Olympic gold medalist Crissy Perham talks about why she joined the Supreme Court fight over abortion

Olympic gold medalist Crissy Perham, shown at her home in New Mexico recently, is among more than 500 athletes who signed a legal brief in the Supreme Court proceedings around Mississippi's abortion law. Adria Malcolm

THE U.S. SUPREME Court will hear arguments Wednesday in a potentially pivotal case challenging a Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks. The case, and how the court eventually rules, represents a significant moment for advocates on both sides of the abortion debate, including the more than 500 professional, college and high school athletes who have signed onto an amicus brief asking the justices to overturn the law.

The Mississippi case is considered by legal experts to be a direct challenge to the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, which protected a pregnant woman's right to privacy in choosing whether to have an abortion. The court, after Wednesday's hearing, has until the end of June 2022 to rule.

In a moment reflecting the growth of activism within women's sports, athletes including Megan Rapinoe, Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Sue Bird argued in the amicus brief that abortion rights have helped advance women's sports and that future athletes would suffer without those protections. The brief argues that "athletic prowess depends on bodily integrity. This reality is magnified for women athletes for whom childbearing age coincides with their competitive peak in athletics. If the State compelled women athletes to carry pregnancies to term and give birth, it could derail women's athletic careers, academic futures, and economic livelihoods at a large scale."

"This is entirely unprecedented," said Joanna Wright, one of the lawyers who helped the athletes file the brief. "This is the first time in history women's athletes and women's player associations have come out in support of the right to choose."

The brief focuses heavily on the story of Crissy Perham, who won two gold medals and a silver at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Throughout her swimming career, and for the three decades that followed, she kept a secret that only a few people knew: She'd had an abortion. It is against the backdrop of the national debate and controversy over the Mississippi case that Perham, 51, in a recent interview with ESPN, explained why she came forward after staying silent for so many years. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Why are you and so many other athletes becoming involved in this case?

I think the reason it's really important that I speak out and share my story is there's such a finite time to be the elite athlete you want to be. That time, that little small window, it needs to be taken advantage of. I'm sure there are obvious exceptions to the rules, but for the most part collegiate athletes, they are young. And this is going to be the only time that they get to do their sport. That they might not go pro. I think that's why it's important to have body autonomy and to have this reproductive healthcare choice.

You became pregnant at 19, when you were a sophomore in college and about a month after you became engaged to your first husband. What happened?

I was still struggling with growing up and being responsible. I was a good kid but I had a car and I really liked to party and I really liked my friends, and that was my focus. It's a glaring spotlight on my immaturity. I just thought that if someone asked you to get married, you love that person, so you get married. I'd never thought about not going to college and not graduating. My mom and dad had done the same thing. They'd gotten married in college and my mom had me a couple years later. That was my plan.

A baby was not part of that plan at all. Definitely given the amount of maturity that I still needed and the amount that I needed to grow just as a human being, I was definitely not ready to be a mother.

I did not want to give up being a college athlete and it was kind of another huge spotlight on my inner workings. Like, "Girl, you have a scholarship and if you lose this scholarship your parents can't afford to send you to college and you might not be an athlete anymore."

There was no way I was going to give up any of that. The discussion [with her fiancé] was, "Um, I'm pregnant and I'm not having it." That was the discussion.

It was not an easy decision. I had been a volunteer at Planned Parenthood. I had already watched friends go through that. I had taken a couple of human sexuality classes in college. I knew the science behind it and I had the logic behind it. And to me, the emotional part, wasn't going to outweigh those two things.

But I didn't tell anybody because I did feel a little bit ashamed. I definitely knew better. There's such a stigma around reproductive health care, being on the pill, if you're not married or whatever. "Oh, you sleep around. Oh, you had an abortion. You use abortion as birth control." No. That's not the situation. "Oh, you must be easy." No, I'm not bad. So, a lot of background noise was keeping me from discussing it with other people.

I didn't want to hear any of the rumblings, you know? I remember I made the decision and I was totally fine with that. I had already made the appointment and I had to go to practice that afternoon. But I just felt so much shame, I'm a good Catholic girl, or not so good. I was standing on the pool deck and I was just crying, crying, crying, crying, crying, crying, crying. I didn't want to be there, but I needed a little bit of normalcy, but I didn't want anyone to know what was going on.

You say you partied the first two years of college. Your grades suffered. And even though you became an All-America swimmer your freshman year, you went to only four or five swim practices out of the required 10 per week. What happened to transform you into an Olympic athlete?

