A five-hour layover in an airport is an annoyance no athlete wants to deal with before flying cross-country to go back to practice. The crowd is irritable, the seats are uncomfortable and the clock is sluggish.
But for the Seattle Reign FC, stuck between games earlier this season in New Jersey, defender Stephanie Cox’s now 16-month-old daughter, Kaylee, was a welcome distraction.
A toddler grabbing your keys, tossing snatched dollar bills, being blissfully unaware of the surrounding stress is an easy smile in an aggravating situation.
Kaylee has become an honorary member of the Reign, which will play the Washington Spirit in the semifinals of the National Women’s Soccer League playoffs at 8 p.m. Sunday at Memorial Stadium.
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And motherhood has given Cox a renewed vigor on the field, one she needed after being cut from the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.
Not making the squad was a stab to Cox’s confidence.
She was a World Cup team member in 2007 and 2011, an Olympic team member in 2008 and a player with 82 appearances on the national team.
Starting a family with her husband, Brian, suddenly became a reality after she was cut.
If she could have a baby by the beginning of the Reign’s season in 2013, she thought, she would have time to get back on the field by the end of the regular season and start training for the next Olympics and World Cup cycle.
“I was really disappointed but there was a certain peace that I had about it because I knew I had given everything I could have given,” Cox said.
“I didn’t have any regrets and I thought, ‘OK, we can try to get pregnant.’ … I think in the midst of that planning, I knew that I still loved the game. Even though I got cut, that didn’t take away my joy for the game.”
Kaylee was born, Cox started running within two weeks, and a return to the Reign’s season was in store.
She played in the last five games of the Reign’s disastrous 2013 season (5-14-3), and women’s national-team coach Tom Sermanni invited her to camp in the fall.
Throughout, Cox faced new challenges.
Sitting with her legs crossed on the floor to play with Kaylee suddenly bothered the meniscus in her knee.
Cox’s physical therapist also warned against putting Kaylee on one hip too often because it might re-align the joints.
Cox had to learn how to balance the recovery time of an elite athlete with the job of a mom.
“It’s just different than what it was like before, when my whole day was wrapped around recovery,” she said.
“But I still feel like I can perform and be a good and active mom.”
Cox remains the anchor of the Reign’s back line as they hurtle toward a remarkable turnaround from last season.
The team holds a 16-2-6 record heading into the playoffs and boasts one of the most talented rosters in the country. While a toddler isn’t exactly a secret weapon for an ultra-talented team, Cox says her teammates have still embraced Kaylee as one of their own.
“I think it’s a good thing for the team, too,” Cox said. “Having a baby around, it makes them relax. They’re like, ‘Oh, where’s our entertainment?’ when she’s not here.”
Of course, Kaylee usually is around – acting as the same steadying force for Cox as Cox is for her team.
Whether Cox gets another shot at the national team is still up in the air. But she knows that she is capable if given the chance.
After a potentially captivating 2014 run for the Reign concludes in the coming weeks, the future for the 28-year-old — and her family — is wide-open.
“I think my professional career has been kind of up and down. … There was a little period there where I wasn’t really enjoying the game as much,” she said.
“But I’m having too much fun to be done.”