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WNBA stars Skylar Diggins-Smith, Dearica Hamby share rare motherhood feat in league

SEATTLE — Skylar Diggins-Smith isn’t entirely sure if she’s at 100% yet. 

In fact, the nine-year veteran, a six-time WNBA All-Star and four-time first-team All-WNBA honoree, isn’t sure what 100% even means or what that feels like after having two children. 

"I don’t know what 100% is for this body. I tell my coaches, this is my third body," Diggins-Smith joked to ӣƵ ӣƵ, a nod to the fact that the 5-foot-9 guard has given birth twice. 

Diggins-Smith’s comeback is rare. In the league’s 28-year history, only a handful of women have returned to play after their second pregnancy, including Diggins-Smith, now of the Seattle Storm. Two-time Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby of the Los Angeles Sparks is another. On Tuesday, those two-time moms will meet on the floor when Seattle hosts LA. 

As women athletes compete later in life, it has become more common for them to pause training to have a family. Some of the biggest names in sports, including Serena Williams and Allyson Felix, have been praised for returning to elite-level competition after giving birth. But those same women have talked openly about how hard it is to come back, and that they weren't sure they could do it twice. When Williams retired in September 2022, she said her decision was at least somewhat motivated by .

Hamby, 30, and Diggins-Smith, 33, know that motherhood is challenging no matter how many kids you have. They respect every WNBA mom’s ability to juggle on- and off-court responsibilities, especially in a profession that requires tons of travel. They also know that returning to elite shape after giving birth once is hard enough. Doing it twice puts them in a special club. 

"Being one of three or four women who have done it, that’s pretty freaking crazy," Diggins-Smith said. "Not a lot of people have navigated it, so you don’t have many to reach out to and say, ‘Hey, how did you do this in our sport?’ Every day you learn something new and you’ve gotta pump the brakes. For me, I’m still learning about this body, still learning to give myself grace." 

Diggins-Smith gave birth to her daughter in early 2023, and spent last season on maternity leave. She also missed the 2019 season, then with the Dallas Wings, after giving birth to her son in April 2019 (Diggins-Smith prefers to keep details about her children, including their names and specific birthdays, private). She spoke frankly about the postpartum struggles she had after having her first child, and how hard it was to leave him when she needed to head to the gym or get on a plane for a game. 

"The things you don’t really talk about in coming back is how you navigate those things," said Diggins-Smith, who has been pushing for the league to create an official moms group where parents could help support each other. (The league estimates that 12 of its current 139 players are moms, though it does not distinguish between women who gave birth and women who didn’t.)

Sparks forward Dearica Hamby has returned to the WNBA after having children twice. Her daughter Amaya, 7, and son Legend, 1, are regulars at games.

Balancing motherhood, veganism and playing was 'lot of trial and error'

Taj McWilliams-Franklin knows how Diggins-Smith and Hamby feel. 

Now the WNBA’s player relations and development manager, McWilliams-Franklin played 14 years in the league and is uniquely positioned to understand the challenge in coming back from multiple pregnancies. McWilliams-Franklin, now 53, has four children, ranging in ages from 36 to 2. Her three daughters were all born when she was playing, the first two when she was still in school. When she found out she was pregnant for a third time at 32 — severe stomach discomfort during practice had her worried her appendix was about to burst — she knew immediately she would keep playing if her body allowed it. 

"When I found out, I was in the best shape of my life," said McWilliams-Franklin, who would bring her daughter to Connecticut Sun practice to watch from her car seat on the sideline. "I wanted to know, how do I get back to that space? I played until I was three-and-a-half months pregnant because I didn’t know before then. But I knew I still wanted to play overseas, still wanted to play in the W, so I was trying to figure out how can I do that the right way? When you’re 17 or 19 and pregnant, you pop right back into shape. But at 33, oh God, it’s harder." 

Complicating matters for McWilliams-Franklin: She was a vegan long before it was popular, which meant getting enough nutrients to both nurse and get back into shape involved a "lot of trial and error.” She figured it out though, and played professionally until she was 44. 

Storm guard Skylar Diggins-Smith (4) is one of a few WNBA players who have twice come back from giving birth.

Diggins-Smith also had to remember recovery would not happen overnight. She gained more than 50 pounds when she was pregnant the second time. She pressured herself to drop baby weight almost immediately after having her son. With her daughter, she reminded herself it would take time. She'd already done it once, and she knew she could do it again.

