By: Casey Krueger
In Their Own Words Presented by CarMax: Casey Krueger

Chicago Red Stars veteran defender kicks off new series, presented by CarMax, detailing her experience as a professional athlete and a new mom.

One thing about me? I’m a planner. Preparation is my love language, and following a set schedule gives me a lot of comfort. (If you’re wondering, yes, I am a Virgo.)

One thing about me? I’m a planner. Preparation is my love language, and following a set schedule gives me a lot of comfort. (If you’re wondering, yes, I am a Virgo.)Besides, being organized and routine-oriented is crucial as a professional athlete. So much of what I do on the field relies on my ability to follow a disciplined schedule. If you think about it, practice itself is just a prolonged form of preparation, so that come gametime, when surprises inevitably come, I’m in the best position to respond to them. Of course, at the root of my need to plan is my need for control. In soccer, we always talk about the importance of controlling the controllables. I might not be able to change all of the circumstances that led to my team conceding a goal, for instance, but I am absolutely in control of how I contribute to my team’s response. It’s one thing to respond to the myriad challenges that spring up over the course of a soccer game — but off the field, those challenges look different. Wins and losses aren’t as clear cut. Maybe you get pregnant and have a miscarriage before you’ve had the chance to share the news with your loved ones. Maybe you get pregnant again and, after doing everything in your power to prepare so you can give birth the way you want to, you find yourself in your eighteenth hour of labor with your baby breeched in your belly. And his heart rate starts dropping. And your doctor starts using words like “consent” and “cesarean section,” the scenario you hoped would never be your reality, as a nurse slides a clipboard toward you with papers to sign. Another thing about me? I know that when the uncertainties of life pop up, it’s not always a signal to freak out (though I understand that instinct, trust me!). It can be an opportunity to grow if you allow it to. There is profound strength to be found in surrender. This is a story of how I found mine.


Making the decision to start a family is huge. Starting a family by giving birth adds another layer to that choice; doing all of that and returning to your full-time job is yet another layer of complexity. So you can imagine what it means to choose to start a family by giving birth, and then returning to work as a mother when professional soccer is your full-time job. Honestly, for a long time I wasn’t sure if I wanted to, or even could have kids, let alone resume my career afterwards. I’m fortunate to have teammates, both on my club team with the Chicago Red Stars and on the US women’s national team, who are moms. I got to observe their experiences from afar and ask them questions up close: Did they feel the same after giving birth? Was it difficult to get back to soccer? I know everyone’s experience giving birth is unique, but I had to ask. Like I said, I’m a planner, and part of planning involves learning as much as you can about a subject before diving into it. After thinking about it some more, I decided, along with my husband, to go for it and try to get pregnant. But then I made the US women’s national team roster for the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo — a pretty understandable reason to put my pregnancy journey on pause, if you ask me. And what an experience it was! It was a true honor to represent my country at the Games, and to be able to come home with a medal made me all the more proud of myself and our team. Once I settled back into “real life” post-Olympics, my husband and I started trying again to get pregnant, and not long after that, I got that glorious result on enough different pregnancy tests to confirm: I was pregnant, and I was over the moon about it! But then, just as quickly as we received the good news, we were dealt the first unfortunate surprise of our journey, one I still don’t think we discuss enough despite the staggering number of people affected by it: I had a miscarriage. Physically, the miscarriage was painful, but emotionally it took quite a toll, too. This couldn’t have been further from the plan, and to make matters even more challenging, I miscarried so early into my pregnancy that my husband and I hadn’t even had the chance to tell our loved ones about it before it was over, so nobody — not my teammates, not my other family members — knew what I was going through. And because they didn’t know, they couldn’t check in to see how I was managing. I’ve been blessed with an incredibly supportive partner, and we are deeply rooted in and guided by our faith, but dealing with my miscarriage in silence was still hard. But I remained determined, and thankfully got pregnant again shortly after my miscarriage. Even then, I hadn’t decided for sure that I was going to return to professional soccer after I gave birth. However, I’d spoken with enough current and former soccer moms, like my friend and Red Stars teammate Arin “Gilli” Wright, to know that if I did want to come back to the pitch after giving birth, it would behoove me to avoid having a c-section as much as possible. Arin had had one of those when she gave birth, and she didn’t hold back in describing how difficult it was to return to soccer after such a major surgery. Frankly, the thought of it terrified me — and I say this as someone who’s undergone multiple ACL surgeries for multiple ACL injuries!


