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."