Meaghan Mikkelson slept four hours last night. She just finished a set of squats at a Calgary gym and, this afternoon, she’s expected to be on the ice for practice with the rest of Team Canada. Tears are rolling down her cheeks. I don’t know if I can handle everything, she thinks.
The two-time Olympic gold medallist takes a deep breath as she heads over to the nearby track. There are more good days than bad, she reminds herself as she walks. She reminds herself that she should be proud to be here, that what she’s doing is special.
In the last two weeks, Mikkelson has pulled muscles in both sides of her groin. Her lower back has been in pain for months. She has tendinitis in a wrist and bursitis in a shoulder. But the 2016 women’s world hockey championships are a little more than two months away, and it’s her goal to be there.
The defenceman finishes her lap. She drops into a squat. You can do this, she tells herself. If Mikkelson can in fact do this, she’ll have a new fan in the stands at world championships: Her son, Calder. The four-month-old is the reason she didn’t sleep much last night. And, in a roundabout way, young Calder is also the reason she’s battling a long list of injuries.
My beer league hockey team has a term for what Mikkelson is working her way back from: We call it the “Middle-Body Injury,” or “MBI” for short. No, “pregnancy is not an injury,” Dr. Julia Alleyne points out. She finds the term a little insulting, a negative spin on the joy of bringing new life into the world. We’re sorry, doc, and we promise “MBI” is a joke, a play on hockey’s lower- and upper-body injuries — at least the moms on our team think it’s funny. And the point is, missing time on the ice to have and care for a baby needed a name, because our Tuesday squad loses women to pregnancy every season. It’s always incredible when these moms make it back to hockey, some just a few months after giving birth. (Kathleen Bellehumeur, Sulie Carrier, Erica Dymond, Kate Ferguson, Sarah Skinner — you’re champions.) The fact is, though, this is beer league, so the level of play and the stakes are, well, really low.
But what about the world’s biggest stars? How do women make that same trip back from the “DL – MBI” when the competition and stakes are, well, really high? Elite athletes interrupt their careers to start families all the time, and often at their athletic peaks. Two-time World Cup champion Alex Morgan is expecting in April, and the American also plans to vie for a second Olympic gold medal in July. In 2017, Serena Williams made her return to tennis just five months after the birth of her daughter, Olympia, via emergency caesarian section. Sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce celebrated becoming the world’s fastest woman in 2019 while holding her two-year-old son in her jacked arms. Allyson Felix won the record 12th and 13th world titles of her running career less than a year after she had her daughter.
No doubt, many are wondering how these athletes managed to retain their places among the world’s best so soon after giving birth. Moms in particular might wonder, especially if they found walking fast or sneezing without peeing themselves a little bit were struggles two months postpartum. But these athletes struggle, too, and face as many unknowns as the recreational athlete who starts a family. Not even the experts know exactly what it takes to return to pro sports after you’ve had a baby, in part because no two experiences are the same. The MBI leads to what is probably the least understood comeback in the sporting world. Unlike blowing out your ACL, there are no guidelines or timelines for how and when to return. There’s also the massive life-changing wrinkle of that new role as Mom.
Looking back on the whole thing, Mikkelson just shakes her head: “I honestly didn’t realize what I was getting myself into,” she says.
I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is playing in Melissa Bishop-Nriagu’s car as she drops off her 16-month-old daughter, Corinne, at day care. It’s a Friday morning in late November.
Bishop-Nriagu ate breakfast off a cutting board while spoon-feeding Corinne with her free hand earlier today at their Windsor, Ont., home. In an hour or so, Canada’s top 800-metre runner will hit the track for her first of two Friday training runs. This is base season — building toward the upcoming competition schedule — and while the training is heavy, Bishop-Nriagu is loving it because she’s finally starting to feel more like herself again. “I’m not even cross-training right now,” she says, which is a treat, because the 31-year-old really hates the elliptical. “I’m just running. That’s how healthy [I am]. It’s a big deal.”
