Unbreakable: UB student-athlete returns to track after giving birth
Asher Beasley overcomes giving birth and suicide attempt and is now looking forward to her future with her daughter
Asher Beasley squatted more than 180 pounds, jumped hurdles and crunched her abs until she could barely breathe. She wanted to outrun her past, secure her place on the UB track team and learn to believe in herself. Nothing was going to stop her.
Until it did.
“It” was a girl.
Beasley found out she was five months pregnant a week before her first track meet of the 2013-14 season.
At first, she didn’t believe it. She was on birth control. She had a tiny 5-foot-2 frame and no belly. She strained her body every day to exhaustion.
No way could she have a baby in there.
And yet, she did. The doctor had confirmed it. She had even told her it was a girl.
Beasley first went to her athletic counselor, who then brought in her head coach.
“I just cried. He knew before I even said it,” she said.
She stopped competing. She went to practices, but she no longer drove her body to the limit. Everyone could tell she had changed.
Her edge was gone.
“What’s going on with you?”
“Why aren’t you winning?”
Her teammates barraged her with questions she wasn’t ready to answer.
She was too ashamed.
Now, two years later, Beasley thinks about all those years of feeling shame.There was the shame about her belly. There was the shame about letting down her coaches, her team and her family. And there was the shame of need – of needing to ask for help.
A few months after her baby was born, her boyfriend and father of her child was away and she thought she would never run or win titles again. She just knew she would never be a good mother for her baby. She tried to disappear by swallowing a bottle of pills.
It’s been her darkest secret.
But, now, the junior media study and theater major is ready to open up and talk about her life. She already holds a degree in communication and wants to do more with her time left at UB. She wants to tell her story – one day she may even make a documentary.
“I’m so tired of being ashamed,” Beasley said. “I want to let it out and talk about it because I don’t want to feel like this anymore.”
She dreams of beginning a women’s empowerment class to help students facing unplanned pregnancy and suicidal thoughts cope and not feel alone.
She wants all girls, including female athletes, to know she’s been there.
The NCAA does not keep statistics on female student-athletes who carry babies to term, so there is no way of knowing how many there are in the state or the nation. It’s a topic feared, but rarely discussed, among female student-athletes, who nickname being pregnant while on scholarship getting “pink-shirted.” It’s a riff on the term “red-shirted,” which is when a college keeps an athlete off a team for a year to extend eligibility.
Beasley is the first female student-athlete in recent UB history to have a baby and remain on a team. She’s definitely the first to come forward with her story.
“For what she’s gone through and the amount of stress put on her having had a child while being a student-athlete, it’s incredible,” said Steve Esler, UB track and field events coach. “I believe it’s made her a better person.”
Beasley worked out twice a day throughout her pregnancy. She had to keep her spot on the team and her scholarship money or she’d lose her hopes of a college degree.
She knew it was a lot, but she told herself as long as she cut out hurdles, abdominal exercises and heavy lifting, the baby would be safe.
She held it all together.
At least she thought she did.
Then, one month early, two hours before her sign language final exam, Beasley’s water broke.
Her daughter Jace arrived as a shivering four-pound bundle, and spent a week in an incubator.
Four months later, Jace was diagnosed with infantile hemangioma, a puffy, red benign tumor under her eye, which was not serious, but required regular medication and check-ups for two years.
Through it all, Beasley maintained a stoic front. Her troubles were hers and she’d handle them.
Naturally gregarious with big, almond eyes, she used her outsized smile, good looks and bubbly charm to mask the turmoil she felt.
“One of my characteristics is that I’m strong and that’s what people see in me,” Beasley said. “But behind closed doors, it’s been bad.”
A false start
Beasley remembers the joy she felt coming to UB and her determination to get a scholarship.
She needed it. Her mixed race Puerto Rican-black family came from Spanish Harlem and neither of her parents went to college. When she was eight years old, her family moved to New Jersey, where they lived in a house with a backyard big enough for her family.
But her parents lost their house when Beasley was a high school freshman and her family had to move back to Harlem and into a city project. There, Beasley remembers the drug addicts and the alcoholics hanging around. There were times she never knew if there would be hot water.
Beasley’s parents wanted to give their smart, talented daughter a chance. So, during the weekdays, she lived with a friend in New Jersey and attended school there, instead of Harlem. On the weekends, she would go home to her family.
She discovered running in the fifth grade – it was like magic.
When she ran, her fears vanished. She felt light, free, golden.
Her high school track coach knew she had talent and encouraged her to try for a scholarship.
At first, she was skeptical.
