As Sarah Gorden headed to Chicago Red Stars practice last week, her 3-year-old son, Caiden, toddled behind her in a baggy white jersey.
It was a scene many told her she would never experience.
"When people started to find out I was pregnant, they told me, 'Realistically, you're not going to be on the field again,' '' said Gorden, who took a medical redshirt while pregnant on scholarship at DePaul. "Professional soccer wasn't in the conversation.
"When I heard those things, I thought, 'No, absolutely not.' My first responsibility is to my child, but I wanted to show him, you can represent possibility. You can fulfill your dream and be head over heels in love with your child. It motivated me."
Like many elite female athletes, Gorden returned to playing at her sport's highest level after giving birth.
When tennis star Serena Williams, 35, announced her pregnancy last month, skeptics wondered if this was the end of her decorated career. Critics pondering her future quickly dismissed her dominance — 23 Grand Slam singles titles, second all time — and even the probability that she won the Australian Open in January in the early months of her pregnancy.
Never mind a long list of athletes who have successfully returned to competition:
World champion British runner Paula Radcliffe won the 2007 New York City Marathon less than 10 months after giving birth to a daughter. She repeated the victory the following year.
Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker missed the first eight games of the 2009 WNBA season after delivering a daughter but came back to lead the league in rebounding. In 2010, she scored a career-best 20.6 points per game. In 2013, she was the league's most valuable player.
Scottish golfer Catriona Matthew won the Brazil Cup on the LPGA Tour when she was five months pregnant. Less than three months after delivering her second daughter, she won the Women's British Open.
Swimmer Dara Torres, a former Gator, won the 100-meter freestyle at the U.S. Nationals just 16 months after having her first child in 2007 and went on to become the oldest swimmer to represent the U.S. at the Olympics in 2008 at 41.
Runner Sarah Brown made a bid for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team four months after delivering a daughter, running 1,500 meters in 4 minutes, 24.97 seconds at the trials but not making the team.
British heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill won the gold medal at the IAAF World Championships in 2015, nine months after delivering a son. She won silver at the 2016 Olympics.
Despite the evidence, some still view pregnancy, motherhood and competitive athletics as an unrealistic combination. Experts say that antiquated view has been disproved.
"What makes news is not 991/2 percent of pregnant women in the world," said Dr. James Pivarnik, a kinesiology and epidemiology professor at Michigan State University who studies pregnancy and sports. "It's the Serena Williamses and Paula Radcliffes. They're different to start with, not only because of their talent in their sports but because their bodies can withstand intense training without breaking down. They recover very well. If anybody can do it, they can."
Media typically frame an athlete returning to her sport as a human interest story: the nurturing mom who has struck a work-life balance. It's rarely discussed as a physical feat like athletes overcoming injuries.
Because athletes' bodies are their livelihoods, women often must consider delaying starting a family and how long — or if — they will breast-feed. Most greatly reduce their training during pregnancy and must return to peak conditioning through high-intensity regimens.
"I felt exhausted," said American distance runner Deena Kastor, who returned to racing less than three months after the birth of a daughter in 2011. "I felt like I was hanging on by a thread. I was more exhausted than marathon running had ever offered me. You worry whether you're putting in enough miles and whether you're spending enough time with your baby. You get to bed earlier. You just adjust and compromise."
In an interview with the Sun newspaper in Britain, Ennis-Hill said: "I found it really hard, and my body had changed so much. Your ligaments loosen and your body is stretched. Not having any sleep is the hardest thing. I was mentally fatigued. I was physically pushing my body, and doing those events after having a baby is a tough ask for your body."
Radcliffe ran throughout her pregnancy, but the British runner later said she returned to training too soon after a long, difficult labor and she suffered a stress fracture at the base of her spine that sidelined her for eight weeks.
She said during her New York City Marathon win she repeated "I love Isla" (her daughter's name) to herself to keep rhythm.
"People thought having a baby would be the end of my career — I never thought it would be," she said after the race.
Studies have suggested women can see a boost in performance after having a child. Pregnancy results in an increase in blood flow and oxygen-carrying capacity, as well as increases in growth hormone level. But these boosts aren't long-lasting.
Pivarnik said no concrete evidence suggests women could perform better long term because of pregnancy. And athletes note that middle-of-the-night feedings and diaper changes would offset any small hormonal boost.
An exact science to returning to elite athletic performance doesn't seem to exist.
Besides anecdotal evidence, it's unknown how elite athletes differ from common exercisers in their ability to come back from pregnancy. Funding such a study would be difficult with no link to public health and the small number of athletes who perform at such a high level, Pivarnik said.
But he advises athletes — and every postpartum woman — to listen to their bodies and have strong communication with their health-care provider. He, like many obstetricians, encourages exercise during pregnancy.
