The conversation Cecile Lundy never thought she would be forced to lead the gymnasts she coaches came out of the blue last summer, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Lundy, who competed for her native France in the 1996 Olympics before becoming a coach with her husband Laurent, gave her athletes a short, heartfelt message: I’m here for you, no matter what.
“I’ll literally do whatever they need (if they get pregnant), even if I think it’s going to get me in trouble,” said Lundy, who coaches in Texas, a state with one of the strictest abortion bans in the country.
For Lundy, whose athletes include seven-time Olympic medalist and five-time world champion Simone Biles and 2020 Olympic silver medalist Jordan Chiles, speaking publicly about such a private topic is part of her evolving role.
“It’s a lot more than training, the relationship we have with the athletes, talking to them about everything,” she said.
Lundy’s holistic approach to her work reflects the rapidly shifting tectonic plates of the athlete-coach relationship at all levels of sports, especially those involving women.
The reversal in Roe v. Wade added another complex and potentially difficult layer for coaches and athletes to navigate, joining a list that includes everything from ever-evolving rules regarding name, image, and likeness to the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ and transgender rights to states, who decide whether to track the menstrual cycles of high school girls.
For some coaches, the ever-changing landscape makes their profession more demanding than ever.
“They become overwhelmed,” said Dr. Kathryn Ackerman, a Boston-based sports medicine physician and co-chair of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s Women’s Health Task Force. “They’re overwhelmed with all the different issues that female athletes have.”
None may have a greater long-term impact than the repeal of Roe, a move that stripped women of constitutional protections against abortion and allowed individual states to address the issue. Since then, more than a dozen states have passed laws restricting or outright banning abortion.
Women’s track and field, especially at the NCAA level, finds itself in uncharted territory.
For decades, when a high school athlete weighed her options for where to compete collegiately, a given state’s position on abortion was not part of the decision-making process. For some young women, it is now.
And if an athlete who gets pregnant goes to a school in a state with strict abortion laws and tells her coach, the coach could find herself in an increasingly difficult position.
Several NCAA coaches in various sports who spoke to The Associated Press understand that they have an obligation to take their personal politics out of the equation and simply offer support if one of their players comes forward with a pregnancy. The coaches spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
This can be much easier for those working in states like California where abortion rights are codified by state law, but more difficult in states with tighter restrictions. Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma and Tennessee — states that have many schools where women’s athletics are thriving — have all passed tough bans in the past nine months.
Greg Marsden, who coached Utah women’s gymnastics for four decades before retiring in 2015, said he dealt with the pregnancy and was supportive of his athletes’ choices, but is glad he’s no longer in the position.
“It breaks my heart to know that now some will no longer be able to make their own decisions without the threat of being tracked down, reported, arrested and charged with a felony for what was until recently a right,” he said.
Marsden said athletes “shouldn’t have to worry about the fate of someone they can confide in or ask for help, whether it’s a parent, friend, teammate, coach, trainer or medical professional.”
Marsden speaks from a secure retirement that makes him comfortable. Lundy works at the World Champions Center north of Houston, a facility owned by the Biles family, which gives her more freedom to speak her mind.
That’s not the same for many active college coaches, who must answer to a variety of stakeholders, from the athletes they coach to athletic directors, university presidents and governing boards. These groups span a wide swath of the political spectrum, which is one of the reasons so many coaches have been reluctant to go on the record.
At the professional level, the dynamic is a little different. Leagues like the WNBA and NWSL have player unions that help find “workarounds” for those living in states with restrictive abortion laws, according to NWSL Players Association executive director Megan Burke.
At the collegiate level, the situation is much more tenuous.
Less than a year after the Supreme Court’s decision, several coaches told the AP that the state’s position on abortion appeared on the recruiting trail. One coach said the recruit’s parents told him straight up that their child wanted to go to school in a state where abortion rights are protected.
When Rutgers women’s gymnastics coach Umma Saleem-Beasley’s daughters were making a list of potential college destinations, they crossed off states with severely restricted abortions.
Salim-Beasley called her daughters’ thought process “eye-opening,” but also symbolic of their generation, which she believes is more politically savvy.
“When I was in high school, (politics) was the furthest thing from my mind,” Salim-Beasley said. “It’s not something I should have cared about. But I think that today’s children, high school students and students, are well aware and informed about what is happening.”
Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer works in a state where abortion rights are protected, but said she wouldn’t tell a recruit about it.
“I think it’s for young people to figure it out for themselves, or their family to help them,” she said.
Coaching has never been about just teaching athletes the ins and outs of a particular sport. Marsden compiled a long list of things he did during his time at Utah that had nothing to do with gymnastics, from serving as a driver on trips to cleaning up the gym after practices.
Several coaches told the AP that the actual coaching part of their job has gotten smaller over the years. We need to build a culture. Relationships to be nurtured. Addressing the needs, both verbal and non-verbal, of athletes of diverse backgrounds. Oh, and they have to win, too.
“I think there are high expectations for a coach,” Ackerman said. “And I think maybe a better system would be if we had resources at these different teams, at these different schools, to allow people to ‘stay in their lane’ a little bit more — to have a sports psychologist, to have a sports medicine doctor , to have a sports nutritionist or nutritionist, so that all those people help the team, so that the coach is not everything to them.”
At the highest level of men’s and women’s athletics, many of these things are in place. But now those coaching women also have to worry about disenfranchising their players, although Ackerman doesn’t believe that will force many to leave a profession that most see as a calling.
“I think our lives in general have become more complex,” Ackerman said. “So if they like coaching, then they just have to keep up with the times and learn the skills. … Part of doing your job is understanding that it’s going to change from when you first signed up. That’s a choice coaches have to make.”
AP sports writers Jenny McCauley in San Francisco, Ann Peterson in Portland, Oregon and Pat Eaton-Robb in Hartford, Connecticut contributed to this report.
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