Lydia Watkins has just left an intense, draining afternoon practice.
After wind sprints and seemingly endless defensive drills, her University of Kentucky basketball teammates are ready to go back to their quiet apartments to unwind, take a nap, maybe watch some television.
She keeps running.
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The senior forward has a boy with big brown eyes and a wide smile waiting for her.
He's 9 months old and beams as she walks into the apartment they share off campus. He wants to play, so they roll around on the carpeted floor for a while.
"He pulls up on me and starts laughing," she says. "Every time he does that, I can't stop smiling."
Jaylen was an early crawler, climber and walker, so his mom now chases him like she chases Southeastern Conference forwards.
As her teammates relax, Watkins is unscrewing a jar of sweet potatoes and preparing a bottle for Jaylen.
"He's a big guy," she says. "He eats a lot. ... Baby food doesn't fill him up. You have to feed him and feed him and feed him."
Jaylen wasn't planned or expected — Watkins didn't even know she was pregnant until she was 21 weeks along and had played nearly half of last season — but he has changed her life forever.
He keeps her running.
But now the always-energetic senior is running with a real purpose.
"After I leave practice my work isn't done," she says. "I have to go home and be a mother. ... I definitely have had to grow up and mature just so he can grow up to be a great man. Lead by example: That's what I'm trying to do."
Matthew Mitchell, coach of the 20th-ranked Wildcats, sees the changes in Watkins nearly every day.
"She is an example to the other players in practice," Mitchell said. "I can point to her and say, 'This is how hard we need you to work every single day.' ... Lydia has practiced with incredible effort, intensity. I couldn't be prouder of her at this point in time. ... She's been a model player and mother."
'I just froze'
Just before the holiday break in 2008, Watkins went to the doctor with discomfort in her lower back that she figured was a urinary tract infection.
Other than that and a nagging stress reaction in her shin, Watkins felt perfectly normal.
The doctors ran some basic tests and came back in the room to tell her she was pregnant.
"When they came in and told me, I just froze," she said. "I didn't know what to do."
Watkins flashed back to the Western Kentucky game a few weeks before when she had taken a hard charge.
She thought about all of the diving on the floor she does in every game.
"I was definitely nervous throughout the whole pregnancy because I had played physical basketball, had a lot of contact, X-rays, still lifting weights, everything you shouldn't be doing," she continued. "Full practices every day. I wasn't sleeping. There was school, basketball, all of that stuff. I was definitely nervous when I found out."
Doctors worried that she had never felt any movement, that she hadn't gained any weight. Like many female athletes, she didn't have regular periods and couldn't use that as an indicator.
Other than the positive test, there were no other signs that she was pregnant.
A battery of tests revealed that her baby boy was fine, and Watkins felt relief wash over her.
But she worried, still, as most mothers do. Now she was one.
"I prayed several times, 'Please just let my baby be OK,'" she remembered.
A whole new world
What a Christmas present this is for my parents, Watkins remembered thinking sarcastically as she made the trip home to Hopkinsville for the holidays.
On Christmas morning she broke the news to her mother, Mary. A little bit later she nervously went outside to tell her father.
Harley Watkins, a minister, didn't believe his daughter at first.
"When I told my Dad, he said, 'Well, you're grown now, so there's not much I can do other than teach you.'" she recalled. "Even now if I have a question about something, I call my parents and they help me out. They definitely weren't mad or anything."
After the holiday break, Watkins drove back to Lexington, dreading telling Coach Mitchell and her teammates.
The team was already short-handed, especially at her position.
"That was the worst part of it all," she said. "I felt like I had let my team down. ... There were days that I wanted to cry because I knew I couldn't be out there with my team."
Mitchell, who himself fathered a baby at age 18, did his best to guide Watkins.
"I just tried to look back on my experiences and share whatever I could share with her," he said. "The general message is, we have to figure out what kind of parent we want to be and start acting that way before the baby gets here."
Mitchell, in his third season at UK, said he didn't always have a positive relationship with Watkins, especially when he arrived on campus to replace Mickie DeMoss.
He said there were players who had completely bought in to what he was trying to do, but also some who were fighting him at every turn.
Watkins was an enigma, seemingly somewhere in the middle of those camps.
Mitchell told Watkins she could finish out the semester with the team and return for her senior season if that's what she wanted, but that things needed to change.
She was somebody's mother now.
"I told her that now she couldn't afford to make some of those choices she'd been making as far as her attitude," he recalled.
