ORLANDO, Fla. — It was a small gesture, a quick raise of the eyebrows and an outstretched arm while saying, “Congratulations.”
But it was Zlatan Ibrahimović. On national television. And Katie Witham hadn’t yet announced publicly she was pregnant. Watching the moment from the broadcast booth of the LA Galaxy’s stadium, fellow Fox Sports broadcaster Stu Holden dropped his mic and fist pumped.
“They were joking, ‘Zlatan blessed your baby!’ Like, Who gets that?!” Witham said laughing as she recounted the story. “It was reassuring and pretty neat to have that experience. Like, hey, here’s this bigger-than-life, superstar player … just so real, a real moment, and accepting of a pregnant sideline reporter sticking a microphone in his face, like no big deal.”
That was the first of about a dozen or more stories of genuine reactions, heartwarming support and unpredictable moments Witham experienced during the last year, which she entered tentatively and a bit scared, not knowing what to expect as a pregnant woman in the male-dominated industry of sports broadcasting.
Then Zlatan blessed her baby. Co-workers gave their full support. Major League Soccer coaches offered advice. She was part of the first all-women broadcast crew in MLS history and successfully covered MLS Cup seven 1/2 months pregnant. Baby Owen Richard Allen was born healthy Feb. 13, though he still refuses to sleep. And she learned how to get through airport security with a breast pump.
All is going well.
And Witham will celebrate her first Mother’s Day on the sideline of Atlanta United’s home game against Orlando City at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday.
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“It’s been amazing to see her confidence grow, and not just her confidence in being a mother, but in being herself,” Holden said during a phone interview, simultaneously consoling his 3-year-old daughter, Kennady, while she screamed for lemonade and quesadillas in the background. “I can see from Katie something I experienced myself in becoming a father: You realize that’s the most important thing in life and everything else, to an extent, doesn’t matter. Almost like a careless confidence that just goes with that.
“I know she was out at practice the other day with the crew, and D.C. were in town and she just brought her son along, and [coach Ben] Olsen’s holding her son and she’s just catching up and doing her thing. Also, realizing that kids in a way connect so many of us.”
“Mom guilt is for real.”
But Witham was still learning on the job and figuring out the logistics of her new life as a working mom when she detailed her experiences for the first time March 31 before Orlando City hosted D.C. United.
Yes, March 31. Six weeks after giving birth.
That wasn’t her first game back on the sideline, either. Witham returned to work four and 1/2 weeks after her son was born. Her first day back was a quick in-state trip from her home in Columbus, Ohio, to Cincinnati. She used that match to get back into a groove while still being a short two-hour drive from home.
The Orlando game was her first flight.
“I won’t lie, I got a little teary-eyed when I got on the plane,” she said with a half-smile. “But then there’s this other part of you – you’ve worked so hard for your career and you’ve taken all these steps, ya know, whether sideways or backwards, to kind of get to where you are, that you’re proud of what you’re doing. So, that part of me, I was so excited to get down here and also to get to talk about something other than a baby.
“But then the other part of me, the mom part – mom guilt is for real – made me feel horrible.”
She’s always been one to book early flights home from work trips, but now Witham said she’s a “first flight out” person out of necessity. After that match, she caught a 5 a.m. flight back to Columbus so she could get home 10 minutes before her husband, Richie Allen, left for work Monday morning.
“So, we’re doing like a little baby handoff, and that’s how we’re making it work,” Witham said. “It’s just the two of us raising this child right now, and so far we’ve been able to do it. Fingers crossed we can continue to do it.”
Witham and Allen were college sweethearts who both captained their soccer teams at Capital University in Ohio. They’ve now been together for 16 years and married for more than seven.
The prospect of motherhood and how it might affect her career scared Witham at first, and she delayed starting a family because of it. She had few examples of pregnant sideline reporters to emulate. ESPN’s Samantha Ponder was the only one she remembered appearing on television pregnant and speaking publicly about it.
She turned to former United States women’s national team player Leslie Osborne, who also works for Fox Sports, and NBC’s Rebecca Lowe, both mothers, for advice and kept them on speed dial.
She also didn’t know how to tell her bosses or how that conversation might go.
“I remember it really well because she sort of set it up with an email first, and I knew something important was coming down the pipe, so to speak,” said Zac Kenworthy, who oversees Fox Sports’ MLS and Bundesliga productions and is father to two daughters, 5 and 3. “I think everyone knows life takes precedence over work and there are things more important than sports. I was really excited for her.
“I have a wife — I have kids — and she’s a professional, and these were some of the same things that she went through. So, I understood where she was coming from.”
After that talk, Witham felt a sense of relief and “kind of silly” for being nervous in the first place. But she still wasn’t ready to publicly share her pregnancy. When she started showing, her crew gently broached the topic of how she would like to be framed on camera.
“They were so shy about asking me, but they were like, ‘Katie, should we start framing you from, like, ya know, your bust up or higher, like neck up?’” she said.
Around that time, Witham’s “work husbands” Holden and John Strong had been encouraging her to announce to the world. She said they pushed her “like, you need to get out there and you need to say, ‘Hey, I’m pregnant and I’m still working and I can do this,’ just so other women see it and it becomes more normal.”
When other women in the industry began reaching out to Witham for advice, she decided it was time.
“I had like six different women reach out to me at different times via Instagram, Twitter or just texting me saying, ‘I heard you’re pregnant. I’m like really early pregnant. I don’t know how to handle it with my bosses. Can you tell me all about it?’
“Hearing from them and knowing they had the exact same fear that I did and they were hiding it, and that’s what I technically was kind of doing, too, it just made me mad. Ya know what? No. I’m not gonna be scared. I’m just going to put it out there.”
— Katie Witham (@Katie_Witham) October 31, 2018
After she did, overwhelming support poured in from co-workers, fans, players and coaches.
During a Sporting Kansas City match — where the benches are very close together and Witham stands right in the middle — coach Peter Vermes did a double-take 10 minutes after kickoff and turned his attention away from the game.
“Like one minute he’s yelling at his players, the next minute he’s talking to his coaches, and then he turns around and he sees me and he’s like, ‘Hey Katie.’ Then he turns back around goes, ‘Oh my god!’” Witham said of Vermes. “I mean, the game is happening, ya know, the ball is in play, and he comes over and he hugs me and he’s like, ‘Congratulations! When are you due?! Why didn’t I know this is happening?’ And he joked, ‘You’re gonna name him Peter, right?!’”
Orlando City coach James O’Connor’s first question when Witham interviewed him before that March 31 match was, “How’s the baby?” And when she asked for sleep advice, he laughed and said she didn’t want advice from him because his 8-year-old “still gets into bed with us in the middle of the night.”
And Strong flew to Columbus before the Cincinnati game to give little Owen — whose name was the only one his parents could agree on — a Michael Owen soccer jersey.
“John’s like, ‘No, you named him after Michael Owen, ya know, the guy that played for England that scored that one crazy goal!’” Witham said laughing. “And I’m like, ‘Yes, John, that’s exactly why I named him that.’”
“We’re all just finding ways to support and encourage her,” Holden said. “Like, she had to buy a super-expensive yeti cooler just to keep her breast milk cool, or I’ve seen her trying to get ice from trainers on teams to keep it cold so it doesn’t go bad. Just all these things men obviously don’t have to deal with. She’s still having to wake up every three hours to pump … I hope she’s proud of herself.”
She’s still learning. Learning humans can function on much less sleep than previously thought, and that watching soccer and golf are the only ways to get Owen to sleep.
“He fights the nap, hard. But we just turn on soccer,” Witham said. “I tease the guys, John and Alexi [Lalas] and Stu, and I’m like, ‘Guys, why do your voices not put him to sleep? They put me to sleep.”
Learning how good it feels to tie her own shoes again. Learning babies are “kind of just little blobs at first,” but how great it is when they start to smile and coo. Learning how to do her job more efficiently. Learning how to carry the pressure of being labeled a role model.
Learning how to be a mom.
“It’s cool to add like another layer, another chapter to the book, ya know? It makes everything a bit new and exciting again,” She said. “It makes things more difficult, for sure, but it’s been fun so far.”