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Feb 14, 2008

Lilly and Ellertson plan to return to action

Take a walk in the cleats of a pregnant professional athlete. It may feel like it -- but no, you didn't just play back-to-back 90-minute soccer games in a scorcher that makes every pore gush Niagara Falls. Think heat flashes are the only symptom? No, those throbbing feet and that stiff lower back, overactive bladder, wave of nausea and deep fatigue don't budge. They stay there, for about 150 days, give or take. But through all the aches and pains, there's a sense of utter elation and energy radiating from your gut. It's not adrenaline. It's a growing baby.

Two U.S. women's national team members are playing for something greater than gold medals and World Cup trophies. They play for a special audience of one -- soon to be their greatest fans. With more than a 10-year age difference between them, Kristine Lilly and Tina Ellertson find each other as cross-continental training partners and moms-to-be.

The road ahead is one that used to dead end in retirement. Joy Fawcett and Carla Overbeck were the first professional women's soccer players to pave a different thoroughfare through pregnancy, the kind that takes a brief detour and then straightens out into a long and rewarding career.

Tina Ellertson has been through it before. Seven years ago, Ellertson was forced to forgo the opportunity to play for powerhouse Santa Clara as an incoming freshman. She had a child instead. But she played her way onto the University of Washington team the following year, juggling baby bottles, soccer balls and textbooks. Ellertson's role models surround her this time. "It's not easy, you know. Christie Rampone, Kate Markgraf -- I commend them for coming back [from having babies]. That's something I really desire, I want to come back as fast as I can and get out there again."

But nine months off is not a luxury professional athletes can afford, much less female pros. For the average person, doing 100-yard sprints or stadium stairs with a bowling ball for a stomach is out of the question, but for Ellertson and Lilly, the issue is how to do these drills in moderation.

"Pretty much what I'm doing is the same stuff that I would have done if I wasn't pregnant. I've been asked to take it down a notch," says Ellertson, who is five-and-a-half months pregnant. "I'm not making the times on a sprint test or our distance test. I'm doing it so that after I have the baby my body hasn't forgotten too much. I'm doing the weights, sprints, long distance running, I'm just doing it at a different level." Her goal is ambitious, but one that has been accomplished by the women before her (namely, Fawcett and Overbeck): train up to nine months, and rejoin the team for the Olympics.

"It's neat," says Lilly on the joint pregnancies with Ellertson, who agrees, "I think we're gonna do our best to keep each other accountable -- with someone else in my shoes I'm not all by myself."

Kristine Lilly on the other hand, will be taking a full year off from her duties. No easy task for the 20-something-year vet of the National team, whose vocabulary does not include, much less comprehend the term "coach potato."

"Everyone's been telling me to enjoy the time I have right now, because I've been going a little stir crazy," says Lilly. "They say 'just enjoy being pregnant, enjoy the downtime, because soon you won't have any.'"

Lilly is a walking record book, with 340 caps, more than any male or female international player. Yet, she practically scoffs at the idea of retirement. Her accomplishments put her in the platinum elite of U.S. players, and remarkably, her desire to play is as strong as you'll find in a budding footballer. Her growing belly also poses a welcome challenge. "I can see in some sense [soccer] not being the most important thing," laughs Lilly. "I am still not ready to give it up. I think this will be a big test for me to see if can get back into shape and come back and play next year."

Just last month, a four-month pregnant Lilly played with Mia Hamm and her husband Nomar Garciaparra for their celebrity soccer fundraiser in Los Angeles. On playing for two? "It was a little weird!" exclaims Lilly, but an experience she enjoyed nonetheless.

In the meantime, Lilly and Ellertson are not permitted to play or travel with the team. But they will be able to enjoy the benefits of a relatively new labor contract drawn up in 2006. Good until 2012, the agreement not only equalizes pay for the men's and women's teams, but the U.S. Soccer Federation coffers also grant pregnant athletes 50 percent paid salary for maternity leave.

Ellertson credits Overbeck and Fawcett for exemplifying a different kind of working mom. "You bring them on the road, you can still keep playing. We make this a normal thing. The U.S. Federation and other federations have had to say 'You know, OK, we have to come along with the change, come along with the time and really accept this.'"

But Women's Professional Soccer, officially launching in April 2009, will mark a watershed moment now that soccer moms (the kind that play) are becoming more commonplace. What happens when two star players of a team simultaneously step down for a year to have kids? "Every player has to do it around the best timing of their sport. The players that make it can do promotions throughout the year -- they can interact with fans in different ways off the field," Lily says.

Ellertson emphatically agrees with the change: "It's a mental attitude, it's realizing that we're women -- we are different. Having a child doesn't make you any less of an athlete."

During their sabbaticals, Lilly will chill at home, while Ellertson cooks up a spicy storm of Mexican food, with a pickle or two to satisfy a different kind of craving. And for now, which is just fine by them -- their stomachs will be doing the kicking.

Lindsey Dolich is a contributor for ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet.