squad.

In reality, there are oftentimes fewer than 144 spots available, as not every team maxes out their roster. Per the league's CBA, each team roster must maintain a minimum standard of 11 players, but those lists can include players out with injuries or on other forms of leave. Players can also be assigned to short-term hardship contracts, something waived players must be prepared for at any point during the season.

Earlier this week, Laeticia Amihere — a 2022 national champion with South Carolina who currently plays for the Atlanta Dream — took to TikTok to provide some insight into the WNBA training camp process. 

"You can either get drafted on Draft Night, or you can get signed by a team," she said. "Once that happens, you go to training camp literally like two weeks later... Basically everybody's got to try out. There's 12 roster spots, and there's like 18 people at the at the trial."

@laeticiaamihere Replying to @dantavius.washington #wnba #draft ♬ original sound - Laeticia Amihere

Amihere also had an important point to make: Getting cut does not signify a player’s abilities. 

"If you get cut after training camp, that does not mean you're not good," she said. "That does not mean that player sucks, don't stop supporting that player. Literally, there's so many reasons somebody can get cut."

"If you guys look at the best players in the league, most of them have bounced around teams," she added. "And I promise you it is not a bad thing, it's just how the league is."

Things, however gradually, are changing. With Golden State's WNBA team scheduled to launch in time for the 2025 season, league expansion is just around the corner. On Monday, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league is aiming to grow to 16 teams by 2028. But by then, it might be too little too late for the generation of talent emerging from an increasingly competitive NCAA system.

WNBA draft shatters records with 2.45 million viewers

wide shot of BAM during the 2024 WNBA Draft
It wasn't just attendees that were glued to the on-stage action at the 2024 WNBA Draft. (Photo by Melanie Fidler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Monday night’s WNBA draft added to the nationwide uptick in record-breaking women's sports viewership, pulling in 2.45 million viewers throughout the nearly two-hour broadcast and peaking at 3.09 million, according to an ESPN release. 

That number shatters the previous draft viewership record — 601,000 in 2004 — which was fueled primarily by then-No. 1 pick Diana Taurasi entering the league after UConn's historic three-peat March Madness performance.  

The 2023 WNBA draft drew 572,000 viewers, the most for any televised WNBA event since 2.74 million tuned in to NBC for a Memorial Day matchup between the New York Liberty and Houston Comets back in 2000.

While many came to watch Caitlin Clark get drafted No. 1 overall, it’s important to note that viewership didn’t take a massive dip after the superstar shooter left the stage. The numbers show that a bulk of the audience stuck around to watch the remainder of the show, making 2024's event not just the most-viewed WNBA draft in history, but also the most-viewed WNBA program to ever air on ESPN platforms.

Draft Day's popularity is yet another sign indicating an expected rise in WNBA regular season viewership. Clark and Iowa's NCAA tournament showdown with the Chicago Sky-bound Kamilla Cardoso's South Carolina side drew a record 18.7 million to ABC's Sunday afternoon broadcast. Banking on this trend, 36 of Indiana's upcoming 40 games are set to be shown on national television. In-person ticket sales are also soaring, leading the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces to re-home their matchup with the Fever to a venue that can accommodate some 6,000 more fans.

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