In August, Bishop-Nriagu shut down her season after tearing a muscle in her foot, cutting short her first year back since becoming a mom. Her goal in 2019 was to compete at September’s world championships, but Bishop-Nriagu’s best time was nearly a second off the qualifying standard, and four seconds slower than her personal best. The fitness was there — it returned quicker than she expected, as it does for many women post-pregnancy since an increase in blood volume and a surge of hormones can make for good aerobic capacity. “But my body just wasn’t ready,” Bishop-Nriagu says. “My body literally couldn’t keep up with the speed — my joints and my muscles and all my tendons, because they hadn’t really firmed up [again after] pregnancy, with all the hormones and things.
“That was the hardest part,” she continues. “It took me time to learn that I was working with a different body.”
Among the changes a woman’s body goes through in pregnancy, one she’ll continue to feel the effects of after delivery, is a loosening of joints, says Dr. Michelle Mottola, whose lab at Western University is dedicated to exercise in pregnant and postpartum women and was the first of its kind in North America. During pregnancy and while breastfeeding, women release a hormone called relaxin. “It’s specifically to loosen the pelvis a little bit, very slightly, so there’s some pliability to the pelvis so that the baby’s head can pass through the birth canal,” Mottola explains. “Because it’s systemic — which means that it circulates throughout the whole body — it can affect the connective tissue with potentially all of your joints — any weight-bearing joints can be affected.”
That hyper-mobility can lead to an athlete feeling more flexible. It can also increase the chance of injury and strain, which Bishop-Nriagu experienced firsthand. “My body was not behaving the way I wanted it to,” she says. After remaining relatively healthy during her 12-year international career, a string of injuries last season saw a new problem crop up nearly every week. “I couldn’t do my job,” she says.
When Bishop-Nriagu returned to running — she dialled up the intensity and began training hard about six months after she had Corinne — the discomfort was most prominent in her pelvic floor, the group of muscles that supports pelvic organs like the bladder and bowel. “It felt off, and I’m sure a lot of women experience this. Your pelvic floor goes through some major damage when you give birth. It felt loosey-goosey, and nothing was really sitting right,” she says. “It was kind of floating and trying to come back together.”
Bishop-Nriagu took her comeback day-by-day based on how she was feeling. She also asked fellow athletes about their experiences returning to the track after having children, but found the information wasn’t necessarily helpful. “My comeback doesn’t look anything like theirs,” she says. “It’s to each [her] own, basically.” Among the most useful advice she got came from Trent Stellingwerff, a coach who’s now writing her training program. After Stellingwerff’s wife, Hilary, returned to elite-level running following the birth of their son, he compiled data from 10 runners who’d had kids and returned to the track. He found that women suffer significant injuries and decreased performance in their first year back after childbirth, but that Year 2 is a different story, with many runners getting back to their peaks, or even establishing higher ones.
Bishop-Nriagu is finding that applies to her so far. “Now that we’re through it, my body and my muscles and my joints have all firmed up again,” she says. “I’m starting to feel like myself — my pre-pregnancy self.”
The timing is ideal, too. Bishop-Nriagu’s eyes are set firmly on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo this coming July. The 2015 world silver medallist was a heartbreaking 27 milliseconds off the bronze medal at the 2016 Games, passed in the final steps of the home stretch. She settled for fourth. “I want to be in the medal hunt in Tokyo, and I feel that I still have that capability. I’m just stronger now, and I have one more cheerleader,” Bishop-Nriagu says. Her motivation is stronger than ever, too. “It’s showing my daughter that, one day, you can do this. You can be a woman and you can have a career and you can be a mother and you can be successful. You can fight for what you want.”
As for fighting for what she wants on the track, Bishop-Nriagu has found getting back to her speedy self after having a baby is much tougher than she bargained for. “I thought once I had Corinne, ‘Okay, you can run fast now. You’re not carrying anything up front. You’re going to be healthy.’ And it wasn’t that at all,” she says. “Pfff. Like, think again, Melissa! Shake your head. What just happened to your body?
“Oh, it was a journey,” she says, laughing. “Still is.”
There is no comeback in sport as all-encompassing as the one that follows pregnancy and giving birth, plain and simple. “Pregnancy is the only physiological phenomenon we know of where it will affect every system,” says Mottola, who has devoted more than two decades of research to the field of prenatal and postpartum exercise. “We’re talking about cardiovascular changes, respiratory system changes, metabolic changes, endocrine changes, muscle changes — you name it. It affects every system of the body.”
The changes that build for 40 weeks during pregnancy don’t up and disappear the moment a woman has her baby, so coming back from the trauma of delivery itself is just the icing on the recovery cake. A vaginal birth on its own can be likened to “an acute sports injury,” Motolla says, and a woman can have vaginal bleeding for weeks or even months afterward. If she has a C-section, significant time is also needed to recover from that major abdominal surgery — usually at least six weeks. That’s only the start of the comeback.
Dr. Alleyne is a Toronto-based pregnancy exercise specialist who has worked with dozens of athletes in their returns to sport after having a baby, including hockey players, dancers and figure skaters. The first thing she prepares her patients for after they become moms is adapting to the most obvious when it comes to lifestyle changes — a lack of sleep. The effects of that deprivation stretch far beyond just being tired because you only got four hours of shut-eye the night before practice. “If your number of sleep hours is altered, then that affects your muscular coordination, your endurance,” Alleyne says. “That can be a barrier to a woman’s return.”
Waking up in the middle of the night to soothe a crying baby is inevitable. Waking up in the middle of the night to breastfeed is often a choice. Alleyne says nursing can be helpful in getting an athlete back to their game-day weight, but it poses plenty of challenges, too. First there’s the matter of scheduling training “and that separation between mom and baby” around feeds, she says. And, as Bishop-Nriagu found, even if you manage to figure out that tricky timing, heavy training can affect the contents of breast milk. When Corinne was six months old, Bishop-Nriagu was burning so many calories that she couldn’t get enough back in her body to sufficiently sustain herself and her daughter. “The fat content in the milk had reduced so drastically that Corinne was just essentially getting water,” Bishop-Nriagu says. “That was a wake-up call for me to realize: Holy crap, she’s not getting what she needs.” She and her husband, Osi Nriagu, started feeding Corinne formula instead.
And, as Bishop-Nriagu also found, though an athlete can be back in the gym and lifting weights soon after giving birth, she may have trouble getting back her muscle capacity as quickly as she would coming off any injury she’s had in the past. That’s because relaxin, the hormone that causes hyper-mobility in pregnancy, continues to be produced while breastfeeding, “and that can be a barrier to achieving your full strength,” Alleyne explains. A figure skater may find it takes a full year to get her core back to its pre-pregnancy fitness. Her pelvis may be weak, leading to trouble with bladder control. “All of this can take time,” Alleyne says.
There is no set-in-stone instruction for how many weeks or months it might take an athlete to complete her comeback. Alleyne explains that general wisdom recommends a “gradual” return to endurance training. Mottola, too, stresses what’s basically become her motto: “Start low, go slow.” She recommends a three-part return, starting with participation (like walking), then getting back to sport (returning to the basketball court, for example), and lastly, elite-level performance (playing in games.)
“If they don’t take it slowly, they have a higher risk of getting injured. Think about if you were injured — not a pregnancy, but an injury. How would you go back? It’s the same idea,” Mottola says. “Because if you don’t go slow, you could reinjure it. You wouldn’t do that with an acute injury, so why would you do that coming back from 40 weeks of pregnancy? I can’t emphasize enough the caution that is necessary. Think of the trauma that your body has been through. Then you’ve got little to no sleep, you’re breastfeeding, there’s an infant you’re looking after, time management is a big deal, you’re bleeding, there could be urinary incontinence, pelvic-floor trauma.”
The quickest return Alleyne has ever seen from one of her patients was pulled off by a figure skater who competed for a national title just three months after giving birth. “It’s a question of how long an athlete’s gradual progression takes,” Alleyne says. “Is that three months, or the common six months? Some will take a year. It’s not that they don’t succeed, it’s that their progression takes longer.
“Three months is possible, it’s just not common,” she adds. “At that level, being on the world stage, that’s a fair amount of pressure that’s being put on Mom.”
As Team Canada stood on the blue line at Sandman Centre in Kamloops B.C., there were tears in many eyes. For the third straight year, the Canadians had to settle for silver at the IIHF Women’s World Championship. As “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, Team Canada could only watch as the American flag rose to the rafters while their rivals sang and smiled, arm-in-arm on the opposing blue line.
Meaghan Mikkelson felt a wave of emotion after that 1–0 overtime loss. She was sad as she looked at the Americans with their gold medals; she felt happy and accomplished-as-hell as she looked up in the stands and saw her six-month-old son strapped to her husband’s chest wearing his tiny Team Canada jersey. How lucky am I? Mikkelson thought.
