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When the U.S. women's soccer team won the World Cup in 2019, there was an extra cherry on top for Jessica McDonald.
Her son, Jeremiah, then 7-years-old, traveled to Paris once his school year was over to watch her win one of the biggest women's international competitions in the soccer world. McDonald was the only mother on the squad during the tournament.
Starting with her first team camp in November 2018, McDonald was away from Jeremiah for weeks at a time training. "No one knew" the mental toll being away from her son was putting on McDonald, who's been playing professional soccer since before Jeremiah was born, but the single mom wanted to take advantage of the opportunity she was provided.
Their beautiful reunion at the World Cup final — McDonald with a gold medal around her neck — captured the hearts of many.
"It was just amazing just to be able to hug my kid. Just hold him and just his presence because he really is what inspires me every day to work hard, to want to be successful," McDonald told USA Today Sports.
These days, McDonald is the veteran mom among National Women's Soccer League and USWNT players. Though she no longer is a member of the national squad, the 33-year-old forward still plays for the North Carolina Courage. Jeremiah's taken on a role of his own, too, as the "NWSL kid leader" since he's the oldest child of a current player.
Several of McDonald's former USWNT teammates have become moms since their World Cup win. Forward Alex Morgan gave birth to her daughter, Charlie Elena Carrasco, in May 2020. Defender Ali Krieger and goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, who married in December 2019, adopted their daughter Sloane Phillips in February 2021.
McDonald has even more colleagues in the NWSL who are mothers.
"It's really neat to have them approach me and ask me questions, seeing how I dealt with certain situations, or if it's okay to ask for this or that and whatever you need in order to succeed as a parent," McDonald said. "I'm just here to uplift all the moms out there, especially if you have any questions for me.”
Many of the lessons McDonald has learned through sports have helped her in motherhood. A self-described tomboy, she's been playing sports since she was little, hanging outside with her brother, cousins and other neighborhood boys playing football, soccer and street hockey. It gave her a competitive nature early on.
Playing sports through puberty helped McDonald manage stress. Being in a team environment, she said, helped build her confidence to get through the awkwardness of her teenage years. McDonald is a partner with Always feminine products and an advocate for keeping little girls in sports because of the coping mechanism athletics offer.
Because of her role on the World Cup team, McDonald stays involved with the USWNT's continued fight for equal pay and was featured in the HBO Max documentary LFG. The fight isn't just for her and her teammates, but for women working in every field.
McDonald said the confidence-building playing sports provides helped her and her teammates become the role models they are today.
“We have voices, and this is where confidence comes in," she said. "This is what sport will teach these little girls who are going through puberty right now, who are struggling playing sports. This will teach them to have a voice in the future and fight for whatever it is that they think that they deserve."
McDonald isn't at the Olympics, but she's cheering on friends who are playing for their respective countries, many of whom are mothers. Many were not able to bring their young children to Tokyo with them — only breastfeeding athletes were able to bring their kids. Children are not allowed in the Olympic village.
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"There are more and more moms out there, and I love seeing that. But when an organization keeps you from your child, it's heartbreaking, and it breaks my heart for my friends who are there who can't have their kids with them," McDonald said. "If you're not a parent you don't understand nor realize the positivity that your children really bring into your life, especially as an athlete."
Sports also taught McDonald patience. She was considered old to be debuting for the USWNT when she did after being called up in 2016. But McDonald knew she wanted to perform on the international stage, if not for herself, then for Jeremiah and for all the other moms out there who are chasing their dreams.
“I just want to set a good example for all the moms out there, all the future moms," McDonald said. "If you want to become a mom and professional athlete, just know that it's possible, and my story will tell you that.
“I see moms as the underdogs, always. This is to all the underdogs.”
Contact Emily Leiker at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @emleiker
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USWNT: Soccer's Jessica McDonald embraces role as NWSL's veteran mom