“College is just not in my family line,” she said. “Where I’m from, no one goes to college.”
She applied and got a full scholarship to Oklahoma City University. She went to Oklahoma for her first year, but it was too far away and she couldn’t afford trips home. Beasley’s father suggested she look into UB. She was accepted in 2011 and joined the track team as a walk-on.
Always ready to help, she charmed her teammates but also impressed the coaches with her grit.
She was going to fight for that scholarship.
During her first meet in 2011-12 she felt a pop in her leg during the hurdles. Her trainers told her it was a strain and advised her to take a month off.
But she didn’t. She couldn’t. She had to prove herself.
A week later, she was running again. This time her hamstring tore and she couldn’t compete for an entire year.
But still, Beasley trained every day.
She was cleared to run again for the 2012-13 season and earned a scholarship.
She finished ninth at the Mid-American Conference Outdoor Championship in 400-meter hurdles.
Next year, she vowed, she’d be better. Every day, five times a day, Beasley hit the track or weight room.
But for the first time ever, she didn’t improve with hard work. She actually got slower. During a team meet in November 2013, she came in last.
“Everyone thought I was losing my touch, but I was carrying a couple extra pounds,” Beasley said, “I had a child inside of me.”
But she didn’t know it because her period was so irregular.
Doctor Emmekunla Nylander from Buffalo OB/GYN, was Beasley’s doctor and said it’s not so uncommon for young, active women to not realize they are pregnant until the pregnancy is advanced. Last month, Nylander delivered a baby for a woman in her 20s who didn’t know she was pregnant until she gave birth.
Malayah White, a senior communication major and Beasley’s track teammate, said she knew something was different. Beasley wasn’t the “Asher everyone knew.”
One clue was she kept running to the bathroom in the middle of practices. A teammate asked Beasley if she was pregnant.
No way, she thought. Impossible.
Beasley and her then boyfriend, Jarod Oldham, who was the starting point guard for the UB men’s basketball team, had been taking precautions. Beasley was on birth control.
It was her first time using the pills and she almost always remembered to take them.
She decided to take an at-home pregnancy test anyway.
It was positive.
She scheduled a visit to a local doctor, who could already tell her she was going to have a girl. Beasley was five months along.
Nylander said Beasley’s low body fat may have made her birth control less effective.
“I wasn’t going to have to an abortion because they already knew [the sex of the baby],” Beasley said. “They told me it was a girl, showed me the ultrasounds so it wasn’t happening.”
Three months later, on May 9, 2014, Jace was born prematurely.
While most women have seven to eight months to prepare for a child, Beasley had to restructure her life in three.
Her coaches and the UB Athletics department were supportive throughout her pregnancy and helped her return to track after having the baby, she said.
“I was surprised, but I understand bringing a child into this world is important, so I was happy,” said Perry Jenkins, UB’s sprints and relays head coach, who had never coached a pregnant player before.
According to an NCAA spokesperson, the NCAA does not keep records of how many student-athletes have carried pregnancies to full term because some women, like Beasley, redshirt and the universitynever reports the pregnancy to the NCAA.
But, the NCAA does maintain a 108-page online “model pregnancy and parenting policy” handbook. According to the handbook, approximately 10 to 15 percent of both male and female college athletes are affected by pregnancy.
But 85 percent of Division I schools do not have a pregnancy policy in place, according to the handbook.
UB is an exception. It does have a pregnancy policy for student-athletes. The policy treats pregnancy like any other temporary health condition. The athlete keeps a scholarship and aid until UB clears him or her to play.
Title IX regulations ban pregnancy discrimination and, according to the NCAA policy, pregnant athletes should “be treated the same as student athletes with a knee injury or mononucleosis.”
The miracle baby
Beasley wanted her baby.
But she didn’t want to tell people about her. She told her grandmother first. She was afraid to tell her parents directly. She made her grandmother break the news to her parents. And when she told Oldham, he was optimistic.
“I was happy about it, it was life changing,” Oldham said. “And with news like that you just want everything to go smooth. I was basically done with school so I was waiting to see what next big thing was coming.”
At the time, Oldham had a few games left in his senior season.
“He was happy, but that’s because his life didn’t change as much. It’s different for men,” Beasley said. “I couldn’t travel any more and couldn’t practice any more. I had to take precautions.”
After months of training and dreaming, Beasley had to watch from the sidelines.
She had to trade in her track uniform for oversized sweaters that hid her small baby bump. She couldn’t go out on the weekends with her friends and teammates. Her coach allowed her to travel with the team for meets, but she couldn’t handle the long bus rides at seven and eight months pregnant.