Watkins said she was grateful for the chance to stay. She was grateful for his advice, too.
"He helped me a lot, going through the whole pregnancy," she said. "Every day I thanked the coaches a lot for giving me the opportunity to stay with the team and be a part of the team."
As Watkins got bigger, she sat on the bench and felt like she had thousands of people judging her. UK never formally said she was pregnant, only that she was sitting out for personal reasons. By the end of the year, she was showing visibly, even in a baggy team-issued sweat suit.
"It felt like all the spotlight was on me; there were days I didn't want to go out there," she said. "I tried not to complain, though, because I knew my team needed me and I owed them a lot."
Her depleted UK team finished the season 9-11 after the holiday break and limped into the National Invitation Tournament, finishing 16-16.
Mitchell tried to continue teaching Watkins about being a good teammate.
Said Mitchell: "I told her ... you need to come back and make sure you're a person we can count on. If you can do that, then this becomes a very positive thing."
The long road back
Watkins' teammates and coaches threw her a baby shower.
There were lots of blue and white baby items, of course.
All of the players took turns pacing the floors at the hospital on April 19, the day that Jaylen Jamaile Ray came into the world a healthy 7 pounds, 10 ounces and 21 inches tall.
Less than three weeks later, Watkins was cleared to begin light workouts. She didn't want to let her team down, so she started running.
When she got back to Lexington for summer workouts, she practiced extra hard to get back, which was more difficult than she imagined.
"Lord, that was hard," she said laughing. "It was the toughest summer workout I've ever been through. I had no legs. My legs were gone."
She credits strength and conditioning coach Stephanie Tracey-Simmons, who also had recently had a baby, with getting her back in game shape.
Mitchell wasn't sure what to expect from Watkins until he heard the familiar thuds of a ball hitting the practice court late one night.
"It was probably about 9 (p.m.) and I heard the ball bouncing," he said. "I looked over to see who it was and she was in there and really getting after it. Then I said to myself, 'She may have a chance to get back.' That was a visible sign that she was trying to get back."
It got especially difficult for Watkins when school started and the team was doing early-morning workouts.
"I'd pray for him to sleep through the night," she said of her son, "but he was still waking up like twice a night to eat."
Her teammates said it never showed in practice or the weight room.
"She's the same old Lit," junior Victoria Dunlap said. "She was still going hard and playing hard all the time. It was like she was never pregnant."
This season, Watkins has been a key sub off the UK bench, averaging 6.9 points and 4.7 rebounds. She's making 51 percent of her shots in about 17 minutes of play. She's led the team in scoring in two games this season.
Watkins and her energy, even though it's split among so many things, have been pivotal to UK's success this season, Mitchell said.
"Just the way she comes in every day and approaches things, she's definitely acted like a person who wanted to atone for however she let her team down," he said.
Watkins will graduate on time in May with a degree in sociology, and then plans to get a master's degree in juvenile justice and become a youth probation officer.
Plenty of family support
It hasn't always been easy to be a student, an athlete and a mother, though.
"Trying to manage school and having tests and studying for those and traveling is hard," Watkins said. "Luckily we have a lot more home games this year. ... I have tutors that help me out so much."
Originally Watkins discussed having Jaylen stay with her parents while she finished school, but "I couldn't take it anymore, not seeing him," she recalled.
He moved to Lexington with her and she gets lots of help from her sister Shannon and her brother Josh, who both go to school in Lexington, too.
The baby is in day care in the mornings when all of them are in classes.
Jaylen's father, Antoine Ray, is in town a lot to help. They get emotional and financial support from family on both sides. All of Jaylen's grandparents spoil him rotten, Watkins said.
"One thing that's been great for Lydia is that she had a very strong family and a very good family to model what it was to be a parent," Mitchell said. "Her parents are great people. Lydia's a very loving parent. She's done a great job with it."
For most games, Jaylen sits in his dad's lap and watches his mom play at Memorial Coliseum.
"I'm blessed," she said. "From my teammates, to my family, I couldn't be in a better situation. ... I never imagined it would turn out like this. It's turned out for the better."
Watkins misses her baby boy when she's on the road, so whoever is watching him will send her pictures. She calls home and he babbles into the phone, which makes her smile every time.
Even just talking about it makes her smile — the same smile Jaylen flashes whenever Watkins walks in the room.
It's the smile that motivates her to run home, even after a long, hard day of practice.