How Sheryl Swoopes's Pregnancy Changed Professional Sports Forever

Before her, hardly any female athletes had given birth mid-career. Sixteen years later, it's relatively normal.
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Adress Latif/Reuters

Sheryl Swoopes was at the top of her game in 1997. The year before, she and the United States' women's basketball team won gold at the Centennial Olympics in Atlanta. Shortly after, Swoopes was recruited to play for the Houston Comets and presented as one of the leading faces of the newly-created WNBA. She even received one of the sweetest endorsement deals any athlete could hope for: a partnership with Nike to release the Air Swoopes, companions of the famous Air Jordan line. And then, just before the inaugural season of the WNBA, she announced that she was pregnant. How could this happen? Swoopes says in Swoopes, espnW's upcoming documentary about the basketball star. At the time, very few female athletes had interrupted their careers to have a child--and none at all who were expected to debut a new sports league.

Today, increasing numbers of the best athletes in the world are publicly declaring that they're fitting children into their careers before retirement. Baby announcements and sleek images of nude, pregnant celebrities are ubiquitous. In July, Olympian Kerri Walsh Jennings posed for ESPN the Magazine's annual Body Issue; last September she and her husband announced on the Today show that she'd been five weeks pregnant at the London Games (where she won a gold medal). Those Olympics, heralded as the "Year of the Woman" by Time, also included Malaysian markswoman Nur Suryani Mohd Taibi (seven months pregnant), and field hockey striker Keli Smith (Post-Partum Year One). In 2009, Los Angeles Sparks player Candace Parker discussed her pregnancy, saying, "My whole career has been trying to please people in basketball. Now it's time to please myself." In 2006, there was Olympic slider Diana Sartor from Germany, and the year before that WNBA star Tina Thompson who says in Swoopes, "I don't know if anyone thought that was possible until [Sheryl] did it. Once she did, then it became pretty normal."

The idea of a woman being active, pregnant or not, wasn't always considered normal, or even healthy. A 1912 article from Harper's Bazaar asked if "athletics [are] a menace to motherhood," and less than 75 years later, "Can Sports Make You Sterile?" In 1985, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists published its first guidelines for exercise during pregnancy and advised that women be conservative about movement and avoid bringing their heart rates up. Just three years ago, famed marathoner Paula Radcliffe said it was hard to respond to people who asked her if she was "shaking the baby to death" when she ran during her pregnancy.

Today, though, adverse effects of activity on a pregnant person's body have been negated so thoroughly that researchers have shifted their focus to other areas. Dr. James Pivarnik, director of the Center for Physical Activity and Health at Michigan State, and his colleagues are now examining just how much exercise benefits a pregnant person with regard to diseases like pregnancy-induced hypertension and gestational diabetes. Overall, Pivarnik worries more about everyday women who believe that they, too, can (or should) train like an Olympic athlete while with child.

"People at that level are just different," he says. "Their bodies respond better to training and they can do so much more than the average person physically and psychologically, that pregnancy becomes a mild physiologic distraction. Most of us can only dream of being that skilled, pregnant or not."

Pivarnik also worries about whether pregnant athletes will receive support--not body pillows or a chaise longue, but social support. "These athletes have the same concerns as you and I who aren't going to work out when it's snowing," he says. "It can also be difficult for them in terms of financial ability or having a partner and family to help. But because it's the Olympics they have to figure it out."

Hannah Storm, the director of Swoopes and long-time sports journalist, says having that social support was crucial for Sheryl Swoopes in 1997. Storm chronicled the first years of the WNBA up close as the league's first play-by-play announcer. According to Storm, the league and media were surprised when Sheryl made her announcement, but eventually shrugged it off. "She was coming off this gold-medal win at the Olympics and was such a big star at Nike that it never really occurred to anybody she could get pregnant," Storm says. "But she was and everybody just had to deal." Instead of sulking that its star had performed a natural, biological function without permission, the WNBA decided to market Sheryl as an everyday mom--a convenient hook for the league's effort to peg itself a kid-and-family-friendly outlet. The network filmed her pregnant and shared her progress in promotional material for the WNBA and, more importantly, Houston Comets coach Van Chancellor made it possible for Swoopes to reintegrate herself into the team dynamic just six weeks after giving birth.

"The day [Sheryl] came back was a big deal. No one had ever done that before--especially not on a team sport," Storm says. "Cynthia Cooper deserves credit for being such an exceptional leader and player that season. Sheryl deserves credit for making it normal, and Coach Van Chancellor deserves credit for allowing all of the women on his team to be women."

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Judith Ohikuare is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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