As I settled into the reality that I would soon become a mother, I realized I needed a mental break from soccer and realized that was as good a time as any to step away from the field for a little while. I still didn’t know that I’d go back to work after giving birth, but continued to workout on my own as my belly grew. I got a set of prenatal workouts from US Soccer that I was happy to follow; as much as I missed my teammates, it was nice to still have a routine. It wound up taking me sitting in the stands and cheering on my own club team in the bone-chilling Chicago cold, taking in the atmosphere from a different vantage point as a fan, that I realized it wasn’t just that I wanted to come back to soccer after I had my baby — I had to. I missed it. This game has a funny way of reeling you back in just when you think you might be ready to hang up your boots and say goodbye. I realized there was no real reason for me to choose between being a mom and being a professional soccer player. I’d seen enough examples of others who’d done it. Why not me? Once I made my decision, something switched on in me. I was really about to become a mother and a professional soccer player! I had no idea how my pregnancy journey, let alone giving birth, would change the way I saw myself, but I was eager to find out. That mental switch also rang another important alarm: it was time to plan! I read as many books as I could get my hands on about pregnancy and parenthood. I signed up for online seminars, wracking up PowerPoint slides chock full of information. I took copious notes on everything I learned. With my husband accompanying me, I took pelvic floor physical therapy classes, which I genuinely believe everyone should have access to when they’re pregnant, and I treated them as seriously as any soccer training or game. I came up with a detailed birth plan that, based on the advice I’d received and my own determination to get back to soccer after having my baby, was based on the hope that I would have a natural delivery. I didn’t even want an epidural. For all the uncertainties that awaited me on my pregnancy journey, I once again found immense comfort in preparing as best I could. Looking back on it now, I suppose there were signs of foreshadowing about how things might go on the big day. Once, I met with my doctor to do an anatomy scan, and I learned that my baby, Caleb, was positioned inside my belly in such a way that his feet were closer to the birth canal instead of his head — in other words, he was breech, flipped around from where he needed to be. Then, last July, I went into labor. My husband and I made the trip to the hospital when my contractions got closer and closer together, but I still wasn’t dilating properly. We were almost sent home, but then my son’s heart rate began to drop, or decelerate, in medical terms. That’s when I started to get scared. The medical staff instructed us to stay at the hospital and wait it out. My body continued to work. The pain increased; it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. As much as the contractions hurt, I couldn’t help but to fix my eyes on the fetal monitor, which not only measures your contractions, but gives you a heads up for when the next one is due to hit. And, like the elite athlete that I am, I found myself tapping into that gritty, competitive mentality while I was in labor, watching the monitor the same way I’d watch a timer letting me know when it was time to do another sprint in an anaerobic workout. I gave myself the same pep-talks, too: Come on, you can do anything for 60 seconds. You got this. Here we go: five, four, three, two… (See what I mean about soccer finding its way to you at the most unexpected times?) That little exercise was a welcome distraction, but each time a nurse came in to check if I’d dilated and saw that I hadn’t, I grew increasingly worried. I was given a medication called pitocin to speed up my contractions. The nurses broke my water. Nothing helped — in fact, my son’s heart rate decelerated a few more times throughout that harrowing process. Eventually, my obstetrician-gynecologist came to see me and did an ultrasound, which showed us that Caleb was still breech. I would need to undergo an emergency c-section. That was when I broke down into tears. I was terrified. This was, in my mind, the worst case scenario, the one thing I had not planned for, despite all my efforts to channel my focus on what I wanted to happen. I’d controlled the controllables. I’d put in the work. I’d prepared so thoroughly. Handling my contractions like an athlete may have stemmed off some of the pain, but at that moment, I couldn’t think of a single soccer parallel to explain or ease what was happening to me. My husband and I said a quick prayer before I was taken into the operating room. In the midst of all the chaos, what more could we do but let God handle the rest? Later, when the anesthesia wore off, I blinked my eyes open. A nurse came and placed Caleb, my sweet baby boy, onto my chest, and I broke into tears again, this time for a totally different reason than before. If I thought things had gotten real before, none of that compared to the feeling of staring into the eyes of a tiny human I helped create and had brought into the world. It’s hard to put into words the love I have for my son. It’s the biggest, deepest love I’ve ever known, and even saying that doesn’t fully capture it. Leading up to Caleb’s birth, I wasn’t sure how my identity as a soccer player would mesh with my much newer identity as a mom, but once it happened, it felt like the most natural alchemy, and I immediately fell in love with that, too. I didn’t realize how much I would love being a mother until the moment I became one.