"It's such an individual thing," he said. "If they're used to it and up to it and having no problems and no muscle tears or pulls, there's no physiological reason they can't (return to peak form). In fairness, you can't say (an athlete will return in) three weeks, four weeks, six weeks. There is no usual. It's all over the map."
According to a 2016 study by Pivarnik, highly trained women continue to exercise during pregnancy, but there is "little information available to guide them and their health-care providers in how to maximize performance without jeopardizing the maternal-fetal unit.
"Available evidence focusing on average women who perform regular vigorous exercise suggests that this activity is helpful in preventing several maladies of pregnancy, with little to no evidence of harm," the study read. "However, some studies have shown that there may be a limit to how intense an elite performer should exercise during pregnancy."
According to the Mayo Clinic, women who have uncomplicated vaginal deliveries can safely begin moderate exercise within a few days of giving birth or "as soon as you feel ready." Women who have had C-sections are encouraged to speak to their health-care provider about when to begin exercising again.
The risks of injury due to exercising during pregnancy are low, according to data from a "Pregnancy, Nutrition and Infection" study with an incident rate of only 4.1 per 1,000 hours of exercise. Of all injuries during pregnancy only one-third were related to exercise behavior.
The International Olympic Committee commissioned research published in 2016 that determined strenuous exercise during pregnancy does not appear to increase the risk of complication. But the study advised athletes accustomed to high-intensity workouts who want to become pregnant to cut back on their routines the week after ovulation and limit repetitive weight training during the first three months of pregnancy.
Kastor had planned to run throughout her pregnancy but stopped a few months in because of painful side stitches. Returning to running, she said, happened "organically."
About 21/2 weeks after giving birth, she walked on the treadmill with her daughter to help her fall asleep. She then handed her daughter to her husband and felt the urge to jog.
"I felt things bouncing I never felt bounce before, but I got tingly and excited just from 10 minutes of jogging at a very light pace," Kastor said. "It was so empowering to feel that again. I knew I wanted to return to the sport."
Less than three months postpartum, she competed in a 10-kilometer race in New York. In January 2012, she placed sixth at the Olympic trials in the marathon in 2 hours, 30 minutes, 40 seconds, and in 2013, she finished third in the Los Angeles Marathon in 2:32:39.
Gorden, a defender who was pregnant before her junior season in college, looked up workouts on Pinterest to help her get back into shape. She was put on bed rest at 25 weeks and was antsy to train again.
Two and a half weeks postpartum, she started jogging. She returned to the team for spring practice with obvious rust and played her first game, a spring scrimmage, about five weeks after delivering on Feb. 17, 2014. She regained her speed and conditioning for the fall season and decided to pursue a professional career despite some friends and relatives advising her to get a "real job."
"Being away from soccer and the team and the atmosphere, it made me realize how much I really loved playing," she said. "Coming back and getting my body back in shape, I was more motivated than ever after having Caiden. I was a much better athlete after having a baby than before."
Female athletes have long been tackling stereotypes that attempted to bar them from competing. In 1898, the German Journal of Physical Education noted that "violent movements of the body can cause a shift in the position and a loosening of the uterus as well as prolapse and bleeding, with resulting sterility, thus defeating a woman's true purpose in life, i.e. the bringing forth of strong children."
While that faulty medical explanation was not based on accurate biology, the idea continued.
Ski jumping didn't become an Olympic sport for women until 2014, and even then Russian coach Alexander Arefyev said women shouldn't compete.
"If a man gets a serious injury, it's still not fatal, but for women it could end much more seriously," he said at the time. "Women have another purpose — to have children, to do housework, to create hearth and home."
Women were limited to half-court basketball until the 1971-72 college season. Fifty years ago, men tried to pull Kathrine Switzer off the Boston Marathon course, which only men were permitted to run at the time. Switzer finished the race.
It wasn't until 1980 that the American College of Sports Medicine supported women's Olympic marathon competition, stating there is "no conclusive scientific or medical evidence that long-distance running is contraindicated for the healthy, trained female athlete."
While those ideas seem antiquated now, women who want to return to competition after pregnancy still face societal pressure.
"Other coaches, even my family, were questioning, 'Does this mean, because you're starting a family, your career is over?' '' Kastor said. "I just thought, well, that's weird. Since when is a family the end of life as we know it?
"I love my life and the idea of traveling the world and taking my child to different competitions and being an example by following my joy and pursuit of my profession. It should be a positive thing."
Gorden's son cheers at Red Stars games from the stands with her parents and runs onto the field afterward.
"He knows I go to soccer every day," she said. "Win or lose, if I play well or play bad, he's just happy to see me."
For Gorden, athletics and motherhood aren't mutually exclusive — and she's baffled by anyone who fails to understand that.
"I don't think anything is over after you have a child," she said. "It's like anything else. You can always come back. Those are the same people who say women shouldn't be pro athletes. You'd like to think we are past that."