She had made it here, after all the struggles and the breakdowns in the gym, the exhaustion and the laundry list of injuries she was still battling. Mikkelson had even been named one of Canada’s alternate captains. She had never felt so proud to win a silver medal. “Seeing Calder in the stands there, it was the most incredible thing in the world,” Mikkelson says now, nearly four years later. “It gives me greater perspective on what I’ve done, and what we’re doing as athletes. It’s a silver medal at a world championships. You’re representing your country, playing the sport that you love. And I have my husband and my kid in the stands. It was a reminder of everything we’d been through. I mean, it’s the most difficult but incredibly rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
The recovery process was a big part of that difficulty, of course, but getting pregnant with Calder in the first place was also far from easy for Mikkelson and her husband, Scott Reid. They’d decided to try to start a family after she won gold with Canada at the 2014 Olympics, but nothing went as smoothly as they’d hoped. Mikkelson had to stop working out and skating hard to try to get pregnant, because training at that high level meant she stopped getting her period. “I was too lean and my body, literally, with that amount of training, it could not house a human,” she says.
Mikkelson is sitting at a picnic bench in downtown Toronto, a day before a September Dream Gap Tour showcase weekend with the Professional Women’s Hockey Player’s Association (PWHPA). Her long, dark hair is in a ponytail, and she’s wearing a striped long-sleeve shirt and tight black jeans.
For the eight months she stopped training, Mikkelson was neither pregnant nor a hockey player. She limited herself to casual skates and a couple of short workouts each week while she tried to put on weight, managing to add 15 pounds so that she could get pregnant. “It was really hard,” she says. “I felt like I was stuck in between two different places, you know? I wanted a child so bad, but I also knew that I wanted to come back. I felt like we were trying to rush it, but it’s so out of your control. For any people that have a hard time getting pregnant, you know that it’s so frustrating.” It took a year in total, and Mikkelson considers herself and Reid lucky that it didn’t take longer.
Mikkelson had planned to take a full year off hockey after giving birth, but that plan went out the window because of the timing of Calder’s arrival. He was born Sept. 27, 2015. With the world championships six months later, that tournament seemed within reach. “Did I need to be back that quickly?” Mikkelson asks, eyebrows raised. “No. But it was a goal that I set for myself. I felt I had to be back playing at full-strength three months after I had him. I had to be at that training camp before worlds.”
When she showed up at that camp in Calgary in mid-January with a three-month-old in tow, more than a few teammates were surprised to see her. “Oh yeah, that was crazy,” says fellow Team Canada veteran Natalie Spooner. “She literally just had a baby and then she’s out there, zooming around on the ice … And you know what? She was actually really good and really strong at that camp.”
Mikkelson was also surprised at how good she felt. “It was honestly one of the best camps I think I’ve ever had,” she says. “Sometimes I think it was the mental break of being away from the stress of performing. I also think I had a different perspective. I just went out and I played free.”
Her focus was entirely on hockey while she was playing and training, and entirely on Calder all the time in between. Mikkelson would wake up a couple of times in the night to feed him, and she’d also use a breast pump to express milk at the rink when she needed to between training sessions.
“I remember I was sitting in between two young players [Amy Potomak and Sophie Shirley], I was 31 at the time and they were each 16, so their age combined is pretty much my age, and I pull out my pump in the dressing room,” Mikkelson says, laughing. “They were both just shocked. It was their first camp. And I was just like, ‘Well, welcome to Team Canada, ladies, this is happening right now!’”
By the time the world championships began, the team’s alternate captain was still feeding and pumping between games and practices. She was wrapped on both sides of her groin, her shoulder was a mess, but she had made her “Momback,” as she calls it.
“Looking back, I think I overdid it — definitely,” Mikkelson admits. “I did what I had to do to get back that quickly. But my body, it really took a beating.”
