Two toddlers call her mom, but Princeton's Annabeth Donovan is shooting for a different title
When the pregnancy test came back positive, Annabeth Donovan figured her field hockey days at Princeton were over.
"It was pretty shocking news, and I felt like I had failed, and it was an undoable mistake," she said. "I felt like I had ruined my life."
The southeastern Pennsylvania native and female athlete of the year as a Unionville High School (Kennett Square) senior had reveled in what she calls "TFH," Tiger field hockey culture, for years before she put on the uniform for the first time in 2013. Her parents are Princeton alumni. Her older sisters, Kaitlin and Amy, played field hockey for the Tigers before her.
Annabeth was named Ivy League Co-Rookie of the Year after her freshman season in 2013. She started all 19 games as a sophomore in 2014 -- including the NCAA tournament game the day after she learned she was pregnant.
"I had a plan for my life," the senior political science major said. "And everything was going according to plan."
Four years later, Donovan is again making plans for the NCAA tournament. The Tigers (13-4) host Virginia (9-9) in a first-round game on Friday. If anything, the 23-year-old is even more committed to field hockey, given the challenges she has overcome to still be competing. She has not just one daughter but two: Esme, 3, and Adeline, 2.
"Having my children forced me to ask, 'Do I want to do this? Am I passionate about it?' Because I can't waste my time on things I don't want to be doing," she said.
Part of the reason she's still playing field hockey is to make sure her daughters grow up understanding that achievement takes determination and hard choices. But if you want something badly enough, it's attainable.
"I wanted to make sure I had no regrets and my daughters didn't think they had taken anything from me," Donovan said. "I didn't want them to feel I had to give up my life for them. Sometimes that is the narrative -- having kids takes over your life. In some way, it definitely does, but I didn't want my daughters to feel that they had robbed me of any experiences."
Donovan didn't let the sorrow stick around for long after she learned she was pregnant. Admittedly, she recalls only snippets of the game the next day, a loss to Maryland. She was one of the captains but relied on the others on the team to carry the load.
"I remember stepping out -- you wave when your name is announced -- and thinking, 'This is the last time I'm ever going to do this,'" she said. "I saw my mom in the stands, and I started bawling."
But Donovan quickly realized that she wasn't going to be doing any of this alone. Her mother handed her a bag of sesame seeds after the game -- signifying the size of the baby inside her -- a keepsake she still has.
Her then-boyfriend, Tommy Davis, an ice hockey player at Princeton whom she met on move-in day her freshman year, also was reassuring.
"This is so exciting," he promised. "This is going to be fine."
I wanted to make sure I had no regrets and my daughters didn't think they had taken anything from me.Annabeth Donovan
Donovan shifted her focus. "He helped me see we were lucky, and this was a good thing," she said. A talk with her parents and coaches helped her see that a Princeton degree and a field hockey career were still in her future.
Esme Elizabeth Davis was born on July 6, 2015; the couple married that December. Donovan took the fall semester off and began to train again when Esme was 6 months old. Then she found out she was going to have another baby.
This time, Donovan was thrilled. Although a second baby so soon wasn't part of the plan, she liked the idea of having two so close in age.
"I'm close to all my siblings -- we're all about two years apart -- and Tommy's the same," she said. "I was worried given how I had Esme that she would be a lot older than her siblings. Tommy and I were excited that Esme would have a playmate."
Adeline Grace Davis was born Sept. 30, 2016.
Princeton reached the final four that fall -- which would have been Donovan's senior season. Amy Donovan had been a starter on the Tigers' 2012 national championship team, and Annabeth dreamed of reaching that same pinnacle.
But she wouldn't allow herself to feel bitter. "I was so happy for my class that pioneered that," said Donovan, who was taking a yearlong break from school. "I was definitely a little sad that I couldn't partake in it, but I knew I was coming back to the team, and I would have my opportunities."
After two full seasons off, Donovan was eager to return but faced another wrinkle when Princeton coach Kristen Holmes-Winn stepped down and Carla Tagliente was hired to replace her. Donovan wasn't sure what that meant for her, but after a phone call, Tagliente was on board with the plan for Donovan's fall return.
"I told her that was very doable if it was something she wanted to do," Tagliente said.
At the same time, an opportunity opened for Davis to extend his ice hockey career. After playing three years for the Tigers and earning a history degree, he had one year of eligibility left due to missing most of his freshman season with an injury. Offered a chance to play at Providence while getting his MBA, he grabbed it.
The young parents knew it would be chaotic, and it was. Donovan's field hockey season and Davis' ice hockey season overlapped by two months. Davis drove to New Jersey often; Donovan and the girls made the four-hour trek to Providence some. They leaned on their own parents, who took on childcare shifts and helped make ends meet. The young family hired caregivers, and teammates often played the role of babysitter.
Esme was not a great sleeper, and Donovan felt the brunt of that. She wasn't able to take the bus with her teammates for most road games, driving herself and taking both girls. On the road to Harvard, Esme was cranky and vomited. She had been sick the previous night.
"I had to play our biggest rival on maybe two hours of sleep," Donovan said.
Physically, returning after having two children was more taxing than Donovan imagined. "I had been an athlete my whole life," she said. "I definitely wasn't prepared for how different your body feels after two babies. My gait was different; my balance was different. It was shocking how much pregnancy and childbirth had changed my whole physical makeup."
But Donovan did not miss a game last season, fitting in among a group of younger teammates, who joke with her about her inability to grasp Snapchat. Among them is Claire Donovan, a freshman on the team who never expected to play alongside her sister.
"After she had Esme, I joked with her that she had to have another baby so we could play together," Claire said. "I was ecstatic when I found out the news. I wanted to play with her for such a long time, and the first time I was out there with her, I just started crying. She looks just as good as she did before. She's so amazing."
This season, with Davis back in town teaching at a local school, Tagliente said Donovan is more relaxed, playing with freedom and confidence in her ability to handle all that's on her plate.
"She has to plan 10 steps ahead, whereas everybody else has to plan two," Tagliente said. "It's definitely a unique experience and one I'm glad we could make work."
Donovan is more versatile nowadays than she ever dreamed, rotating from defensive back to midfield to striker throughout a season that saw Princeton climb to a No. 3 ranking after beating reigning national champion UConn last month. The Tigers are hosting first and second rounds for the first time since 2009.
"You try to find a way to have Annabeth on the field because good things happen when she is," Tagliente said. "She's very impactful. She creates a lot of turnovers. She has a lot of leadership. She communicates very well. She has a vital role."
Amid applying to law schools, finishing up a senior thesis and weathering her girls' toddler phases, Donovan will close out her circuitous career sometime in the next two weeks. She will graduate in May and hopes to play her last field hockey at the final four Nov. 16-18 in Louisville.
"I'm savoring it," she said. "Everyone has worked hard for all of these moments, me especially. I think field hockey is something I've placed a lot of value on, and I really want to make sure I'm taking in every second out there. I'm giving up time with my daughters or time I could be in the library, so it's very important I make the most of every moment I'm out on the field."