Family planning, fertility key for WNBA, NWSL, Olympic female athletes

The first time Kaillie Humphries plunged a needle filled with fertility hormones into her abdomen, the Olympic gold medalist knew exactly the path that had led to this moment. 

To recap: 2010 Olympic gold in two-woman bobsled, followed by the 2014 Olympic gold, again in two-woman bobsled. Then there was the 2018 Olympic bronze, also in two-woman bobsled and finally, in February, another Olympic gold, this time in monobob.

In between there were 13 world championship medals, a move from Canada to America and a switch to Team USA after Humphries alleged abuse by a former Canadian coach. She later became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Suffice it to say, after starting bobsled at 17, Humphries didn’t have much time for a personal life.  

One of the most decorated Olympians in Winter Games history, Humphries loves her sport. But it’s not lost on her that “you give a lot of your prime reproductive years to being the best athlete in the building,” she told USA TODAY Sports.

Now, at 36, Humphries is ready to tackle another challenge: motherhood. And because of her age, she’s got to be strategic about it.

For decades, women were told that if they wanted children, they’d likely stagnate, or even take a step back, in their careers. While previous generations of athletes were often encouraged to wait until retirement to start a family, a new wave of women is eschewing that line of thinking.

To wit: Less than a year after giving birth to her daughter, Serena Williams, widely considered the best tennis player of all time, returned to the court and played in her 10th Wimbledon final at 37. Allyson Felix, the most decorated athlete in the history of track and field, had her daughter in 2018, and three years later at the Tokyo Olympics, won a bronze medal in the 400 at age 35. Both women suffered life-threatening complications during delivery.

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What’s more, professional women’s leagues, teams and organizations are paying attention and trying to help. In a groundbreaking move, the WNBA’s latest collective bargaining agreement includes a variety of progressive motherhood and family planning benefits, with veteran players able to get reimbursed up to $60,00 in costs for adoption, surrogacy and fertility treatments, including egg and/or embryo freezing. Maternity leave is now paid at 100%, and current mothers receive a $5,000 childcare stipend annually.

Meanwhile in the NWSL, a handful of teams including Racing Louisville, the Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars, have partnered with fertility clinics to aid players in freezing their eggs and/or embryos. 

Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the WNBPA, pushed hard for many progressive motherhood and family planning benefits in the WNBA's CBA.

“Everybody came from a woman. We’re not here without women,” Nneka Ogwumike, a forward for the Los Angeles Sparks and president of the WNBPA, told USA TODAY Sports’ Changing the Game podcast. “Negotiating this CBA, it occurred to me that there is so much these moms do not have. With the responsibilities that women have to be both mothers and to also be working … we have to create resources to empower women in all of their roles.”

Fertility is ‘100% a pay equity issue’

Fertility treatments often set women back tens of thousands of dollars, a price tag that cuts deep when you consider the paltry salaries and considerably smaller endorsement deals professional female athletes get compared to their male counterparts.

“This is 100% a pay equity issue,” said Humphries, who will complete her second round of fertility treatments this week, a process that’s set her back about $24,000 cumulatively, the equivalent to her Team USA stipend for one year.

Kaillie Humphries’ legacy of fighting for gender equity in bobsled is more important than trophies

Humphries suffers from stage 4 endometriosis, a painful disorder where uterine tissue grows outside the uterus. Should she get pregnant naturally, endometriosis may put her at higher risk for ectopic pregnancy, when an embryo implants outside the uterus, typically in the fallopian tube. If not caught early and treated expediently, ectopic pregnancies can cause major internal bleeding and sometimes result in death. 

That makes in vitro fertilization (IVF) the safest route for Humphries. (The difference between IVF and egg freezing is the inclusion of sperm.) But because her insurance company has deemed it an elective procedure, she and her husband, Travis Armbruster, are paying most of the cost out of pocket.

What’s worse, fertility treatments and family planning are an emotionally and physically taxing process that can be full of heart-wrenching turns.

Patients spend weeks on medications, including daily shots to get their ovaries to produce as many mature eggs as possible. Eggs are harvested and then, if doing IVF, sent to an embryologist.

On average, about half of the eggs retrieved are mature enough to implant with sperm. After days of lab growth and monitoring, patients get details on how many viable embryos they have. Success rates can vary widely by clinic. Patients watch the number dwindle while simultaneously hoping it remains as high as possible. Humphries harvested 48 eggs in her first retrieval, which resulted in three viable embryos, currently being stored in Texas.

