November 18, 2009

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Nov. 30. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.For many of us working mothers, a "major victory" means fitting back into our skinny jeans or successfully juggling bottles, bake sales and BlackBerries.

For Scotland's Catriona Matthew, it meant winning the British Open title just 10 weeks after giving birth to her second daughter, Sophie. With her stirring three-stroke triumph at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club in England in August, Matthew, 40, became the first Scot to win a major women's golf championship.

Matthew's baby boost heralded a fabulous fall for new moms. Survey just about any sport, and chances are you'll find a mother has been superior in its championship this year.

Three weeks after Matthew's win, Christie Rampone led Sky Blue FC to the inaugural Women's Professional Soccer League title as a player-coach. A defender who is a three-time Olympian and a World Cup veteran, Rampone took the reigns of the New Jersey-based squad in late July and helped it rebound from a 1-4-2 start. And the 34-year-old -- who was already balancing her duties as national team captain with extensive charity work and raising her four-year-old daughter, Rylie -- is truly one tough mother. She didn't tell teammates until after the championship game that she was 11 weeks pregnant with baby No. 2. "I didn't want anyone worrying about me, " she says.

Forward Le'coe Willingham was a defensive stalwart for the Mercury as they won a thrilling, five-game WNBA Finals series in September ... and her eight-year-old son, Derrick watched it all from his usual seat a few rows behind the bench. Willingham and Los Angeles Sparks star Candace Parker -- who returned to the league in July a month and a half after giving birth to a daughter, Lailaa --- are two of more than a dozen moms in a league where breast pumps have become as common as chest bumps.

Tennis, meanwhile, hadn't had a major mom in nearly three decades until Kim Clijsters returned from a two-year maternity leave and took her daughter to work (literally), winning the U.S. Open as a wild card while her 18-month-old, Jada, frolicked in the player's box. Clijsters became the first mother to claim a Grand Slam title since Australia's Evonne Goolagong won Wimbledon in 1980 --- and debunked the notion that moms can't cut it on the court in today's power game.

In fact, several recent studies suggest that physical changes during pregnancy can boost aerobic capacity and can be a boon to athletes. Some believe the benefits are both physiological and psychological. Rampone, for one, says motherhood has mellowed her. "I think having a child puts things in perspective," she says. "If you lose or don't play well, you don't have time to dwell on it. You're always multi-tasking."

Perhaps no athletes are making greater strides on the mommy track than runners. Five of the first six women to cross the finish line in the 2009 New York City Marathon on Nov. 2 were mothers. Winner Derartu Tulu, 37, has six children, four of them adopted. She was joined on the podium by third-place finisher Ludmila Petrova, a 41-year-old single mom of two teenagers. Defending champion Paula Radcliffe, who famously won the first of her three New York titles 10 months after giving birth in 2007, was hampered by an injured left hamstring but still finished fourth.

When two-time Olympic gold medalist Keri Walsh returned to the beach volleyball tour last month in Glendale, Ariz., and reunited with partner Misty May-Treanor, Walsh had her infant son, Joey -- born in May -- in tow. They reached the finals of the season-ending tournament before falling to Brazil, and Walsh says she and May-Treanor, who's also contemplating starting a family, will be back on the beach for the 2012 Olympics in London.

"She's in, and I'm in," Walsh said last week. "We both want to win it as moms."

Don't bet against them. This trend has major mom-mentum.

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