Lashinda Demus battles back from pregnancy, postpartum depression to regain her position atop the track field

Lashinda Demus will attempt to set an American record in the 400-meter hurdles at this weekend's Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore. She set her personal best of 52.63, just .02 of a second off the record, in 2009.
Lashinda Demus will attempt to set an American record in the 400-meter hurdles at this weekend's Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore. She set her personal best of 52.63, just .02 of a second off the record, in 2009. (Charles Rex Arbogast)

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By Carl Little
Saturday, July 3, 2010

The sky was bright on the November morning in 2006 when Lashinda Demus, an Olympic hurdler, climbed back into bed in her South Carolina home and buried herself under the covers. Moments earlier, she'd stood in front of the bathroom mirror, lifted her shirt and analyzed her midsection from various angles.

Her fifth home pregnancy test revealed the same inconvenient truth as the previous four. After just beginning to catch a bit of the spotlight as a professional athlete, Demus was dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. It sent her into a dark depression.

Less than four years later, Demus, 27, has bounced back physically from a difficult pregnancy that produced twin boys, and conquered the debilitating depression that lasted the better part of a year. In June, she won the 400-meter hurdles in Rome in 52.82 seconds, the fastest time in the world this season.

When the Prefontaine Classic gets under way Saturday in Eugene, Ore., Demus will try to improve that time. One of her goals for this season, she said, is to break the 14-year-old American record of 52.61. The meet at historic Hayward Field, widely considered the birthplace of American running, will provide the site for her first U.S. attempt this season.

The pregnancy she thought could derail her career has turned out to be a blessing. "I'm running a whole second faster than when I was at the top of my game," she said. I "didn't miss out on anything so what [was I] worried about? I wouldn't take back my twins for a moment."

'A shock to her system'

Demus had never been depressed. Nor had anyone in her family. If anything, she said, she had always been upbeat, and her athletic performance had a great deal to do with that. She set the national high school record in the girls' 300 hurdles in 2001 and, a year later, helped South Carolina win its only NCAA track and field championship as a freshman. In 2005, she won the first of two national titles in the 400 hurdles and was second at the world championships.

Demus had become accustomed to flinging her 5-foot-7 body over 30-inch barriers with power and precision, but when she became pregnant, she lost that control for the first time. "It's like going from 60 to zero in two seconds," said Eleanor Yoon, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Fairfax. " . . . It's easy to feel like your body's been hijacked from you."

Demus didn't seek a clinical diagnosis. No doctor had to tell her she was dealing with an elusive but fairly common problem. About 13 percent of pregnant women and new mothers become depressed, according to government statistics.

Demus's husband, Jamel Mayrant, is the second-oldest of 12 children, and thus he had often seen his own mother pregnant. He recognized some of Demus's feelings and understood some of the pressures his wife faced.

"She was battling two things: career and becoming a mother," Mayrant, 26, said. "Going from running to not doing anything was kind of hard for her. It was a shock to her system."

It is unusual, but not unprecedented, for world-class female athletes to start families at the height of their careers. Paula Radcliffe, the 36-year-old British distance runner who owns the world record in the women's marathon, won the 2008 New York City Marathon 21 months after giving birth to a daughter, Isla. Three-time Olympic gold medalist and former WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes returned to the court for the Houston Comets in 1997, six weeks after giving birth to her son, Jordan, and helped the Comets win the inaugural league championship.

Demus, however, was fighting to regain control of her body and mind.


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