‘Surround yourself with women who are going to fight hard with you’: Crystal Dunn on pregnancy, motherhood, and her hopes for the World Cup

USNWT and Portland Thorns player Crystal Dunn always knew she would have to make sacrifices to play the game she loved professionally. But one thing she wouldn’t compromise on was becoming a mother and returning to the game, paving the way for women in football. She tells Um-E-Aymen Babar about the process of having a baby while being a pro athlete, and gives us a window into her expectations for the 2023 World Cup.

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During the England v USA friendly game last October, Crystal Dunn returned to play less than five months after giving birth to her baby boy, Marcel Jean. Now she’s got her sights set on the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand this summer.

Dunn’s journey began in her hometown of New York, where as a young girl she witnessed a group of kids playing football. She told her parents, “this looks fun and I want to play,” and her parents put her in the game. “They knew nothing about soccer, and I think that’s the beauty of it, because it was a sport that just started off as a fun hobby for me to just go out, play, and hang out with kids – and then it turned into a passion and something that I’m really proud about.”

In her early teens Dunn began to balance her school commitments with football and competing on multiple teams. She recognised that she would have to make sacrifices. “That was the age where I realised it was not all fun and games and you have to put in a lot more dedication, and there are a lot more sacrifices and missing out on parties and things like that,” she remembered.

But there was always one thing that Dunn, now 30, was sure about: “I always knew I wanted to pursue my career along with being a mum,” she said. “Part of me thought it was really cool to be able to play in games and look up in the stands knowing that your child is watching you, and feeling empowered to do both, but I always knew it was going to be difficult.”

Whilst the decision was a lot easier for her, Dunn still had to overcome difficulties about choosing to pursue motherhood whilst being a female athlete. She took time off during her pregnancy, and after giving birth there was a period of building and recovering her body to become fit enough to play football again. Dunn knew that there were sacrifices to be made once more.

“It’s very unsettling to know that if you want to be a mum and you still want to pursue your career there’s a lot of sacrifices that go with that decision. But more so I was thinking that I truly want to be a mum, and whatever obstacles come my way I’ll handle it,” Dunn said.

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Throughout her pregnancy, Dunn received professional care from her national Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) team, Portland Thorns Football Club — who earlier this month announced a new manager Mike Norris — and the United States National Women’s Team (USNWT). She met with a pelvic floor specialist to receive structured and effective recognition of pelvic floor muscles after giving birth. Together with Dunn, they created a plan to help her work towards being fit enough to play football again.

It’s a privilege that Dunn believes should be given to every woman. “It’s not about being a professional athlete: I think anyone who is going down the path of motherhood and delivering a baby needs to understand the physiological changes that your body goes through. I was really fortunate to be set up with a professional who knew about all the changes that your body is preparing to go through with the whole childbirth process,” she added.

During her recovery period, Dunn had one clear goal in mind: “I wanted to fight and get back on the field and play in as many games as possible.”

Five months after giving birth she did just that. Dunn described herself as being “starstruck” when she walked out onto the pitch in front of 80,000 spectators at Wembley after coming on as a second-half substitute for Sofia Huerta. “My first thought was, ‘Wow, there are so many people here, this is incredible.’

“I was trying to just enjoy the moment and build on that. I think what I haven’t done a good job [of] in my career is really staying private sometimes and patting myself on the back once in a while. I’m so proud of myself for getting into a place where I can sub into a national team game against a top opponent at Wembley stadium. How amazing that moment was.”

Earlier this year, under a new player contract agreed by the Football Association (FA) and Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), football players will now be guaranteed at least 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, with eight weeks paid at two-thirds of their salaries. Previously, players in the Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship did not have maternity leave in their standard contracts.

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This change is an important step towards gaining equality within the women’s game, but Dunn reiterated the importance of continuously applying pressure on organisations to support female athletes. “I would be lying if I said that I would feel completely comfortable going down this route. For years there wasn’t a female athlete that came back from pregnancy. Luckily in the US we are very accustomed to pushing boundaries and applying pressure when needed.”

Her message to other women who are worried about their career after pursuing motherhood was clear: “Surround yourself with women who are going to fight hard with you to give you what we all deserve, which is the support from our organisations and protection that we can pursue motherhood along with being a professional athlete,” she said.

Dunn’s emphasis on women’s togetherness in working against institutional misogyny and empowering women to make their own decisions about their bodies is understandable, given the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US. With the right to abortion now no longer constitutionally protected, Dunn acknowledges the conversation around women’s bodily rights in the US is one that extends beyond the football pitch.

“It’s a scary time right now for women,” Dunn admitted. “We are constantly being told what we can and cannot do and the overturn of Roe v. Wade was a really big hit on women and our reproductive rights. No one should be able to tell any women what they are able to do with their bodies,” she added.

Dunn’s advice for women navigating these spaces was powerful: “I truly believe where there is evil in the world, there is heroism lurking around in the corners. In these times I always try to lean on people who back me up in my thoughts and opinions.”

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The growth of women’s football across the world has been monumental in recent years. In the summer, the Fifa Women’s World Cup is set to take place in co-host countries Australia and New Zealand. The current defending champions are USWNT after winning the trophy in 2019 by beating Netherlands 2-0 in the final. The USWNT has won the World Cup four times.

Dunn’s wishes for the World Cup were clear. “My hope as an American is that we go all the way and we’re the last team standing, but overall I just hope that it is a very successful tournament.”

It was also announced that the USA Women’s team will receive a minimum of £5.2 million ($6.5m) from the USMNT advancing in the Men’s World Cup. The total prize money will be split evenly, and is more than the USWNT received for winning the 2015 and 2019 World Cup combined. This alone highlights the financial inequality still present within the game.

Regardless, World Cups have a special place in Dunn’s heart, as they celebrate the universal support that is shown regardless of the tournament. The game’s popularity is spreading, and during the World Cup everyone will be able to witness how the game has grown with the support of organisations and sponsors. “You can see they are getting better and better. You don’t always want one team winning. I mean obviously I would love for us to win – but if you want the growth of the game to be spread across all federations, that’s what I’m looking forward to the most.”

Follow Um-E-Aymen Babar on Twitter @ItsUmeAymen

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