A little more than four years ago, a group of 16 doctors and researchers gathered in Switzerland to share their knowledge about pregnant and postpartum athletes. The three-day conference was organized by the International Olympic Committee in an effort to understand what was already known about the subject and where additional research was needed, and the experts gathered eventually generated five research papers. The paper that focused on postpartum exercise pointed out there is “scant” research evidence available about pro and elite sportswomen returning to exercise and competition after childbirth. It cited an “urgent need” for more research on postpartum exercise and its effects on the pelvic floor. The conclusion reached in the fourth paper: “We call for international collaboration to advance research in this area so that athletes can be given advice based on evidence, rather than anecdote.”
Though a full Olympic cycle has passed since all those experts gathered, “there are still a lot of questions,” says Mottola, who was among the 16 invited to Switzerland. “And especially for the elite athlete.”
Mottola says that even though more work in the field is necessary and would be helpful, don’t expect to see a book detailing What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Return to Elite-Level Sport After Having a Baby, “at least not if it’s research-based,” she quips. There are simply too many variables, from the sport of choice to each woman’s pregnancy to her training regime to her support network. “It’s one of those areas where it’s difficult to take a look at the research and come up with a one-size-fits-all type of scenario,” Mottola says. “It depends on so many factors. How do you conduct a study on that? It’s very difficult.”
Bishop-Nriagu looked into research studies when she was exercising while pregnant and during her return, to inform both, but found there wasn’t much out there. “It’s such a dicey area,” she says. “When you think about it, you’re potentially risking two lives here.”
That’s among the reasons prenatal and postpartum exercise at the highest levels are so difficult to study: Imagine asking a bunch of elite athletes to push it too far after having a baby, just to find out what “too far” looks like in terms of effects on their bodies and on their children’s wellbeing. There’s also the fact that the pool of elite-athlete moms is relatively small compared to, say, the recreational athlete, where a lot more research has been done.
One study that informs some knowledge on the subject was conducted on women in the military who returned to the field after giving birth. The findings tell us a lot when it comes to variance in experience: Some of the military women got back to their pre-pregnancy fitness level in as little as two months, while others needed as long as two years. The mean was 11 months, and when their fitness was tested six months after giving birth, only 19 per cent of the soldiers performed the same or better than they did when tested pre-pregnancy.
Soldiers aren’t a perfect comparison point for athletes, but Mottola expects that in the next five years, there will be more data than ever when it comes to elite sportswomen. “At least women are now documenting, whereas before, no one really ever did,” she says, a development she attributes in part to social media. “Basically, we’re relying on the athletes to tell their stories. Even still, there are so many confining factors with this field.”
Tayler Hill was in Israel for her first season of overseas pro basketball when she was dealt the shock of her life.
The Minnesotan was 23 years old, and she had just wrapped up her rookie year in the WNBA. Shortly after her Washington Mystics lost in the first round of the 2013 playoffs, Hill, a fourth-overall pick earlier that year, moved to Israel to start her second season, the more financially lucrative of the two. “That rookie season in the WNBA had ended so positively for me, personally, and I started playing really well,” she says, from her home in Dallas. “And then it was, BOOM! ‘You’re pregnant!’”
She didn’t believe the first test she took, “so I took six more,” Hill says. The results were… the same.
Hill is one of seven children, and her mother was with her in Israel at the time, planning to help her daughter adjust to life overseas. Then plans changed drastically. “My mom was like, ‘Okay Tayler, you’re ridiculously pregnant.’”
Hill immediately called up her then-boyfriend, David Lighty. The pair met in college while playing for Ohio State and he was also overseas, playing pro ball in France. It was 4 a.m. when his phone rang. “Wake up!” Hill told him. She made him turn on every single light in his apartment. “I have something to tell you,” she said.
Lighty’s reaction was not at all what Hill expected. “That’s really good!” he said. “We’re going to be a family. We’ll figure out a way to make it work.”
“Are you sure?” she asked. “One, I just finished my rookie season, and two, it’s a lot of money on the line.” But Lighty was certain they were going to be able to make it work on his salary alone to start, and later, that they could balance a family with two parents playing basketball on different continents. He suggested she move to France so they could be together for the rest of her pregnancy. “And from there, we literally figured out a way,” Hill says. Their son, Maurice, was born in June of 2014.
The way that Lighty and Hill “figured out” required, and still requires, a whole lot of support, including a live-in nanny. And that’s what both Mottola and Alleyne stress: A pro-athlete mother can’t do all of this on her own if she expects to come back to her sport at full strength.
