Swin Cash on Basketball, Beating Cancer and Baring All

Swin Cash
Photo by Derek Blanks

There’s more to Swin Cash than her two Olympic gold medals, three WNBA championships and five-time all-star status. The Chicago Sky hoops star has battled cancer, back surgery and the demands of a 12-year career in the pros. So how does she do it — and look so good in the process? We caught up with the 34-year-old basketball phenom to talk training, nutrition and body image — and why she’s stronger now than ever before. Plus, try her 10-minute on-the-go lower body workout below!

Growing up you played baseball and football — not the sports most girls typically choose. What attracted you to them?

I grew up with eight male cousins so we were always outside playing together. And that’s how I got introduced to a bunch of different sports. Some of the sports just came naturally to me. But when it came time to get down to the nitty gritty of the football pads and everything else, my mom decided to let me try cheerleading for a little while instead. It was fun to flip and twirl and do all those things. But when I got too tall to get on top of the pyramid, my interest in that whole thing changed.

Was your height something that moved you over to basketball naturally?

Growing up, it’s just what we did. I come from very humble beginnings, and at times we didn’t have a basketball court to play on, so we used to play in the streets. We’d cut out the bottom of a milk carton and put it up on a garbage can. There were no girls’ teams at the time, so the first team I played on at the local recreation center, I was the only girl on the team — and in the whole league.

You’re now one of the most accomplished basketball players in the WNBA. What does your training consist of in the lead-up to the WNBA season?

Right now I’m training about four days a week. And that consists of a lot of strength work with weights, plus conditioning. On a heavy day, my program includes mostly free weights and some agility work. On a light day, I use bands or just my own body weight. I also love to box and do Pilates and yoga. All of those things can really give you an advantage when you’re on the court.

“It was me saying, ‘I’m here. I’ve arrived. And I’m comfortable with who I am as a woman.'”

What do you feel is the biggest misconception women have about weight training?

Women are often worried about their thighs getting too thick or bulking up. But it’s not that easy to put on size. I do Olympic lifts now with two 45s on each side of the barbell, and we’re cleaning and jerkingthat’s to put on size. But a lot of strength work — including the workout below — is all about fine-tuning.

What’s the one exercise you dread most during training?  

Right now that would have to be one-legged squats. We do them against the wall so it really puts all of the focus on one leg. I’m pretty unbalanced so my leg can start shaking like crazy. I hate it, but I know it’s making me stronger.

How has your training evolved since you first started competing in basketball? 

When you’ve been playing as long as I have, you get to a place where you understand your body is changing and what you need to do to maintain it. And for me, it all starts with preparation. When I first came into the league, if practice was at 10, I’d jump on the court at 9:45. I’d look at the older players and was like, “Why are you stretching? Let’s play!” Now, if practice is at 10, I’m there at 9, rolling out my Achilles, making sure every part of my body is ready to go. I don’t call it getting old; I call it getting “seasoned.” So that’s the terminology that we use on our team. “Swin’s not old, she’s just seasoned…”

Swin Cash WNBA
Photo by Ron Hoskins / NBAE via Getty Images

How has your diet changed over the years? 

I’ve always had a high metabolism, and when I was younger I could get away with eating whatever I wanted. Now I pay a lot more attention to my food choices, because even though it might not show on the outside, I need to make sure I’m good on the inside. It’s what allows me to train the way I want to, and have the energy I need. It’s tough, but I know I can’t have all of the sweets I want to. Now I’m choosing the nuts and fruit and protein instead.

Last year you posed nude for ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue. What did it take to bare all?

It took everything under the sun to do that. Seriously. And I say that in a fun and loving way because the people who really know me were shocked. They were like, “You did what?!” And that’s because when I’m off the court I’m definitely more private and reserved, so that was a side of me that people don’t usually see. But having my family’s support made it easier. Some people do things because they want to say “Hey, look at me,” but I looked back at my life and everything I’ve accomplished and this wasn’t a ploy to get attention. It was me saying, “I’m here. I’ve arrived. And I’m comfortable with who I am as a woman.”

Can you tell me about your battle with cancer in 2007?

It was toward the end of the WNBA season, and my back was bothering me, so I went in for an MRI. When the results came back the doctor confirmed I had a herniated disc, but said they saw something else and needed me to come back in. I got the tests done, and they told me I had a tumor on my kidney and it was cancerous.

I was able to finish out the playoffs, and had surgery right after our season was done. But had I not gotten that MRI, there’s no telling when I would have found out that something was manifesting in my body — especially because, aside from my back pain, I felt fine. But when you hear that “C” word… I was in denial for a long time. For a number of years I didn’t speak about it — only three people closest to me knew. People just thought I had lost interest in basketball, and that’s why I was doing all these other things. It wasn’t until I wrote my book last year that I was ready to tell my side of the story and why I handled it that way. It was my story to tell, and no one else’s.

Did basketball help you get through that hard time? What role did it play during that recovery period?

Basketball helped me focus. After I had surgery for the cancer I didn’t make the 2008 Olympic team. My back was still injured, because I didn’t want to rush right into a second surgery. So I literally waited two years to have it done. At that point it was actually easier to focus on basketball, and setting new goals for myself, including playing in the 2012 Olympics. And after training for four years, working hard and making sure I stayed on my diet, I was able to do that. So for me, that was the “aha” moment. I could finally move past that era and look forward to what was next in life.

And what’s next now?

Obviously the WNBA season is coming up, so I’m excited for that. And I’m also excited to continue my philanthropic work, and see what television opportunities are ahead for me. I went to school for broadcast communications — over the years I’ve done a lot of freelance work — and I look forward to doing more.

Swin Cash’s Lower Body Workout

The bikini bod is just a bonus, Swin says. Strong legs are essential for athletes, no matter their sport. Try this quickie lower body workout first thing in the morning, or whenever you want to squeeze in a no-equipment sweat session. To start, perform three sets of each move (see exercise descriptions below) with 30 seconds of rest in between sets.

Swin Cash's Lower Body Workout
Photos by Jordan Shakeshaft

 1. Glute Bridge
Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. (a) Contract your abdominal muscles, press your heels into the ground, and lift your hips up off the floor. Avoid pushing your hips too high, which can cause hyperextension in your low back. (b) Squeeze your glutes at the upper phase of the exercise, and slowly lower yourself back down. Repeat for 15 reps.

2. Single-Leg Glute Bridge
Start on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. (a) Raise one leg off the ground, pulling the knee to your chest. This will be your starting position. (b) Driving through the heel, and keeping your hips square to the ceiling, raise your hips upward, engaging your glutes and core. (c) Pause at the top, and then return to starting position. Complete 15 reps on each leg.

3. Plank
Start in a push-up position and lower onto your forearms, planting them firmly on the ground. (a) Keeping your neck neutral and spine straight (no sagging or bending at the hips), engage the muscles in your glutes and core, and hold for 60 seconds (or as long as you can maintain proper form).

4. Single-Leg Plank
Assume the plank position with forearms planted firmly on the ground. (a) With your spine and neck neutral, contract your abs and glutes and lift your right leg up about 10 inches from the floor. (b) Hold for 30 seconds before switching to the other leg.

5. Wall Sit
For this quad burner, stand with feet shoulder-width apart, back against a wall. (a) Slowly slide your back down the wall to assume a “seated” position with both your knees and hips at 90-degree angles. (b) Hold for 60 seconds, or as long as you can sit tight!

To keep up with Swin on and off the court, follow her on Twitter and Facebook, and visit swincash.com

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