For the past 15 months, life has been hectic for the celebrity sports couple Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe. In September 2018, Bird won her third WNBA title with the Seattle Storm to add to a résumé that already included two NCAA championships and four Olympic gold medals. This summer, Rapinoe led the U.S. women’s soccer team to its fourth World Cup championship, repeatedly making headlines along the way for her stance against President Trump and outspokenness against gender inequality.
But in the midst of all the couple’s travel, training and public engagements, Bird found herself in a rare situation. After undergoing arthroscopic surgery on her left knee in late May, the 39-year-old point guard had an unexpected few months without basketball — she missed the entire season while rehabbing.
Free of the usual physical demands of a WNBA season, Bird decided to do something she had been considering for years. She decided to freeze her eggs.
“I think being in a relationship changes your mind-set on it,” Bird said in a recent interview. “ ... It’s hard to picture [life with children] when you’re both professional athletes. But that’s when it became like, wait a minute. Shouldn’t we take the steps to have the option, if down the road we decided we do want kids? It’s so hard to imagine how that fits into our lives — we know what life is like now; we can’t even have a goldfish right now!”
Bird, who will play for her fifth Olympic gold medal this summer in Tokyo, wasn’t alone in taking advantage of the increasingly popular procedure that preserves eggs for potential fertilization later. Bird’s teammate, the 2018 WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart, also decided to freeze her eggs after undergoing season-ending surgery in April to repair a ruptured Achilles’ tendon.
Bird’s and Stewart’s decisions to speak about such a personal matter comes at a time when there is more awareness of athletes’ off-court health and well-being than ever before. In the WNBA, conversations about salaries, mental health care and general working conditions loom constantly as the league and the players’ union negotiate toward a new collective bargaining agreement. In October, the WNBA and WNBPA agreed to extend the current CBA to Dec. 31.
Bird said she wanted to normalize the procedure so that career-focused women and athletes alike are more aware of their options.
But she also acknowledged that for many women, freezing their eggs can be cost prohibitive. While the procedure is increasingly common — the number of fertility preservation cycles increased from 8,825 in 2016 to 10,936 in 2017, according to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology — women generally spend between $30,000 and $40,000 freezing and storing their eggs, according to the digital database Fertility IQ.
Some women choose to freeze their eggs for medical reasons that could impact their fertility, such as cancer treatment. But most health plans, including the WNBA’s, do not cover elective egg freezing.
“As an athlete, this is a big thing,” Bird said. “Straight, gay, doesn’t matter. Your career is your body, and you need to keep your options open, in terms of starting a family. Obviously, there’s a lot going on in the world of female sports and specifically in the WNBA because we have our CBA coming up. Just to be a pioneer in that category, it would be great for a women’s league to start talking about these things, to maybe have these options for athletes.”
Though Bird had been mulling the procedure for years, Stewart, 25, had not given freezing her eggs much thought. But when the Achilles’ injury forced Stewart to take time off from her usual year-round basketball schedule, the procedure was brought to her attention by her and Bird’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas.
Like most WNBA players, Stewart competes overseas during the WNBA offseason to supplement her income. Egg-freezing requires multiple doctor visits, and most importantly for athletes, a period of approximately 10 days in which hormone medication is taken daily — which means no heavy training or competition.
“Every day I had to inject something into my stomach, which is something I’d never done before,” Stewart said with a laugh. “ ... I was bloated, couldn’t do the workouts I wanted do to. No twisting or anything because a lot was going on down there.”
At first, the procedure seemed daunting to Stewart. But she and Bird attended a reassuring informational meeting together at Seattle Reproductive Medicine, a fertility clinic with which Colas formed a relationship through The Collective, a division of the Wasserman talent agency that is focused on women in sports.
Bird also shared her regrets with Stewart about not freezing her eggs when she was younger. Younger patients tend to have more and better-quality eggs that can be retrieved and frozen than patients who are over 35.
“Talking to the doctor at SRM, she was just like, you’ll have perfect eggs right now because you’re so young and people don’t usually do this that young,” Stewart said. “ ... Now I have the options that I have these eggs further down the line, because I don’t plan on missing a significant amount of time. I was like, all right, let me do something that looks toward my future. Now I don’t have to worry about playing year-round or going overseas, getting lost in my work.”