U.S. Olympic moms overcome hurdles, and have the killer abs and medals to prove it


Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings of the United States celebrate winning the gold medal in women's beach volleyball with Jennings's children. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist August 9, 2012

Women, as it turns out, can have it all.

A gold medal. Two super-cute kids. Killer abs.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Kerri Walsh Jennings showed that to the world this week when she won her third gold medal in beach volleyball with her longtime teammate, Misty May-Treanor.

And we neglected work and kids Thursday to watch the U.S. women’s soccer team, captained by a mother of two, Christie Rampone, take the gold in an epic matchup against Japan.

Hope Anne-Marie Slaughter watched, too. The former State Department official’s essay about how women still can’t have it all generated a firestorm of debate and endless rounds of hand-wringing. Turns out, it just depends on what your definition of “all” is.

Thirteens mothers — you know, the kind of women whose jeans you make fun of, the people y’all roll your eyes at when they dart out of the office at 4:59, the ones who show up at the board meeting with a Barbie sticker on their butts and are associated with the Games only in those schmaltzy Procter & Gamble ads — are members of the U.S. Olympic team.

It’s an astounding number, given not just the social issues of motherhood — child care, school, mommy guilt — but the way pregnancy messes with the very instrument of these athletes’ profession: their bodies.

So much for my excuse about the “baby weight.” These women hit the track, field, pitch and road very quickly after giving birth.

But when you think about it, maybe childbirth and child rearing are the best training there is for Olympic competition.

Endurance: months, even years, of sleeplessness.

Strength: cooking dinner one-armed, with a 37-pound child on your back and a 10-pound infant in the other arm. Every night.

Mental fortitude: “Mommy, are we there yet? Are we there yet? Does God have feet? Why did your iPhone go dark after I put it in the toilet? Do lizards have babysitters? My poop is on the wall! There’s a coffee bean stuck in my nose!”

You need real evidence of the Olympic baby-training program?

Take the case of five-time Olympian Amy Acuff, a world-class high jumper from Texas with a dozen national titles to her name. She thought she might be done after having a baby in her mid-30s.

When she got back to the gym to lose the baby weight, she was amazed at her strength. She picked up a 14-pound medicine ball like it was nothing and breezed through exercises that used to be tough with an eight-pound ball, pre-child, according to a profile on her on the Team U.S.A. Web site.

“My only explanation for that was that I have a 25-pound baby that I do that with all day long,” Acuff said. Within two weeks, she regained her national-level speed.

And Mommy Brain helped with the mental part.

“I think motherhood changes your brain and how you think,” she said. “It allows you to multi-task a lot more and to be able to focus on a lot of things at once. I feel like I am better now in my brain chemistry to be able to not just get narrowly focused and monitor a lot of things. People don’t realize it, but you have to keep track of a lot of stuff in high jump. It’s not only these angles and this rhythm and this tempo and these body positions. Everything has to be dialed in to perfection.”

Take the example of Idaho native Kristin Armstrong, who had a baby 22 months ago and won a gold in cycling last week.

Maybe she’s not the cycling Armstrong you’re used to hearing about, but she’s one of the most decorated athletes in the sport.

Think two years is plenty time to get into training shape?

Then talk to Aretha Thurmond, a discus thrower from Seattle, who is the sports version of what Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer aspires to. Thurmond threw in a 2007 national championship meet when her son was just 18 days old.

Wow. I hadn’t even managed a shower at that point of motherhood.

Look at her Web site, arethathrows.com, and see the photos of her son in a pumpkin patch and her at a world championship in Brazil. This is her fourth Olympics.

Or take Kara Goucher, a marathoner from Oregon who set her personal best at the Boston Marathon seven months after giving birth to her son.

Not hard core enough for you?

How about archer Khatuna Lorig, who competed for the former Soviet Union in Barcelona in 1992 when she was four months pregnant with her son. He’s 19 now, and she just competed in her fifth Olympic Games, now for Team U.S.A.

She shot an arrow that was such a perfect 10, it bounced off the tiny camera lens dead-center in the target. She placed fourth in these Games, but she helped inspire thousands of young girls to take up the sport by teaching Jennifer Lawrence the fundamentals of archery for the movie version of “The Hunger Games.”

Olympic moms grapple with the same conflicts and guilt as the rest of us do.

One day, basketball star Candace Parker’s 3-year-old daughter, Lailaa, begged her not to go to practice. “That broke my heart,” Parker told Redbook magazine, “but then again there are a lot of moms out there who work 9 to 5 and don’t have the flexibility I have.” She blogs about potty training.

Rampone, the soccer team captain, told Redbook that she misses the day-to-day stuff when she’s practicing or traveling.

“I have wondered, ‘Am I taking too much time for this sport?’ But I try to see the big picture,” she said. “I’m never going to play a perfect game or be a perfect mom.”

Realism helps. So does a supportive family. Many of the Olympic moms are married to fellow athletes, so they have support and understanding from their spouses. Non-athlete husbands are also supportive (or just afraid).

For some, there have been huge obstacles.

Kudos to Lashinda Demus, silver medalist in the 400-meter hurdles, who suffered from postpartum depression in 2007 after delivering twin boys. On her Web site, she speaks about the struggle to crash through the depression and return to training.

And she was also refreshingly honest about the moment she found out she was pregnant, when she was at her athletic peak.

“I was shocked and angry,” she told filmmakers Jen Pottheiser and Danielle Elliot in their fantastic documentary series about Olympic moms.

It is a common theme among moms, the bittersweet feeling that you — as you know yourself and the world knows you — are somehow fading. We wonder whether we’ll become invisible, irrelevant, dissed and dismissed.

“It was a difficult time for me because I thought everything in my career was going to end,” Demus told NBC’s Los Angeles affiliate. “I don’t think at that time, being as young as I was, that I knew you can kind of have both and do it all.”

Her twins, now 4, were in the stands as she competed this week. On television, they could be heard shouting, “Go Mommy! Go Mommy!”

Amen to that.

To read previous columns by Petula Dvorak, go to washingtonpost.com/
dvorak.

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