Opals veteran centre Cayla George is expected to play a big part for Australia during the Women’s Basketball World Cup in Sydney which tips off today.
But the most important role of her life will start just a couple of weeks later, with the arrival of her daughter, Pearl.
And she has her sister in law to thank for providing the ultimate gift, in a special part of Torres Strait Islander lore.
Torres Strait Islander ‘Kupai Omasker’ for the Georges
George and her husband Kailou George, a Torres Strait Islander, have been together for 11 years and have decided to go down the path of adoption.
“In their culture, for generations, Island adoption has been very common,” George said.
“So essentially, if someone in the family has struggled to fall pregnant or is unable to fall pregnant, another family member can choose to gift a baby to that person.”
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The practice is formally known as Kupai Omasker and allows a child to be adopted by a relative or community member for many different reasons, including fertility struggles.
Two years ago, it was legally recognised for the first time in Australia, when a bill passed in Queensland.
And so George’s sister-in-law is carrying her own biological child, which she will then hand over to her brother and his wife.
“She will be our own, she’s our daughter and we cannot wait, we are just over the moon,” George said.
“I feel like I’m cheating a little bit because I get to keep playing and I get to compete at a World Cup and go home and pick up my daughter just out of the birthing suite then take her to Melbourne.
“And I feel like life will keep going except we’ll have this beautiful gorgeous baby.”
Fertility and the female athlete conundrum
If a female athlete wants to have a baby during her career, it’s rarely straightforward.
There are the tiny windows of time between major events they can pinpoint to try and conceive.
There are the biological considerations of age.
By 30 fertility starts to reduce, and it rapidly declines when a woman reaches 35.
And there are menstrual irregularities, or conditions like endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome which are all too common, but rarely spoken about or understood.
“It’s always been a challenge to find a time to fall pregnant, in saying that I have had some difficulties,” George said.
The now 33-year-old had only experienced a couple of natural periods before starting the pill when she was 16.
She continued to take the pill for nine years, and decided to stop at 25 because she “just wasn’t really comfortable with taking this thing anymore.”
After that, she didn’t have a period for four years.
“During that time, I’m [focusing on] Rio Olympics, World Cup, WNBA, WNBL, overseas seasons in Hungary, France, I’m playing, I’m an elite athlete,” she said.
“And then it gets to a point where I was like, this isn’t normal, probably around the three year mark.”
George sought out a specialist in Melbourne and found she wasn’t ovulating naturally.
The specialist suggested a treatment similar to IVF to help her conceive, which she started after the Opals won silver at the 2018 World Cup.
She had done all the calculations – if she could get pregnant in that window, she’d have enough time to make it back to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
“And that’s what it’s like, as an athlete, what are we missing? What are we sacrificing, as a female athlete,” George said.
“My specialist said two or three rounds [of this treatment], you’ll find the most success.
“And I did one round of it. It knocked me for six with the hormones and the needles in my belly.
“And it was pretty full on, I felt nauseous for the entire 2018/19 season. I had lemon and ginger tea on the side of almost every practice, no one knew.
“I was on the phone crying to my husband, who was up in Cairns, trying to take these needles in my belly myself to try and put us in a position to potentially have our own children.”
George said it took her four months to help her feel “normal” again, and she decided not to do another round.
Despite the Olympics eventually being postponed a year due to COVID-19, delaying her chances of trying again, she has no regrets.
“Because of that treatment, I actually started to get a regular period for the first time in my life,” she said.
“So I don’t know if that helped bring it on, or it was going to happen anyway, but that’s the only thing I did differently.”
She’s hopeful the return of her period means she may have a better chance of conceiving naturally when she’s ready.
“I’d love one more go with the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024. And then maybe after that, I’ll stop and try and have my own babies,” she said.
“At that stage Pearl will be about two, so it’d be perfect timing.
“Nonetheless, I’m just so overwhelmed with what’s about to happen in our life.”
‘Women’s sport matters’
The fact that George is having a daughter is fitting.
She is passionate about gender equality, especially in sport.
She wants a better future for Pearl, for her 15-year-old sister, and for all girls.
“There’s so much more we need to do and the push needs to be faster and greater,” George said.
“We get a couple [media] articles and then we think we’re equal.
“No, it’s got to be so much better and more consistent. And then the pay gap is just silly.
“We’re talking surface stuff, there’s stuff underneath as well that needs to be knuckled out and be better as well. But we’re not even close.
“We’re always trying to be seen, we’re always trying to remind people we’re here, we’re always trying to remind people we’re not a joke.
“And that women’s sport matters and that we can play and that we are as good as the men we do have high IQ. It’s always a battle.”
Opals look to continue legacy at World Cup
George hopes the World Cup is a chance to help shift that dial, and she’s ready to play her part.
“I feel like I’m probably in one of the best shapes of my life. And I feel like as you get older, you kind of have a better understanding of where your body needs to be,” she said.
“We have an amazing, talented bunch of women, and whatever is required of each and every one of us, we’d do whatever we need to do to win.”
And George is most overcome with emotion when she talks about the bonds with her teammates.
“We have really great people in this team, and it shows and you feel it,” she said.
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“And there’s a huge legacy that is the Opals, and that’s gone back decades, they’ve been successful in winning medals for decades.
“I’ve been a part of the Opal squad since 2008, I’ve been a part of the Opals team since 2013, so I feel so so blessed every time I never take it for granted ever.
“Now I want to work even harder to prove that I still deserve to be here and want to be here and be the best I can be to help this team be successful.
“So the sisterhood that we have and the legacy piece is beyond words.”