But Beasley couldn’t stay away from the gym.
“They banned me from the track weight room so I went to the regular one,” she said. “They could notget me to stop working out. I worked out every single day until I gave birth.”
Nylander recommends waiting at least two weeks after giving birth before working out, but some athletes “just can’t sit down,” she said jokingly.
According to the NCAA, warning signs to terminate exercise during pregnancy include vaginal bleeding, headaches, chest pain, muscle weakness and decreased movement of the baby. Beasley said she had none of those problems and only gained 20 pounds throughout her pregnancy.
“I just wanted to make sure she was cool and wasn’t stressing herself out, but she was special,” Oldham said. “She was still in the gym every day working out. I definitely can’t say she was lazy or didn’t want to do anything.”
Nylander said it takes time for a uterus to contract down to its pre-delivery size. Since the vaginal muscles are more lax, training after birth could help strengthen the muscles.
Her coaches suggested she end her track career. Being a mother is more responsibility than a hurdler. They told her she could keep her scholarship and focus on her daughter’s arrival.
“But I didn’t want to give up just because I’m a mom,” Beasley said. “What does that show her if she’s ever in my situation?”
Once the warm weather hit Buffalo, she had to get rid of the sweatshirts. People started to notice her belly.
Beasley knew people were talking about her. She didn’t like being “the pregnant girl.” She didn’t like the way people looked at her, eager to hear her story.
But she gritted her teeth the way she did before those hurdles and showed up every day.
And she studied. On May 9, 2014, after an all-nighter of studying for a final exam, she felt her insides gush. Her water had broken.
The baby wasn’t due for four weeks. She had a final in two hours. She didn’t have time to give birth.
She wasn’t in any pain. She told herself she would take the exam and then go to the hospital.
She told her friend, who told the professor and her professor made her go straight to the hospital. Oldham drove her.
If a woman waits too long to go to the hospital after her water breaks, Group B strep bacteria in the vagina can endanger the baby, Nylander said.
After 10 hours and a natural birth with no epidural, Jace arrived at four pounds and 13 ounces.
“She was really small and it was so scary,” Beasley said. “She couldn’t produce her own heat, so if she wasn’t in an incubator she would freeze.”
Nylander said she monitored the size of the baby throughout the pregnancy, but she was at risk because of how hard Beasley was training.
Between taking birth control the first five months of her pregnancy and the constant training, Beasley’s doctors said she could have miscarried. They called her a “miracle baby.”
Beasley only held Jace for a few seconds before the doctors took her out of her arms. Over the next week,she was only allowed to see her newborn daughter every three hours for 30 minutes.
Evette Beasley, Beasley’s mother, said she was heartbroken when she learned Jace was born prematurely. All her children had healthy and full-term births. She couldn’t imagine the feeling of having to leave a baby in the hospital.
“There’s this bond between a mother and her baby that you don’t ever want to break,” Evette said.
After a week, Beasley took Jace home and the baby was at a normal weight a month later. But Beasley and Oldham both agreed it was a difficult month.
“We had to wake up in the middle of the night for her because she wouldn’t cry if she was hungry since she was so weak,” Beasley said.
Breastfeeding didn’t work and she had no time to hit the gym.
For the first month, Beasley and Oldham lived together and took care of Jace. But then Oldham got an offer to play basketball in the Greek/Turkish Cypriot League and he left for Europe shortly after.
Beasley felt abandoned.When Jace was four months old, Beasley’s mother noticed what looked like a bug bite growing under Jace’s left eye. A New York City doctor diagnosed it as infantile hemangioma – a scary-sounding name for a noncancerous vascular tumor.
But it needed regular attention, so Jace stayed with Beasley’s mother so she could see a doctor every two weeks. Jace would need medication for two years to keep the tumor from growing.
The low point
One summer night, Beasley felt the dark thoughts she had been having start to win. She took 15 hydrocodone pills.
Jace was with Beasley’s mother. She was safe. Safer than she would be if Beasley was caring for her. She would never get back in shape. She would never pass her classes. Never be strong again.
“I was disappointed in myself and didn’t think I could be a good mother,” Beasley said. “I told myself she would be better off without me.”
Her body started to fade in and out.
But a part of her knew she didn’t want to die.
Beasley texted a friend. Then she passed out.
She woke up in Buffalo General Hospital vomiting the pills out of her system. She saw blurry figures in the room with her.
“I didn’t want people to know there was something wrong with me,” Beasley said. “I woke up laughing and joking around trying to distract people.”
Beasley thought she would be free to go home after she was conscious, but instead she was admitted into the psych ward for 30 hours.
