Back After Baby

Three months after giving birth to her first child, Niele Ivey conquers the rigors of the WNBA.

By Kenny Berkowitz

Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 13.5, July/August 2003,

On February 13, 2002, Niele Ivey was in a hospital delivery room, giving birth to her son. Two weeks later, she was back in the gym, trying to lose the 50 pounds she put on during pregnancy. And three months after that, she was being introduced into the starting lineup for the WNBA Indiana Fever.

The year previous, Ivey had made the tough transition from college ball to the WNBA. Now, she was attempting to blend the challenge with being a new parent.

In May of 2001, she’d finished her senior year at Notre Dame, helping the Fighting Irish win a national championship, and gone straight to training camp with the Fever. In June, she realized she was pregnant, but decided to finish the season anyway, despite struggling with nausea for much of the time. By September, she was exhausted.

Ivey spent the fall working with her former strength coach at Notre Dame, Tony Rolinski, SCCC, CSCS, lowering the weights on her usual routine and staying in shape by walking and bicycling. Then on February 13, 2002, she went through 10 hours of labor before giving birth to a son, Jaden, and starting her recovery.

“It was very painful, but having my family there helped me get through it,” says Ivey. “I’ve been through two ACL surgeries, I’ve had many tests of mental strength, and I’ve always fought through them. A lot of people didn’t think I’d be able to come back, but I’m determined to play professional basketball. It’s something I’ve dreamt about my whole life, and I’m going to work as hard as I can to make it happen.”

It has taken a lot of work and determination, but she certainly is making it happen. She did not miss one WNBA game through her pregnancy and first year of motherhood, starting in 26 (of 32 total) games in 2001 and 23 (of 31) games in 2002. Through the first quarter of this season, she is the Fever’s starting point guard, averaging 4.0 assists per game and ranked second in the league in assists per turnover ratio. She also ranks fourth in the WNBA in three-point field goal percentage at .579.

For her courage in tackling two huge roles at once, and for doing the tough work to make her comeback a reality, Niele Ivey is the recipient of Training & Conditioning’s Comeback Athlete of the Year Award, professional athlete category.

Reaching the top of her game again has taken a full year of steady workouts, along with learning to balance the demands of motherhood with a career as a professional basketball player. Along the way, she’s gotten used to playing with only five hours of sleep and spending days away from her son when the team goes on road trips. It’s taken a lot of mental work, a new exercise program, and help from Fever Strength Coach Greg Moore, CSCS, who is also Director of Athletic Performance at the National Institute for Fitness and Sport.

“You’ve got to lay a solid foundation before you can build a house,” says Moore, who had never before worked with an athlete trying to re-condition after pregnancy. “So I talked to her doctor, did a lot of research, and made sure to design a program that would keep Niele moving forward.”

“When I first came back, I was just trying to get on the court again,” agrees Ivey. “So I did a little bit at a time, and spoke to my doctor every week to tell him how I was feeling. There were times that I struggled, but slowly I started doing a little more every day, working a little faster. I wanted to be smart about it and not do more than my body could handle.”

From Ivey’s doctor’s advice and research on the Internet, Moore came up with a list of dos and don’ts for Ivey’s rehab. From his wife, a fitness instructor and mother of two girls, Moore learned to let Ivey take the lead in her own rehab.

“You have to listen to your body, listen to what it’s telling you,” he says, repeating his wife’s advice. “In time, your strength will come back, but if you push yourself, you’re going to have problems. Athletes tend to fight through pain, and you have to know the difference between pain and something that can actually harm your health.”

To rebuild bone density and muscle mass, he started Ivey with a series of low-impact exercises, increasing her aerobic activity while keeping an eye on her heart rate to avoid sudden spikes. As her aerobic capacity increased and her weight continued to drop, Moore made sure to monitor her nutritional intake, and gave her increasingly difficult strength exercises.

“Each day I did a little bit at a time, and we kept shifting my workout, so I wasn’t working the same muscles every day,” says Ivey. “I’d do as much as I could stand, and if I started feeling bad, or my body started hurting, I would stop immediately.”