There was a huge moment [that took place a few months after the abortion]. There was old Crissy and then there was new Crissy. It was such a defining moment in my life. It wasn't the abortion. It was cumulative to that moment and how I wanted to live the rest of my life. How I wanted to be active in my community, be a better friend, a better sister, a better daughter. That's the line. And once I had gotten on this side of that epiphany, I mean, what a gift. It immediately paid off for me. By the time 1992 rolled around it was just confirmation to me that you made the right choice and you're taking the bull by the horns and leading your life the way you want to. That's a really good, positive, strong, good way to go. You're a good person.

What role, if any, did the abortion play in your athletic career?

What it did was give me an opportunity to stay on the path that I was currently on rather than deviate for maybe a year or two and maybe never come back to that path. So it's not the Olympics and it's not the gold medal. If you hadn't had an abortion, could you have done that? Maybe? I don't know, but I know that I did it without a child and that was what my goal was. So, I took the opportunity to take care of my reproductive health in a lawful, legal way. And in the end, as part of the growing process, I did become an elite athlete. I didn't have to deviate off that path and I got to grow up in my sport and become a leader and it literally changed my life.

You described yourself as Catholic. The Roman Catholic dioceses in Jackson and Biloxi, Mi., along with at least 75 other groups, have filed their own amicus briefs in support of Mississippi's abortion ban. How do you reconcile your past with church teachings against abortion?

I am a lapsed Catholic. I definitely was a good Catholic. I don't really think of myself as a bad Catholic. My grandparents lived across the street from the church. My babysitters were the nuns. I played touch football and baseball and kickball with the priests directly across the street. My background with my religion is a very good, positive, healthy time.

[Her current husband] converted to Catholicism. Both my boys have gone through Catholic school.

I don't lead my life based on faith. I do it more based on science. So, I don't know if that makes me an atheist. I think I'm spiritual and I have faith. But I'm not going to have someone from a book that was written by a bunch of dudes a really long time ago, I'm not going to have them decide my life because I'm pretty sure we're also never supposed to cut our hair and eat seafood or wear polyester. Like all this stuff they joke about. Like, you just pick and choose the parts of the Bible. So that's the science part and the forgiveness part.

And me talking to the God that I want to talk to, my loving God, that's something between he/she and me and not anyone else. And I do want to say there is a huge movement and there is a lot of support in the Catholic faith to be pro-choice and having women priests. I do think there is a pendulum swing and I'm hoping that we can take the faith out of the science part of taking care of our bodies.

What do you say to folks who want the Mississippi law upheld and believe abortion is wrong?

That is a very hard question. I think part of the problem is there's been a lot of propaganda where people are saying you can hear the heartbeat at four weeks, which is not true. And they used to tell people abortion causes breast cancer. That's not true. I think there's a lot of probably good intentions but people have muddied the water and turned it into for and against. And honestly, if you're pro-life, that's fantastic. I definitely am not trying to show you how I do things and then make you want to do them. And I would expect the same back.

What about the Mississippi case prompted you to speak up after all these years?

It's such a personal choice. My reproductive healthcare isn't really anybody else's business except for mine and my partner. So, to me, I kind of felt like people are sticking their nose where they don't belong. And this is legal, this is legal healthcare and it's super disappointing to have to continue to say, "Yeah, I have a uterus and you do not get to police my uterus."

It gets really old saying that for a long time. And there were so many people that were saying it before me and it's my turn to stand up.

How did you find out about the amicus brief?

I did not foresee this coming down the pike. A fellow [University of Arizona] Wildcat alum reached out to me. She was part of the group filing the amicus brief. She's like, "Hey, I have this email and just read it over and see if you're interested in participating."

I was like, "Hell yeah." I clicked on it and it sent me to a survey and I wrote this out and I wrote that out. Whatever. And then one of the questions was, "Would you be willing to share your story?" I was like, "Yeah, OK." Click. "Would you be willing to put your name behind it?" And I was like, "Ummmmm. Yes." I mean, I was like, "No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Yes."

Then I was like, "I just said 'yes.' Oh my God."

Your story has now been profiled not only in the brief, but by several national media outlets. What has the reaction been since you came forward in such a big way?

I was waiting for the barrage of negativity and the public beatdown. I didn't get that at all. I got a couple of randos on social media and stuff like that. Really very few.

I got a lot of DMs from total strangers saying thank you for sharing your story, telling me their story. I probably received 40 to 50 texts, emails, DMs from my friends, my family, old teammates, old co-workers. It was very uplifting. I know that sounds really weird, but it was a reminder that I had not broken any laws. I had taken care of myself. And in the past 30 years I am not the sum of one action. I am the sum of many parts of my life. It reinforced that. I was really happy and surprised.