Everyone needs some "me" time.
For Kate Markgraf, that's what soccer has become. It's no longer just a passion, a longtime love or even a job.
Soccer is the time she gets to herself each day, the time she so desperately needs to recharge and remember who she is when she's not being a mom.
With a 4-year-old son (Keegan) and twins (son Xavier and daughter Carson) who are about to turn 1, Markgraf needs soccer like she needs a bottomless supply of diapers and goldfish crackers.
A standout defender for the Chicago Red Stars, Markgraf took all of last season off to give birth to and care for Xavier and Carson.
She thought about hanging up her cleats for good so that she could turn her full attention to raising a toddler and two infants. But that thought lasted for only a moment.
Soccer's call for her to return was much louder than she thought it would be.
"You love your kids so much," Markgraf said. "But at the same time, you miss having something for yourself."
Markgraf was determined to get that back, even though she faced some tough odds.
She had to have a C-section after being on bed rest for the last four months of her pregnancy with the twins, who were born in June of 2009. She's also been running under the careful watch of a trainer since only January.
And yet, Markgraf is now back in her usual spot with the Red Stars, who are in midst of their second season of professional women's soccer at Toyota Park.
"I was really out of the game there for a while and it was tough coming back and getting in shape," Markgraf said. "And it's still tough now with the day-to-day stuff. My teammates are like, 'You were up a 5 a.m. this morning (with the kids) and now you're going to play a game at 7 o'clock at night? You must be exhausted.' And I'm always like, 'Nope. This is my time right now.' Of course, I have to have a huge coffee before every game now, but other than that, I'm ready to go no matter how much sleep I've gotten.
"Soccer has been so great for me. It's something that I enjoy. I'm having fun with it. And really, I feel like if you're happy, you're a better mom."
Markgraf, who gets regular help from a nanny since her husband Chris works out of state, has already proven that she's a pretty good soccer player.
In 2008, when she played every minute for the United States in five games at the Olympics, Markgraf was logging her 10th straight year with the U.S. women's national team, which won all kinds of world titles during her tenure.
"I was never the most skillful player on those teams, but I was really consistent," Markgraf said. "I think out of those 10 years with the national team (1998 to 2008), I probably started 90 percent of the games."
In college, Markgraf was counted upon just as much.
She was a four-year starter at Notre Dame and a three-time all-American who led the Irish to the NCAA title in 1995.
"It's funny, but I'm having so much more fun with soccer now than I ever have," the 33-year-old Markgraf said. "When I was younger, I used to play out of fear a lot. I was always so afraid I was going to make a mistake. I was always so tense.
"But now, I'm older. I have kids now. I know that I probably don't have much more time left in soccer and I think that's made me realize that I have to just really enjoy the moments I do have left."
Tickets for Red Stars games at Toyota Park in Bridgeview begin at $15. For more information, call (708) 496-9500 or visit www.chicagoredstars.com.
No place like home: After five road games to start the season, the Chicago Bandits will play their first home game of the 2010 professional softball season at 5:05 p.m. Sunday at Judson University in Elgin.
The Bandits, who are out to a 3-2 start and feature one of the best pitchers in the world in Jennie Finch, will take on the Akron Racers in the first game of a three-game series at Judson that continues through Tuesday.
Tickets start at $8.75. For more information, call (877) 7BANDIT or visit www.chicagobandits.com.