Just as she predicted, beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh got the itch to play by December. Never mind she was four months pregnant. The sand beckoned.
"I really thought I'd give it a full year off, but it's been such a long time off, and it's been good for my head and good for my soul, and I'm ready," she said, her son bouncing on her knee and husband Casey Jennings competing on a court nearby.
Less than three months after Walsh, 30, gave birth to Joseph Michael Jennings on May 22, she will return to competition at the Hermosa Beach Open, which begins today. Walsh last competed in Dubai in November 2008 with Nicole Branagh. Her longtime partner, Misty May-Treanor, tore her Achilles' tendon in October while training for the hit television show, "Dancing With the Stars."
So she will play with fellow new mother Rachel Wacholder, who gave birth to Koa Daniel Scott on April 3.
May-Treanor and Walsh won beach volleyball gold medals at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics and lead the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals Tour in career wins (67 for May-Treanor and 65 for Walsh).
Walsh isn't sure about her future with May-Treanor because she wants a family as well.
"It remains to be seen," Walsh said while watching Jennings, a top men's beach volleyball player, compete at the Manhattan Beach Open in July. "I hope to God that she comes back and we'll play together."
Walsh and Wacholder, 34, have been teammates before, winning two international tournaments in 2004 before the Athens Olympics when May-Treanor was injured.
"I think we both feel like we're in the same position obviously, we both just had babies, we had played together, which is huge as well," Walsh said by telephone in early July.
Walsh talked to other athletic moms, such as former volleyball player Gabrielle Reece and soccer player Mia Hamm, to gain insight about how to continue to compete after starting a family.
"They're like: 'It's possible. Just give yourself time and be patient,' " Walsh said. "Which is truly the hardest part, being patient. I want to be fit yesterday."
WNBA star Lisa Leslie says it's a tough balancing act. She missed the 2007 season to give birth to her daughter, Lauren Lockwood.
"I don't think I ever cried so much in basketball till last year," said the Sparks center, now playing in her 13th and final season, earlier this year. "I realize a lot of that had to do with my hormones being out of whack. I could see the time was drawing near.
"It was hard coming back. I don't think my mind-set was really right. I should have done more thinking to try to come back and be the player I was. It's really difficult balancing the team and the family."
Walsh worked out intensely during her pregnancy and cut short by a few days the recommended four-week rest period after childbirth. Now she and Wacholder are working with retired beach volleyball player Holly McPeak and Marcio Sicoli, the volleyball coach at Pepperdine.
The toughest part of coming back, Walsh said, was her lack of strength. Usually she works out in the off-season and has a good fitness base, needing only to fine tune her volleyball skills. Now, however, she and Wacholder are working on both at the same time. They lift weights, run in the sand and do Pilates as part of their training.
"Usually you're terrible at volleyball but you're really strong, and now I'm just really weak and I have no touch because I haven't played since November and it's all very scary," Walsh said.
When she's not training, Walsh has been focusing on her new family, no easy task when both parents' jobs require worldwide travel.
"When he does come home, we'll juggle our schedules," Walsh said. "He's so hands-on when he's home, he loves his son so much and wants to be around him constantly."
Jennings said the balancing act between competing and spending time at home has been tough, but he sees it as a temporary evil.
Walsh has hired a nanny two days a week, but even with help, a newborn can make life tough.
"The first day leaving him I cried," Walsh said. "I was serving balls, and I was like, 'I wonder what Joey's doing right now? I wonder if he's happy?' "
Wacholder couldn't start training as soon as Walsh because she had a Caesarean section and had to avoid physical activity for six weeks and not work her abdominal muscles for another two. Her husband, Sean Scott, also a beach volleyball player, flew his mother out from Hawaii to help take care of Koa.
"She went home, and then we flew her back out," Scott said. "We were like, 'We need help.' "
Walsh says motherhood has given her a new perspective on volleyball, one with a little less stress.
Even so, she has set a goal of winning gold as a mother at the 2012 Olympics in London.
She wants to win at Hermosa Beach too, seeing it not as a post-pregnancy tune-up, but a competition.
"Absolutely, that's why we're doing it," she said of seeking the tournament victory. "We want to be really good, we want to win. That's what our goals are."