Within the first few weeks, Ivey was doing 200 sit-ups at a time, along with crunches and workouts in the weight room. To lighten the pressure on her midsection and lessen the impact on her lower body—especially her ACL-torn-and-repaired knees—Ivey stayed away from plyometrics, exercising her legs by running in a pool before moving up to a stationary bicycle.

Some days, she was too sore to make much progress. Her abdomen felt heavy, her stomach hurt, and even on a good night she wasn’t getting much sleep. But over the course of a couple of weeks, she could feel her muscles getting stronger and her body coming closer to her playing weight. She was lifting as much as she safely could, and spending hours on the court, re-sharpening her basketball skills.

Breastfeeding helped Ivey quickly lose the extra pounds, going from 190 pounds before the birth to her usual 140 pounds. Bringing Jaden to the gym allowed the two of them to stay together while she did her workouts.

“When he was able to go outside, I started taking him everywhere with me,” says Ivey. “I’d be shooting baskets, and he’d be sleeping in his baby seat next to the court. He became very, very familiar with the gym. And all my teammates just fell in love with him.”

By May, when the Fever began its training camp, Ivey had increased her speed and endurance on the bike, staying on for an hour at a time. She’d been shooting baskets for two months, and had weaned Jaden, who stayed at home with family when Ivey and the Fever went on the road.

But even though Ivey began the season as a starter and played in 31 games, averaging 1.3 assists and 14 minutes per game, she still hadn’t reached full strength, and by September the fatigue was showing. During the Fever’s three playoff games she played a total of only nine minutes.

“By June, the doctor had cleared her to play,” says Moore, “but by the end of the season it was clear she wasn’t ready to compete consistently at this level of the game.”

“That first year of coming back from having a baby was tough, because I was already so fatigued,” says Ivey. “For three months, I’d hardly been getting any sleep, and having to go from being with my newborn to full-time basketball training was pretty difficult. I put a lot of pressure on myself, and had some battles with my confidence, especially when I wasn’t shooting the ball well. I knew what I was capable of doing, but for two seasons I hadn’t been able to show the rest of the team.”

That’s why this new season has become so important to Ivey. Starting in January 2003, the Fever hired her to work part-time promoting the team, giving her the chance to continue working with Moore to complete her rehab. Two days every week, they worked on speed, agility, quickness, and upper body strength; the other two days, they focused on aerobic conditioning, lower-body strength, and plyometric training.

“Finally, after being out of school for two years, Niele had the opportunity to actually have an off-season of conditioning, and it’s made a big difference,” says Moore. “You can see it in her quickness, mobility, and overall fitness. She looks leaner, like an athlete again. Her strength levels keep going up, and she’s completely committed to staying in condition through the season.”

“I feel good now,” says Ivey. “My body feels good, and my challenge right now is to just stay healthy and maintain that strength all season long.”

To stay in shape, Ivey is continuing her workouts, going to the weight room two to three times a week, putting up extra shots before and after team practice, and spending more time on her long-range jumper. (Now a year and a half old, Jaden is also progressing quickly, and now knows how to brush his teeth, wave bye-bye, and say “mama” and “dada,” says Mom.)

So far, the conditioning is paying off. Ivey has regained her starting spot in the lineup, is hitting her threes with consistency, and is dishing out enough assists to keep her team over the .500 mark. She scored a career-high 14 points vs. Washington in the second game of the season, and that helped her regain the confidence she needed to turn her game up a notch.

“She looks better than she did in college,” says Moore. “She’s committed to playing at this level, and she’s had four solid months of strength and conditioning workouts to get here. She looks young again, and to have come back to play this quickly after delivering is a great accomplishment.”

“My two knee surgeries taught me a lot about perseverance and determination,” says Ivey. “I was determined to do everything possible to come back from those surgeries, and that’s the same way I’ve felt about the pregnancy.

“My priorities have changed, and I’m not just playing for myself anymore,” continues Ivey. “Every day I come onto the court, I know that I’m playing for my son. I’m taking care of my family, and that makes me work harder.”