When you're an Olympic hopeful and a mom, bring the kids
ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) Sitting on a bench alongside a vacant volleyball court, Dr. Omar Easy opens a small carton of chocolate milk, pops in the straw and guides it to son Easton's lips between the bites of raspberries and blueberries.
The toddler's mom, Olympic hopeful Megan Easy, runs off to the training room to finish her work day with the U.S. volleyball team.
''Slow down, please wait. Wait. Chew first,'' the father instructs as Easton gobbles mouthfuls of fruit.
The dad has been a regular at USA Volleyball's Orange County training center while his wife competes for a spot on the Olympic team headed to this summer's Rio Games.
Coach Karch Kiraly decided the national team would help pay for the young family to travel together to some tournaments in the run-up to Rio. Easy's mother came along on occasion, too. The idea is one that Kiraly borrowed from U.S. Soccer's longtime practice for moms on the women's team, and he has fundraised specifically for the motherhood program because it goes beyond his regular budget.
As the career-life balance takes a spotlight in workplaces, some coaches and programs are looking at how they can better accommodate their athletes - and many have been doing so since long before the debate intensified. For now, Easy is the only mom on the volleyball team. Kiraly expects that will change soon enough, perhaps after these Olympics.
He believes the investment in moms is well worth it if the Americans can keep special players part of the program even as they embrace the transition to a new life phase that is motherhood.
For two decades, U.S. Soccer and USA Basketball have paid the way for a childcare provider of the player's choice to go on road trips and help those women with children, whose travel expenses also have been covered. Kiraly reached out to American soccer officials for guidance as he looked to offer similar assistance.
''I've kind of been the experiment with the mommy-type program,'' Easy said. ''It's cool. It's smart of them because women are a little bit different. As a guy playing volleyball, your wife may tag along and bring the kids along and that's what it is.''
Easy's spot on the Olympic roster is far from guaranteed. She has recently dealt with physical issues that limit her in practice and drills and have dampened her chances of making the trip to Rio. Kiraly must soon narrow his roster to 12 as the top-ranked Americans again chase their first ever Olympic gold medal in August.
The 27-year-old Easy, part of the 2012 silver medalist U.S. team in London, has appreciated the coach's support as she found a way to balance life as a young mother and an elite volleyball player. The constant demands on these women - most in their mid-to-late 20s - during a four-year Olympic cycle can collide with their ambitions off the court, such as starting families.
''It is huge that Karch is giving people the ability to start a family,'' said outside hitter Jordan Larson, who plans to be a mom one day. ''This lifestyle is super hard in general and the fact that Karch is giving us that right is such a huge weight off of our shoulders.''
Middle blocker Rachael Adams is Easy's U.S. teammate and also her roommate while overseas with their Italian club team, and Easton can sometimes be heard in the stands during practice or spotted with his dad during matches. When her son isn't around, Easy shares with teammates the photos and videos sent by her husband.
''She's like, `He's walking or look at what he's doing now,''' Adams said. ''I get to watch even more of how she's balancing in a different country with her son, and it's amazing. It's really an inspiration to see that it can be done and just how she's able to do it and be a good teammate, a good mom, a good wife.''
Easton was born Oct. 21, 2014. By February of last year Easy had already traveled to California for training to show she still had it ''just to check in and make sure I wasn't completely off the wall and out of shape.''
She was so sick during pregnancy Easy only gained about 22 pounds. Pilates and plenty of walking helped her bounce back physically in a short time.
Oh, and she notes, ''I have to say I do have pretty good genes.''
Easy rejoined the U.S. team in the spring of 2015.
''She's so fierce on the court and she leaves everything outside of volleyball outside of volleyball,'' teammate Natalie Hagglund said. ''And you see her flip that switch and she's right back to being a mom and a great wife. I have a lot of respect for her because it's really hard just being a volleyball player.''
Now, Easton runs around a side court playing with a ball or pulling a toy truck. He slows down for a moment and sits in the lap of opposite hitter Nicole Fawcett.
A former NFL player, Omar Easy has the flexibility to handle much of the day-to-day care for their son. He smiles as he calls fatherhood his ''glory days.''
''It's obviously the first experimental project, really. There's room for improvement,'' said Omar Easy, who suggests the idea of a day care at some point. ''What he has done to give her the chance to see Easton as often as she has seen him is good. It's a work in progress ... but it's a great thing because you're coaching a female team and probably four, five or six of the ladies are married and have been married for a few years now. It's inevitable they'll be pregnant at some point.''
Destinee Hooker, the biggest star of the Americans' second-place London group, had her second child since the last Olympics in March and is no longer part of the national team - though Kiraly has said the door isn't closed for a potential return in the next four-year cycle ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Games.
He also looks forward to more players experiencing motherhood, on their terms and timeline.
''I hope so. We'd love it. We'd like to facilitate that, for sure,'' Kiraly said. ''I know there are a number, especially people closer to the end of their career or have just been with the team longer, they'll look at beautiful Easton, Megan's son, and they'll feel some pangs like, `I want to do that.' And I love that they have that driving them, that motivation. I would love to see them in a motherhood phase in their life. It'd be awesome. They're going to make great moms.''