Christina Unkel and Felisha Mariscal are two of the most experienced female officials within PRO and on the North American soccer circuit, but their names haven’t been a regular fixture on the list of assignments in recent times.
That’s no reflection on their ability, of course.
Both have given birth in 2016, and have since been balancing the responsibilities of parenthood alongside the journey of getting back to match fitness, and returning to the assignments pages of proreferees.com.
We caught up with the pair to talk pregnancy, parenthood and a return to PRO…
First off, how are you both and your respective families?
Christina: The family is great – it’s truly a blessing to have added another one to the mix, and we got lucky with Quinn. She has easily transitioned into our chaotic and busy lifestyle very well, and is great at going with the flow, which many times includes late night car rides back from games in Orlando and Miami. Plus, she started sleeping at least six hours through the night, six weeks into her little life. I will be sure to thank her when she gets older and understands!
Felisha: I am doing well. It was a fairly easy pregnancy and recovery, all things considered. It pretty uneventful throughout, and delivery was relatively straightforward. My baby is healthy, doing well and growing very fast. My husband and I are very excited for this great life experience.
How was the time away from the field – did you put soccer to one side, or is hard to stay away from the game?
C: The time off the pitch is always a bit of a mental challenge for me. I have torn my ACL twice and have gone through law school, so I have experienced being off the pitch for some extended time. The biggest issue is dealing with the mental struggles and feeling like time is passing you by – which is a bit ironic because I always tell people to focus on life first, as there will be soccer yesterday, today and tomorrow. The time away reinforced what I already knew, that I love the smell of the grass, the roar of the crowds, and the mental challenge to officiate the best players in the world.
F: During my time away I watched many games, mostly MLS, along with international matches, and every game that my brothers were assigned to. After my brothers’ games we would discuss certain plays together and go through an analysis of each match – this helped me keep my head in the league. But it was also nice to have the time to get our home and the bedroom ready for the baby.
How has PRO supported you both, and how significant has the Organization been during your time out and return to fitness?
C: PRO has provided me with amazing resources that enabled to me to make a safe comeback. The two individuals who worked, and still work, with me extensively have been Matt Hawkey, PRO’s Sports Scientist, and Gena Wolenburg, PRO’s Nutritionist. In fact, I began working with them in a more detailed and focused approach as soon as I found out I was pregnant. Matt and Gena were and are an integral part in me coming back stronger and healthier as they helped me to conquer not only the physical requirements, but also, and at times sometimes more importantly, the mental struggles I would have during this time.
For example, Matt was the first person aside from my husband who knew I was pregnant, as we worked on developing a fitness plan that will allow me to perform at the highest levels for a certain amount of time, and then be able to maintain as much as I could once I took maternity leave. Matt was also key in making sure I truly understood the situation after I had an unexpected C-section, what I should and shouldn’t do and also how I could focus on other areas of athletic improvement until I healed internally.
He was my ‘Jiminy Cricket’ when it came to training as it appeared to me that I was healed on the outside, but he reminded me that it is the internal healing that is critical and I shouldn’t risk setting that back. Commitment to his plan 100 per cent and having faith has resulted in me coming back stronger and even faster – who knew an old dog could learn new tricks?! – and there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Gena was critical in assisting me to balance my nutritional intake while pregnant, and post-pregnancy. Her focus on not drinking your calories but instead eating them, focusing on a clean food intake approach and assisting me in being able to eat the appropriate amount of calories to take into account my body recovering, providing nourishment for Quinn, and still being able to lose weight in a healthy manner, was something I could not have done successfully without her.
It goes without saying that these two individuals were the key to my high-level return to the professional and international levels and in a relatively quick time frame while being healthy and not sacrificing the health of Quinn.
Finally, Sandra Serafini of PRO also reinforced the idea that my return is not for the short term but the long term. This assurance by one’s boss is always helpful when struggling with the mental challenges during training, and is key in putting the situation back into perspective when it is so easy to lose note of that.
F: PRO has been very supportive since the moment I informed them about my pregnancy. I felt the support from all the administration behind me and I felt very happy and honored to be a part of this Organization. Manager of Assistant Referees Greg Barkey kept me informed of all the materials that all the other ARs were receiving and I was able to follow along and continue keeping myself educated with it. Matt Hawkey gave me input on some specific training I could do, keeping in mind my pregnancy.
Like Christina, during the pregnancy my nutrition was very focused on healthy foods, and making sure I was consuming the necessary nutrients for the baby’s healthy growth and development. My training was very consistent; my brother, and fellow PRO official, Alejandro Mariscal was also a key person in my training. Since he has so much knowledge on training I asked him to help guide me throughout the pregnancy. Up to my seventh month I was running six miles outdoor daily and incorporating strength exercises. After the seventh month I had to transition to only elliptical and strength exercises. I continued this training up to my delivery day.
Now on my journey back, my brother Alejandro is still helping me in my training to achieve my goal of getting back on the field as soon as possible. I have the full support of my husband since he knows refereeing is an important part of my life. I feel very grateful for having the support of PRO and my family during this important time of my life.
Christina – you’ve been back out on the field and among the assignments. How did that feel?
Whenever you’re off the pitch for an extended period of time, through injury or personal leave, it is always refreshing and reinvigorating to step back out there and do something you love.
Refereeing has been a part of me for over 19 years, and although not my sole identity, it is integral to how I function on a daily basis. During my time off the pitch I was able to contribute to the game and the referee community in other ways that I love to do, such as mentoring at Youth Southern Regionals and other tournaments. I made sure I always remained in touch with the game.
And Felisha, what stage are you at, and have you got any nerves about returning to action?
I feel good; my recent medical physical went very well. I’ve passed the FIFA Women’s fitness test so I can get back working on professional and international games, and then it will be the men’s test to re-qualify for MLS.
I am very excited to return, I don’t feel nervous but more eager than anything else, and I think that my experience helps me feel positive and motivated. In addition I think that my continued fitness training, preparation watching games, doing analysis and going over the materials PRO sends will help me in my return.
Finally, what’s next for you both?
C: To perform at the highest levels of officiating on a consistent basis and create further opportunities on both the professional and international levels, as well as increase my fitness standards so that it may open doors for me to officiate once again in the NASL and potentially MLS in the future.
F: I am very proud of the MLS matches I’ve had the opportunity to work, and I am really looking forward to continuing with this opportunity and once again feeling the excitement that I get every time I step onto the field.
Sandra Serafini, PRO’s Women’s Referee Manager, added: “PRO is ecstatic for both Christina and Felisha, and they have been very generous in allowing us to celebrate their new additions with our referee family.
“PRO is very pleased to be able to have the opportunity to support them during their pregnancies and their return to the field by providing specialized resources in fitness and nutrition. Their motivation and dedication to return to match fitness is nothing short of incredible, they are a true inspiration to all officials.
“Like any athlete returning from time away, PRO is here to make their transition back as smooth as possible so they are physically and mentally ready to perform at their highest potential. It’s great to have them back on the field.”