It can be a game of failure, a particularly rough reality for someone who’s achieved incredible heights in her profession.

“My body has failed me,” Humphries said. “It’s so hard, as an athlete, to know that.”

Kaillie Humphries, who's won multiple medals as an Olympic bobsledder, is ready to tackle another challenge: motherhood.

It takes a physical toll, too, even for some of the most fit people on the planet.

Before the NWSL season started in March, Becky Sauerbrunn, a defender for the Thorns and captain of the U.S. Women’s National Team, stepped away from the game to freeze her eggs. (She paid for it herself, as the Thorns’ partnership with a fertility clinic hadn’t yet been finalized.)

Essentially forbidden from working out, Sauerbrunn was told to “keep two feet on the ground at all times, basically, and not get your heart rate above 160,” unusual instructions for a world-class athlete. Because ovaries enlarge during IVF, there’s risk that physical activity could lead to ovarian torsion, or twisting, a rare but dangerous condition that could require surgery and lead to loss of the ovary.

Side effects from hormone treatments include headaches and drowsiness. It’s typical to gain weight during IVF treatments, too. Humphries said she was “the most out of shape I’ve ever been” leading up to her first egg retrieval. As an Olympian who’s regularly drug tested, her treatments came with an extra twist, as she had to get permission from bobsledding’s governing body before shooting up with hormones.

This makes any and all fertility procedures an offseason project, one women athletes wish was talked about more. And it’s not just a conversation about how expensive it’s going to be, but where and how athletes can get support.

“It is not fair that elite female athletes feel like they have to choose between family and a career,” Sauerbrunn said. “Organizations have to be cognizant of that.”

Humphries agreed.

“A lot of us don’t have endorsement deals and money is a big stopping point,” she said. “If you’re an athlete, are you going to put $15,000 toward a new coach, new equipment or harvesting your eggs? Because it costs roughly the same. And if you’re 25, you’re probably choosing the coach or equipment.”

Team USA, Humphries points out, has more than 50 medical experts on its payroll — but none specializes in fertility. That needs to change, she said.

For professional women athletes, fertility planning is ‘progress’ 

Sauerbrunn credits the Thorns with an assist when it comes to educating her and her teammates about fertility.

Sauerbrunn made a plan to freeze her eggs after the Thorns hosted a women’s health seminar last year that Sauerbrunn called “really eye-opening.”

“They went over how, after 35, there’s a steep decline in fertility and I was sitting there, as a 36-year-old, thinking, ‘I really need to get on this!’ ” said Sauerbrunn, who can’t help but wonder if she’d done this earlier “would I have even more security about the future? I’m telling all my teammates, if you have the time to do it, you definitely should.”

Becky Sauerbrunn of the Portland Thorns took time off from training to freeze her eggs.

On a podcast earlier this year, Sauerbrunn admitted that she was nervous to tell her employers — in this case, the USWNT and Thorns — that she’d be sidelined for a few weeks, an anxiety many working women can relate to. At 37, Sauerbrunn’s not yet considering retirement, so she’s not sure when she might use those eggs. She knows nothing is guaranteed.

But also, she doesn’t have to look far to find a success story.

Just 170 miles north up Interstate-5, WNBA All-Stars Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird, both of the Seattle Storm, have talked openly of freezing their eggs. Stewart froze hers a couple years ago while recovering from an injury. She was 25, and harvested about 40 eggs. Bird was 38 when she did it, and got 10.

Bird and Stewart were encouraged to do so by their agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas of Wasserman. Colas, who represents multiple WNBA athletes, has been open about her own fertility journey and urges all her clients to be proactive about fertility planning. She told USA TODAY Sports that some of her other clients have used the WNBA’s fertility money for freezing, surrogacy and embryo transfers.

Last August, Stewart and wife Marta Xargay welcomed daughter Ruby, born via surrogate using one of Stewart’s eggs. Ruby is a giggling, cooing fixture at Seattle games, and has been christened the cutest member of the Storm family.

“Sometimes it’s hard to really see progress in women’s sports,” Sauerbrunn said.

“It can really feel like two steps forward and 60 steps back. With fertility, we’re doing good things … there are good days and bad, but we just have to keep fighting and hoping that we’re making it a little better and easier for the next generation of athletes.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

Follow enterprise reporter Lindsay Schnell on Twitter @Lindsay_Schnell

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