Professional soccer player Ayano Dozono never had to face the difficult choice between family and career many female athletes cannot avoid.

This spring, her Spanish women’s second-tier club Real Union de Tenerife re-signed the Japanese midfielder for the 2021-2022 season knowing she was pregnant, saying it reflects the team’s culture of equality and support for women.

For her part, Dozono wants to prove motherhood and elite-level sports can go hand-in-hand with the right support and be an inspiration to girls, women and mothers everywhere.

“There is a common belief that an athlete should wait until after retirement to have a baby, but that might change if there are more instances of female athletes like me,” said Dozono, who gave birth to her daughter in August.

It is not the first time the 31-year-old from Kagoshima Prefecture has blazed a trail for future generations rather than taking the predictable, linear career path.

In 2014, after a seven-year spell with Saitama’s Urawa Reds that culminated in a league championship, Dozono, who established herself as a key player for the side, called it quits, retiring at age 24.

At the time, she said she was faced with a decision on whether to give up her career altogether or to search for new challenges in the sport overseas.

“I will have regrets if I don’t try,” she told herself when she flew to Spain to take part in trials with professional clubs in 2016.

“I surprised myself when I found out how quickly I can act when I set my heart on something.”

Dozono carried a dictionary on the training pitch with her first club in Spain and picked up new vocabulary out of necessity because she needed to communicate with her teammates.

She rediscovered her joy for the game in Spain, and after playing for multiple clubs, she met her current partner, a 39-year-old Japanese Peruvian man who taught Japanese for a living.

In 2020, Dozono agreed to a deal with Tenerife, a women’s club based in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in the autonomous community of the Canary Islands.

Just as she was getting comfortable with her new team and making an impression on fans, she found out she was pregnant.

“Would they still want me, a pregnant athlete?” she wondered. “Will I be able to continue playing soccer?”

Those types of questions troubled her before she decided to break the news to the team.

Not only did Tenerife congratulate her, the club promised to offer support and kept its word by renewing her contract and moving her from a shared player apartment into a family flat.

As she transitions into her new role as a mother-athlete, Dozono is turning her daily walk into a cardio workout. She is hoping to rejoin her teammates on the pitch in January and get the best of both worlds.

“Balancing work and motherhood isn’t going to be easy but I’m going to try to have fun,” she said.

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