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How Crystal Dunn sent her soccer team to the finals just 5 months after giving birth

The World Cup champion scored the game-winning goal in a semifinal match against San Diego

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United States’ Crystal Dunn, left, challenges Netherlands’ Lineth Beerensteyn during the Women’s World Cup final, July 7, 2019.

United States’ Crystal Dunn, left, challenges Netherlands’ Lineth Beerensteyn, right, during the Women’s World Cup final soccer match at the Stade de Lyon in Decines, outside Lyon, France, Sunday, July 7, 2019.

Alessandra Tarantino, Associated Press

The Portland Thorns’ Crystal Dunn gave birth to her first child in May. On Sunday, 156 days later, she scored a game-winning goal and sent her team to the National Women’s Soccer League championship.

Thorns coach Rhian Wilkinson subbed Dunn into the game in the 62nd minute. With the game tied 1-1, Dunn scored on her second shot of the game in the third minute of stoppage time, according to the Oregonian. The Thorns beat the San Diego Wave 2-1.

After the win, Wilkinson commented on Dunn’s achievement and journey back to the team, cautioning other mothers not to rush their returns.

“I don’t also want other mothers in the league to now think they’ve got to do what Crystal Dunn did,” Wilkinson said, according to Just Women’s Sports. “It is incredible what she did, but it was done very carefully with a lot of very, very skilled people supporting her return to play.”

Dunn and the Thorns will play the Kansas City Current in the championship on Oct. 29.

Crystal Dunn’s return from pregnancy

Dunn, a World Cup champion and the 2021 CONCACAF Player of the Year, stayed with her team late into her pregnancy, continuing to train while nine months pregnant.

She was even practicing volleys, an airborne strike, with her husband Pierre Soubrier, the Thorns’ head athletic trainer, the week before she gave birth to her child, Marcel, according to Just Women’s Sports.

She returned to the field in September and played in five games for the Thorns this season. Dunn was also selected for the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s 24-player roster to play against England and Spain earlier this month.

“It’s really hard for me to process that five months ago I gave birth and worked my way back to be available for these last couple of games,” Dunn said, according to the Oregonian. “I just have felt supported and wanted to return that support to my teammates for allowing me to be a part of the journey, even if I was out for a bit recovering from delivery.”

Dunn knows she’s not the first athlete to balance her career and motherhood, but she wants to be an example for athlete mothers navigating their way back to playing.

“I’m not the first female athlete to be pregnant and give birth and have my career and be a mother at the same time, but I feel the more and more that we can speak out about our experiences and push for the next generation to feel like they have the option to do so as well is how you set up the future,” she told Just Women’s Sports.

Maternity leave in women’s professional sports

Until the National Women’s Soccer League and its players association ratified their first collective bargaining agreement in February, the league didn’t offer its players maternity leave. Now, players are granted eight weeks of parental leave for either the birth or adoption of a child, according to CBS Sports.

Dunn is hardly the first player to rush back to professional women’s soccer after pregnancy. Her national team teammate Alex Morgan gave birth to her daughter in May 2020 and was training to play for the U.S. in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed until 2021, allowing Morgan more time to return to game shape.

Prior to the CBA, players had to figure out maternity leave on their own. In 2021, the Chicago Red Stars’ Arin Wright was the team’s first player to take an unofficial maternity leave in four years as she worked to come back after having a C-section, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Wright turned to players like Sydney Leroux Dwyer and Morgan for advice and inspiration.

Maternity leave has been a key benefit women’s professional sports leagues have included in recent collective bargaining agreements.

In 2020, the WNBA guaranteed all players a fully paid maternity leave in their new CBA. Before that decision, players made half their salary while on maternity leave, an average of $37,500, The Atlantic reported.