Hill says the support started with Mystics coach and GM, Mike Thibault. It wasn’t easy to tell him that the team’s star rookie was going to be missing her second season. “But right from the start, he was so, so supportive,” Hill says. “He took me under his wing like a daughter and helped me raise Maurice and supported me when it came to basketball. I never felt rushed coming back, never felt like I wouldn’t have a spot.”
Hill did doubt that she’d be able to get back to her old self, though. She was eight months pregnant when the WNBA season started, and she cried herself to sleep “many, many nights,” she says, wondering: Will I ever get back to where I want to be? She questioned whether it was the right time to start a family. “I had all these different thoughts, because I didn’t want to be behind. And I felt like I was just going to be so far behind,” she says.
Hill leaned on yet another part of her support network to get her through those doubts. Candace Parker missed part of her second season in 2009 to have her daughter, Lailaa. Parker was the WNBA’s MVP and Rookie of the Year in 2008, and some critics called her selfish for taking a break to start a family, while others questioned whether she’d ever come back to her full speed. Parker was named a second-team all-star that 2009 season (she returned midway), she won her second league MVP award in 2013 and led the Los Angeles Sparks to a title in 2016. She’s very back.
Parker’s main advice to Hill was not to panic if she didn’t feel like herself immediately when she first got back on the court. “She said it took her a full year,” Hill says.
Hill started working out five-and-a-half weeks after she had Maurice, once she was cleared by doctors. Either Lighty or family or her nanny would watch Maurice during those sessions. Mystics trainer Navin Hettiarachchi helped with everything, including nutrition and taking Hill through workouts in the pool and on anti-gravity machines that allowed her to run without the full weight of her body. “He held my hand the whole way,” Hill says.
Less than two months after she’d given birth, Hill started attending Mystics practices, to watch and keep up with what her team was doing, often nursing on the sidelines. Soon after, she was participating, and less than three months after she’d had Maurice, Hill was back on the court for games — just in time for tail end of the 2014 season. The ongoing support from the team around her, Hill says, kept her positive and confident, even when she didn’t feel quite like herself. “They were like, ‘You just had a baby a few months ago. A lot of women aren’t back at work yet, and you’re here playing a professional sport,’” she remembers. “All those things helped me get back to where I needed to be.”
While she had lost all her pregnancy weight by the time she returned to the Mystics lineup, “I was way different,” Hill says. “I was far from where I needed to be. I wasn’t toned, my stomach was different. My balance was off, I was a step or two slower than I was used to.”
Hill didn’t play much at the end of that season or during her team’s playoff run — the guard logged 39 minutes total in five games in the regular season, and just four minutes in a playoff game — but it did a lot for her confidence going forward. “It was perfect,” she says. “It felt good, more than anything, to know I could still get out there.”
Hill started to feel more like herself during the 2015 season, averaging 7.5 points in 17 minutes per game. In 2016, she led the Mystics in points (15.4) and minutes (29.3) and she was runner-up for the WNBA’s Most Improved Player award. Hill was traded to Dallas in 2018, but she hasn’t logged many minutes with the Wings — she had season-ending knee surgery last year just four games in.
Hill is looking forward to a healthy and full 2020 campaign, and this off-season, she’s spending time with Maurice in Dallas, in her hometown of Minnesota and in France, where Lighty still lives and plays. At five, Maurice already has a lot of stamps in his passport.
Right now, he’s in the backyard in Dallas playing basketball. He loves the game, just like mom and dad. Old clips of Larry Bird and Michael Jordan are his favourites to watch, and he’s a big fan of LeBron James and Paul George.
Maurice says he’s going to be a first-round pick in the NBA. Hill hears him all the time in the yard, calling play-by-play while he’s shooting on the hoop and emulating his favourite players.
“Maurice, between the legs, behind the back, for the win — three, two, one!” he’ll say, throwing up his arms after a ball drops. “The crowd goes craaaazy!”
Mikkelson’s team just registered a shootout win in a PWHPA showcase game, and after a quick snack and cool-down, she throws her hockey bag over her shoulder and walks out to her rental car in the Westwood Arena parking lot in Toronto. The flight home to Calgary is just a couple of hours away.
