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Crystal Dunn returns to NWSL and USWNT less than 4 months after giving birth

Crystal Dunn played in a National Women’s Soccer League game on Friday night, just three months and 20 days after giving birth to her son, Marcel.

Dunn, 30, had trained with the U.S. women’s national team this week and last. Her goal, she told Yahoo Sports on Sunday, was not to push for playing time — not yet, anyway — but to re-acclimate to an environment from which she’d been away since last fall. She had new teammates to meet, and new responsibilities to juggle, and new life rhythms to iron out. She came prepared with the best icebreaker of all, Marcel, who quelled Dunn’s anxiety by sleeping flawlessly on flights to Kansas City and Washington, D.C., and making their first road trip as a mother-son duo “pretty easy-breezy.”

But along the way, Dunn wowed coaches and players — and fellow moms — with her on-field progress. Alex Morgan was “extremely impressed.” U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski said prior to camp that he believed Dunn would return “before the end of the year”; after a week of training, he’d concluded that Dunn looked “ready to play.”

A four days later, she did. She entered the Portland Thorns' 2-0 win over Orlando off the bench, late in the second half. And precisely 16 weeks after her pregnancy, she took a momentous step in a recovery process that is ongoing.

Dunn will also likely step back onto a field in U.S. colors in October or November. She sought this August-September training stint with the national team to essentially make that final step a smaller one; to learn to navigate camp as a new mom, and to reconnect “mentally and emotionally” with a refreshed group of players, before taking on the simultaneous stress of competition.

And she relished the experience. She loved sharing her “journey into motherhood” with U.S. teammates. She found something of a routine, wherein she’d hand Marcel off to her nanny an hour before leaving for training, to give herself time and space to prepare to push her body back to previous levels.

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But as she pushes, enthusiastically and ahead of schedule, and through self-doubt that occasionally prickles her mind, she’s careful to avoid comparing her new self to her past self. “Society kind of places this pressure on you: ‘Oh, you have to get back to where you were before.’ And I think that that's pretty much impossible,” she says. “Because you've gone through something that has made you a different person, a different player.”

Different, though, does not mean inferior. Standards remain lofty. Dunn wants to go to another World Cup and win it.

“How I get there, and what my road is gonna look like, is [uncertain] at this time,” she admits, in part because “how I view the game, how I view life, is so different.”

But that new outlook, she believes, is “just going to make me an even better player, and a better person.”

Crystal Dunn's remarkable return

Dunn entered her pregnancy as one of the faces of the USWNT, on the field and off it. She was a leader within the players association, and specifically in the labor fight that yielded equal pay. She was also a crescendoing locker-room voice, a multi-positional star, and the 2021 CONCACAF Player of the Year.

Even as she ventured into her third trimester, she did whatever she could to stay connected to those roles. She joined collective bargaining calls with other USWNT player reps. She joined non-contact drills at Thorns practice in March and April, the month before her due date. She was so involved and so eager that Thorns coach Rhian Wilkinson joked at a supporters town hall that Dunn might try to return to the field one week after giving birth.

Sep 9, 2022; Orlando, Florida, USA; Portland Thorns FC midfielder Crystal Dunn (19) plays the ball with Orlando Pride midfielder Thais Reiss (30) defending during the second half at Exploria Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Crystal Dunn made her season debut for the Portland Thorns on Friday night, less than four months after giving birth. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

She brought Marcel into the world in the wee hours of May 20. She didn’t quite return a week later; but a month later, she was already volleying balls against a bounce-back net. At two months, she was “feeling really good,” she said. She didn’t care that her workouts were, in the eyes of peers, “really unheard of” a couple months after giving birth.

“And at three months post,” she says, “I was already training full with the team.”

She never expected to recuperate so quickly. She never set specific benchmarks of any kind. Because she knows that “everyone's road to recovery is unique.” She has been “rolling with the punches,” listening to her body, and to the guidance of Thorns athletic trainer Pierre Soubrier — who just so happens to be her husband. (They met last decade while both worked for the Washington Spirit.)

In early August, her body told her she’d soon be ready. So she told U.S. Soccer she’d like to return to camp. She brought her bubbly personality, and enlivened warmup drills in a way that only Crystal Dunn can. But she also came keen to work.

The day after the USWNT beat Nigeria 4-0 in Kansas City, she jumped into an intense training session with teammates who’d played few or no minutes in the win. Usually, she said, it would have felt like a “really hard” session, emotionally and physically. Here, in the nation’s capital, and now, as a soccer mom, it felt “amazing.”

Whereas extra sprints once brought frowns and frustration, they now bring joy and gratitude, Dunn said. When she completes them, they’re some of the many “little moments” she celebrates, reminders “to smile and enjoy doing what I love.”

“I think being away from the game for so long,” she said, “really has allowed me to build back myself in a way that I've never been able to do.”

'Not being afraid to ask for help'

The trickiest aspects of negotiating USWNT life as a mom, Dunn said, weren’t just the physical demands, but also the things outsiders might overlook — such as finding time to nap.

Whereas downtime was previously spent socializing with teammates, now, she said, “Well, it's kind of up to the baby.” Marcel’s whimsical schedule dictates hers. “Whatever he's wanting to do, I now have to fill my time with making sure he's taken care of,” she said.

What she learned from her first week, and from her first three-plus months of motherhood, is the importance of “not being afraid to ask for help.”

“I think, as moms, we always want to do it all by ourselves,” Dunn said. Her instinct is to say: “Yep, I got it, I got it.” But there are times, she realizes, when the far more beneficial response is: “Nope, I need support.” And in USWNT camp, support was plentiful.

There were teammates almost begging to watch Marcel or play with him, and if Dunn needed to go grab food, or hop on a call, she’d tell them: “Yes, that's really nice actually, thank you so much!” If she had a team meeting, she had a nanny ready to wheel Marcel around in his stroller. If, say, she had to sit at a table surrounded by dignitaries, with thousands of fans watching, and sign a collective bargaining agreement that will shape the future of her sport, she had teammate Lynn Williams, “Auntie Lynn,” to hold Marcel; and other players, including Ashley Sanchez, to amuse him.

The support allows her to “carve out time for myself,” and that time, she said, is vital. She wants to “enjoy motherhood, but at the same time, still hold onto the identity of, who is Crystal Dunn alongside of being a mom.”

And an inescapable piece of that identity, she said, “is slowly getting my way back onto the field.” It’s soccer.