She walked into the psych ward with no shoes, just socks. Some people were screaming; others were naked.
Beasley was terrified.
She had lived in a place with drug dealers and addicts, but it wasn’t nearly as scary as being in the psych ward.
“Every person that came to visit me, I cried and begged for them to stay,” Beasley said.
She was tired and weak. She wanted to sleep but refused to lay her head on the pillows.
Beasley met with five doctors for consultations. She covered her arms so they wouldn’t see scars from years of cutting herself.
She told them she wasn’t trying to commit suicide. She said she took a few pills, not 15. The doctors eventually agreed she was no longer harmful to herself or other people.
But she was still alone and desperately lonely.
“There wasn’t some epiphany when I got out,” Beasley said. “If anything, it was worse.”
She was hit with medical bills and the memories from that night.
They still haunt her.
Beasley had to recover on her own. Her family and friends didn’t discuss her suicide attempt.
Beasley brought Jace back to Buffalo to live with her for the fall 2014 semester. She was recovering, trying to look forward to a new school year.
“She was so little and I wanted her to be with me,” Beasley said. “I didn’t want her to grow up and keep seeing so many faces.”
But Jace had no choice but to get used to the faces on the women’s track and field team.
Beasley’s teammates helped babysit in rotation while Beasley was in class or at the gym.
“Thank God for my teammates because we were passing her around like a hot potato,” Beasley said laughing.
Sometimes Jenkins, the sprints and relayhead coach, would let her bring Jace to indoor practices. She slept on the sidelines while Beasley trained.
Beasley’s sisters also came to Buffalo to take turns watching her.
But it always felt overwhelming. And she lived with constant guilt.
She watched old friends and her old fun-loving self vanish. The people who left didn’t matter, she told herself.
But the part of herself she lost did.
Study. Train. Nurture.
That’s all she did.
In the winter, Oldham got a job offer as the director of operations for the UB men’s basketball team and he came back from Cyprus.
“I was scared about [Jace’s] health,” Oldham said. “That’s my first child and being that far away not knowing what’s going on, it was too hard so I had to come back.”
But neither the job nor the relationship lasted.
The sweetness between them went sour. There were too many sleepless nights, too much real-world pressure, too much misunderstanding. These days, they barely talk. Oldham sees Jace when he can.
Jace went back to live with Beasley’s parents that semester. That’s where she is now.
Even miles away from both her parents, Evette said she’s amazed at how Jace recognizes both of their faces.
“Jace loves her mommy, their bond is unbreakable,” Evette said.
Beasley cries often being away from Jace, but tried all season not to let too many weeks pass without at least a quick visit. They use FaceTime often. Beasley’s parents once brought Jace to the airport during a layover in between Beasley’s track meet so they could have a short visit together.
“Being away from Jace is tough on her but she has her team and she always does what needs to be done,” White, Beasley’s teammate, said.
Having Jace also changed her as an athlete. Today, she’s less all about herself and more about the team. Even her coach has noticed.
“She gets behind everybody no matter what event, because she is a six-year athlete and the oldest, she’s often referred to as the mother of the team,” Esler said. “She’s probably the most mature, too.”
She’s also looking to keep running beyond graduation. She’s considering competing on the Puerto Rican national team.
“She’s my inspiration, I told her this the other day,” White said. “She kills it every single time and you just would never even guess she had a baby the way she came back.”
In a recent meet at the University of Virginia in April, Beasley’s 4x100 meter relay team took first place. At the University of Florida, Beasley’s 4x200 meter team ran the event in 1:37.46, faster than the previous school record.
“To qualify for indoor and outdoor MAC and to be on the relay team that made the first round of the NCAA, I mean she’s dedicated to being a student, mother and athlete,” Jenkins said. “I tip my hat off to her.”
Beasley knows that other women walking the UB halls can relate to parts of her story. She thinks they can help each other.
If only they weren’t strangers.
She wants to be the one to start the connection by creating a women’s empowerment class on campus.
And she’s ready to do so in the hardest way she knows – admitting her own need.
“She’s a strong girl,” Oldham said. “She’s always the type of person to finish anything she starts. When she has something in mind, she doesn’t care, she’s going to get it.”
Beasley plans to raise Jace as a single mother, but looks forward to getting married and having more children one day.
“I’m just trying to find my way doing it on my own,” Beasley said.
She knows she’ll have to talk to Jace about her past one day. When that day comes, she will tell Jace the truth.
“I would still be living selfishly if she weren’t here,” Beasley said. “She is the best thing that ever happened to me.”