Hamby laughed recalling her comeback, because it didn’t take long at all. After giving birth to her daughter Amaya in February 2017, Hamby was back on the floor in six weeks. But when she gave birth to son Legend in March 2023, she returned after just three weeks, a bounce-back so quick it made Diggins-Smith shake her head in disbelief. 

"It was easier the second time around," said Hamby, who labored for just 90 minutes with each child. "I’ve been fortunate … I didn’t have complications during labor and delivery. I’ve got to thank my mom and grandma, because at least a little bit of it is genetic." 

'Mom guilt' haunts WNBA players, too

No one’s return was perfectly smooth though, particularly for Hamby or Diggins-Smith, who went public with some of their frustrations.

After Hamby was traded by the Las Vegas Aces in January 2023, she accused the organization of retaliation for her getting pregnant. The league investigated Hamby’s claims, and wound up suspending Vegas coach Becky Hammon for two games during the 2023 season; Hammon denied she’d done anything wrong.

Meanwhile Diggins-Smith said last August that the Phoenix Mercury, her former team, had locked her out of the practice facility during her maternity leave. Then-Mercury coach Nikki Blue declined to answer specific questions shortly after Diggins-Smith's accusations, saying only that the team was giving Diggins-Smith space. Diggins-Smith signed with Seattle during 2024 free agency. 

McWilliams-Franklin had her own heartache. Like many WNBA players, McWilliams-Franklin spent her winter playing overseas to supplement her income. Logistically, it didn’t work to bring her daughters with her, so she left them with family for months at a time. 

"The mom guilt, I think it’s a struggle for every woman no matter what profession they’re in," she said. "And back then, we didn’t have Skype or FaceTime. I’m 6,000 miles away spending most (of) my paycheck on calls home, constantly checking in. I cried myself to sleep all the time." 

Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who played 14 years in the WNBA, is one of just three players in league history who returned to the court after multiple pregnancies. She said she is "in awe of all the moms in our league."

In her role within the WNBA now, McWilliams-Franklin is determined to help every mom, knowing there is no one-size-fits-all approach. It’s remarkable how far the league has come, she said. Charter flights, a new benefit this year, have been hugely helpful for moms eager to get home to their kids, or bring them along.

Diggins-Smith acknowledged that the league is more accommodating of players who want to have a family now, but said it “didn’t feel that way when I first came in. And now, it depends on who you play for.” Both of Diggins-Smith's pregnancies followed All-WNBA seasons. "Neither team really liked that," she said.

In the next CBA, Hamby hopes to see more pregnancy benefits. Now, teams pay the full salary of a player who is on maternity leave, while the league provides a salary cap exception to sign a replacement. But that replacement is never a highly-compensated veteran, so if the missing player is on a higher contract, teams typically aren’t getting a player of the same caliber. Hamby also thinks the family planning benefits — players can get up to $60,000 reimbursement for costs directly related to adoption, surrogacy, egg freezing or fertility treatments — should extend to players who have recently retired.

"I think they have the right idea," Hamby said. "I think a lot of it is going to come down to, between the league and owners, about how to help protect (pregnant) players." 

Still, none of the women have regrets. Diggins-Smith wanted her children to see her play, and Hamby always dreamed of being a young mom. Their kids are staples at practice facilities and on sidelines. They know their journeys can inspire fellow players, too. Diggins-Smith joked that she’s asked so many details about her pregnancies "sometimes I feel like I’m teaching a health class." Hamby is always eager to show off videos of her children being born. 

"I’m in awe of all the moms in our league," McWilliams-Franklin said. "You birth a human and you’re able to do miracles things on the court, you deserve an award. All of them are amazing, kicks women. When you have kids and you come back, it’s not about the level, it’s about the ability to come back. Having a baby and then being able to play in the toughest league in the world? You deserve all the props." 

Their kids agree. Asked who her favorite player in the WNBA is, 7-year-old Amaya Hamby, who just finished the first grade, paused. 

"Hmmmm," she mused, mentally ticking through her previous favorites like Vegas stars A’ja Wilson and Kelsey Plum. Dearica, embarrassed that she might not make the cut, shook her head and sighed. 

"Please don’t do this," she said to Amaya, laughing. 

Then Amaya conceded that Mommy is, indeed, her favorite. But she’s got a back-up, too. 

"Without you it’s (Seattle’s) Joyner Holmes," Amaya said, crawling into Dearica’s lap and wrapping her arms around Dearica’s neck. "But you already know you’re the best." 

Email Lindsay Schnell at lschnell@usatoday.com and follow her on social media 

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