Over her left shoulder, Mikkelson carries a cooler bag. She has already changed the ice in there three times today, and she’ll do so again before she drops it in her hockey bag and checks it in at the airport. That cooler contains two days’ worth of breast milk, about 12 bottles in all, for Mikkelson’s eight-month-old daughter, Berkley.
Yes, Mikkelson is in the midst of comeback No. 2. And it looks and feels a heck of a lot different than No. 1. “I feel like this time I did it right. Knock on wood, I’m not injured,” the 35-year-old says, grinning.
While Mikkelson was skating hard seven weeks after Calder was born, she waited until seven weeks and a doctor’s clearance before doing any kind of workout after Berkley. And this time, she started with walking. “I had a whole different approach, one that I wish I would’ve had with my son, too,” she says. “Maybe it would have made me appreciate it a little bit more. I also knew that I had so much more time to try to come back.”
Berkley was born in January 2019, and while the world championships were that April, Mikkelson chose not to try to rush back this time. Instead, she targeted a Team Canada training camp in September, giving her about eight months to prepare. “It felt like an eternity compared to three months I gave myself last time,” she says. “I rested and then I really made sure that I took care of myself. My focus was Calder, Berkley and myself. I listened to my body, and maybe it was because it was the second time around, but this time I knew what I was doing and I had the luxury of time, which was great. Every time I wanted to put more weight on or start running, I reminded myself to take it slow. I wanted to make sure that I showed up at camp healthy and strong.”
Mikkelson did, too. Just ask Sarah Fillier. “It’s insane,” says Fillier, a shifty, 19-year-old forward who made her debut with the senior national team in 2018. “I can’t imagine having two children and coming to these camps — honestly, it was crazy to see her. And she dominates the game. I remember I came down for a one-on-one with her and she used one arm to push me into the boards. She is next-level. I’ve never, ever met someone like her before.”
Defender Renata Fast is watching two of her long-time teammates return to Team Canada after having kids, in Mikkelson and Meghan Agosta, who had her daughter, Chance, in November of 2018. “I think this is honestly one of the most underrated comebacks in all of sport,” Fast says. “I mean, to have a child and then be able to raise the child and still pursue your dreams as an athlete? And for Mikkelson to have done it a second time? It’s honestly unbelievable.”
So unbelievable that the most common question Mikkelson hears from teammates these days is a wide-eyed “How did you do it?” She’s sure not to make it sound like a piece of cake, but the first thing she tells them is: “You can do it, too.”
Hill and Bishop-Nriagu echo that sentiment. Last season, a reporter asked Bishop-Nriagu if she’d ever considered retirement after having Corinne. The answer was a clear and resounding no. “It’s a preconceived notion that you won’t come back to where you were,” she says. “I think so many women are blowing up that view right now. I mean, having a baby at the peak of your career, that is totally a personal choice. But it’s the best gift we’ve ever had. Regardless of what people may tell you or what people think, you just sort of say, ‘Screw you. This is what I want.’ You can do both.”
Hill is seeing more and more examples of moms making their way back in the WNBA. “It’s almost every year you’re hearing about a player having a baby,” she says. Her Wings teammate, Glory Johnson, has twins. (“I don’t know how she does it,” Hill says.) The New York Liberty’s Bria Hartley had her son in 2017. Skylar Diggins-Smith, a four-time all-star, plans to play her first season as a mom in 2020 after playing the entire 2018 campaign while pregnant. “Now, more than ever, you’re starting to see that you can be a mom and a professional athlete,” Hill says.
Mikkelson is helping prove exactly that to many of her teammates, as just the second member of Canada’s national women’s hockey team — after Becky Kellar — to return to the world or Olympic stage after having a baby. Though she’s now through the toughest parts of her second recovery, those early months, she knows there are difficult roads ahead. Being in Toronto for 48 hours hasn’t been easy, with Calder and Berkley back at home. When she FaceTimes with Calder, the four-year-old tries to reach for her through her husband’s phone. Berkley just looks at the screen and listens to mom’s voice.
“It’s going to be a really hard year for me, I already know, being away from them,” Mikkelson says. Her eyes well up with tears. “But I’m so lucky.
“I know I’m going to look back on this one day and wonder how I did it. I’ll also think about how awesome and how much fun it was. It’s the greatest thing in the world, being a parent,” she says. “Anyone who wants to do both, it’s possible and it’s all so worth it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
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