Recovering from my c-section was tough. My doctor told me I couldn’t even vacuum, much less jog around the block, for at least three months. The Virgo in me heard that and immediately staged a protest: if I had to wait three months before I could run, there was no way I’d be on track to return to the field when I’d planned to. I remember going on a walk one day about three or four weeks after giving birth. I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but I couldn’t help myself: I sped up my stride for a few seconds of the lightest jog I’d ever done, just to test the waters. What I felt in my body as a result was the grossest thing I’ve ever experienced. Those who’ve been there know what I’m talking about. For those who aren’t familiar, without getting too graphic, let me just say that everything felt extremely loose down there. Icky. Just not right. My abdominal muscles had been completely obliterated by my c-section, and we use that muscle group for just about everything, especially things like — you guessed it — running. From then on, I followed my doctor’s advice to a tee and took my time with the recovery, trying my best to quiet the little voice in my head that worried I would never make it back onto the soccer field again. Mind you, I was also adjusting to motherhood while all that was happening. Newborn babies are known to sleep for only an hour or two at a time before they need to be fed, and Caleb was no different. My sleep schedule, if you can even call it that, was insane. When playing soccer was my sole focus, I essentially got to take naps whenever I wanted. With Caleb, all of my energy shifted toward making sure his needs were met before I could take care of my own. Making that transition required me to once again loosen my grip on the control I had once enjoyed, and I would do it over and over again for my baby boy. After my three-month moratorium on vacuuming and running ended, it was time to get back on my grind. I was still far from where I needed to be to rejoin the Red Stars, so I trained on my own until I was ready. I practiced with a local boys’ club team, played pickup with some of my teammates, and did double days designed by my trainer — but some of my most cherished memories from that time were when I’d workout in the basement of our home. I’d bring Caleb down there with me and let him hangout in his baby bouncer while I focused on getting my strength back. Watching him watch me as I sweated through reps was the greatest motivation I could have asked for, a living, breathing reminder that after everything I’d gone through, and for all the love I didn’t even know I was capable of giving to him, I had everything I needed to get to where I wanted to be. I could do this. And I did. The joy I experienced on my first day back training with the Red Stars in January reminded me of how I felt when I first started playing soccer when I was 7 1/2 years old. Physically, it just felt right. Being exactly where you’re meant to be is such a gift that I try to never take for granted. My teammates were so supportive and excited to meet Caleb — and once they did, they welcomed him into their lives like he was a part of their families. I love to watch them love up on him. I wish I could tie this up with a neat “happily ever after” ribbon, but life is rarely like that. I absolutely love being a mom, and I’m eternally grateful to my medical and physical therapy team — not to mention hugely proud of myself — for working my way back onto the field. At the same time, I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t also the most difficult season of my professional career. It’s been a tough year with the Chicago Red Stars, on and off the field. Not making the roster for the Women’s World Cup was devastating. But raising Caleb has given me a newfound perspective that I’m not sure I could have gained any other way. I realize now that soccer isn’t everything, and that even the hardest days at the office can feel smaller when I come home to my child. Miraculously, that shift in perspective has liberated me on the field. I’m so much more at ease now. That fire, the one I wasn’t sure would return while I was pregnant, is burning even more. It makes me want to keep going, see how far I can go with this game and all the wisdom I’ve gained since becoming a mom.


There are still challenging days. Caleb, whose personality at 14 months is full of giggly mischief, is teething now, which has upended yet another sleep schedule. And just because I’m locked in during a game doesn’t mean I stop being a mom. Sometimes, I’ll be tracking back on defense or surging ahead on the dribble and suddenly think to myself, Did Caleb get enough to eat today? Did we pack his pacifier? I’m grateful to have been able to hire a nanny, who travels with us to games, but I can’t help it. And that’s okay. Know what else is okay? When things don’t go according to plan. By all means, continue to prepare for the best (I know I will), but just know that if reality ends up grating against your carefully crafted expectations, it doesn’t automatically spell despair. Sometimes, it’s simply an opportunity to grow and learn more about yourself. Or it’s an opportunity to open up about those challenges so that others feel less alone. Ever since I had Caleb, I’ve gotten so many questions from teammates and other players about my experience. I welcome them. I love letting them know that they can do both, be a parent and a pro soccer player, if they choose. I love encouraging others to embrace the unknown, as daunting as it might seem. After all, if I hadn’t embarked on this journey, I might never have discovered what a badass mom I am.