Two-time Olympic gold medalist Crissy Perham was walking her dog to a coffee shop in San Antonio on Friday morning, when her husband pulled up alongside her, in his car, to deliver some upsetting news. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to an abortion. Her husband’s words landed like a gut punch. Perham was one of more than 500 women athletes who filed an amicus brief last September supporting Roe v. Wade. Perham and her fellow athletes wrote that they “are united in their deeply-held belief that women’s athletics could not have reached its current level of participation and success” without that right to end a pregnancy.
For Perham, a former U.S. swimmer who won two gold medals and a silver at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the issue is deeply personal. In the brief, she went public with her story for first time: while a scholarship athlete at the University of Arizona, she was in a long-term, monogamous relationship and used birth control but accidentally got pregnant. She decided to have an abortion. “I wasn’t ready to be a mom, and having an abortion felt like I was given a second chance at life,” Perham wrote. “I was able to take control of my future and refocus my priorities. I got better in school, I started training really hard, and that summer, I won my first national championship. My life would be drastically different if I had been pregnant and forced to sit that race out, because that race changed the course of my life.” A year later, Perham made the Olympic team, as a swimming co-captain.
Now, she sees a terrible hypocrisy in the timing of today’s Supreme Court ruling, coming a day after the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark legislation that mandated equal athletic opportunities for women and girls. Many of the same people cheering for the right of women to play sports didn’t seem to mind them losing a right to control their bodies. “How ridiculous is it that 24 hours ago, they’re praising Title IX and all the opportunities that were created for girls and women that wanted to participate in sports at a higher level and possibly become professional athletes,” Perham tells TIME. “And literally the next day, they said, ‘By the way, if you get pregnant, you’re gonna have to have a baby.’”
Read More: The Fight Over Abortion Has Only Just Begun
Athletes are now worried that Friday’s Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization could roll back some of the advances of Title IX. Women who participate in most sports have a narrow window to maximize their athletic potential, and these years often coincide with childbearing age. While many athletes have managed to juggle difficult pregnancies, and the physical and financial taxations of motherhood while returning to competitive sports, others couldn’t afford to do so. In her memoir, five-time Olympic medalist Sanya Richards-Ross revealed that she got an abortion two weeks before flying to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where she won a 4X400-meter relay gold medal. “The culmination of a lifetime of work was right before me,” Richards-Ross writes in the book. “In that moment, it seemed like no choice at all.”
The right to an abortion helped level the playing field between women and men: expectant fathers don’t have to undergo nine months of physiological changes, and the physical demands of labor, while pursuing a career in sports. As one soccer player put it in the amicus brief: “Being an elite athlete my entire life, I know what having control over my body feels like. I’ve been putting blood, sweat, and tears into my sport since I was five years old, a sacrifice that I made in order to accomplish my dream of playing at the highest level. Once I became sexually active, I knew that a pregnancy had the potential to jeopardize that dream, so having access to an abortion was always the safeguard I had in case my birth control failed. Knowing I had the right and access to an abortion should I need it made me feel secure in myself as a woman athlete, and allowed me to pursue greatness on and off the field.”
If enough states ban abortions, fewer women and girls may participate in sports, and less money will be directed toward women’s athletics. Colleges in states with restrictive abortion rights may stand to lose women athletes. “From where I stand, the future looks bleak,” U.S. water polo goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, tells TIME. Johnson, who also signed the amicus brief, calls today’s decision a “devastating” setback for women’s sports. “It’s really disappointing as someone who went through the collegiate system, played college sports, and is now playing for a professional league,” Johnson says. “It’s just one more barrier. It’s really hard to consider sports this clear pathway for girls to find empowerment and for women to really pursue their dreams if they don’t have these protections.”
Perham, who coached high school swimmers after Barcelona and now has two sons in their 20s, grows emotional when recalling how she her life changed improved after her abortion. She says early on in college, her grades were lacking and she didn’t practice consistently in the pool. “I am thankful every day for the last 30 years of my life not because I had an abortion,” she says. “But because I had that opportunity and people gave me a chance to better myself, and I took advantage of that chance.”
“I’m not here to like, be some weird cheerleader for abortion,” says Perham. “It’s not, ‘yay, abortion.’ It’s, ‘Hey, this is my body, and I want the ability to do with it what I choose, which includes being an athlete.’ I never want to sound like I need anybody to think like me. What I would respectfully ask is that you allow someone with a uterus to decide what’s best for them and their uterus. That’s really what it is.”
Abortion rights haven’t just allowed elite Olympians like Perham to thrive. They’ve assisted athletes on all levels, and the benefits extend far beyond the field. As one former club lacrosse player wrote in the amicus brief: “Two months into my freshman year, I was raped by a man much older than me. Young and eighteen years old, I had no idea what to do, say, or think. I had to navigate uncharted waters on my own and I completely internalized being raped. I started to miss class, my grades dropped, and I was struggling deeply with my emotions. I suffered severe PTSD and became suicidal. Lacrosse was the only thing keeping me going. Between the structure, the physical activity, and the sense of being a part of something larger than myself, I found reprieve when playing. I can’t even begin to imagine what my life would have looked like without lacrosse being a safe haven to turn to. Had I gotten pregnant from that rape, I would have aborted for my emotional and physical health. I emotionally and physically depended on lacrosse, and I wouldn’t have been able to handle a pregnancy, school, and my sport at the same time.”
“If I did not have the option to abort, I would have certainly taken my own life.”