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

By Carl Little
Saturday, July 3, 2010; D02

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.

"Imagine someone having the normal worries of pregnancy and adding a layer to that," said Sherry Molock, associate professor of psychology at George Washington University. "The worrying can become ruminating and obsessive. When you're depressed, you're thinking in a tunnel and everything's dark.

"Clinical depression is tricky. It's really hard to tell who's going to bounce back and who isn't."

Demus had always wanted to raise a family of her own. But not like this. The timing wasn't right. She had just won the 2006 Visa Championship Series, a prestigious string of competitions that awards the top overall finisher a $100,000 bonus. She'd made the 2004 Olympic team and it was almost time to qualify for Beijing. She was about to renew her contract with Nike. Things were going too well to be put on hold.

Demus was pleasantly surprised when she looked at the ultrasound monitor and saw that she was carrying twins. "I'm really carrying these things in me and they're going to be grown men in the future?" she marveled.

But that stood in contrast to her morning sickness and her doctor's orders of bed rest after she went into labor prematurely. After eight difficult months, Dontay and Duaine -- the boys were named after Mayrant's deceased older brother and Demus's father, respectively -- were delivered by cesarean section in June 2007. Once the umbilical cords were cut, the exhilaration faded and postpartum depression began.

"I was only 24, 25 at the time and I felt like I couldn't be pretty anymore," Demus said. "No need to put makeup on, no need to dress up because you're a mom. And moms stay home."

Taking back her stride

Staying home wasn't in Demus's makeup. Doctors recommended she wait at least six weeks before returning to physical activity. Demus was back at it in four. Track was in her blood. "Some people choose what they want to do; I felt like this sport chose me," she said.

It didn't seem so instinctive when Demus first started training again. The pregnancy had taken such a toll on her body that, for the first three weeks, she could only plod along a grass field. Six months passed before she could do a pro athlete's workout.

Her mother, Yolanda Demus, a quarter-miler at California State Los Angeles in the late 1970s who coaches Lashinda, put her through half-mile repeats with just seconds of rest between each one.

"She wanted to quit," Yolanda Demus said. "I told her I went through the same thing. It takes a while to come back because your body has to adjust to the workouts again. It takes a lot of work."

Those grueling workouts brought Demus back to an elite level, but not quite back to the top. At the U.S. Olympic trials in 2008, Demus held the lead for most of the race. But she lacked her usual powerful finish and faded to fourth place, missing a spot on the Olympic team in the 400 hurdles by .14 of a second.

She rebounded to have a spectacular 2009. At the world outdoor championships, Demus won the silver medal in the 400 hurdles and her team took gold in the 4x400-meter relay. She finished the season ranked No. 1 in the country and No. 2 in the world in her signature event, with a personal-best time of 52.63, just .02 of a second off the American record.

She is working hard to make the 2012 Olympic team, but more than anything else, she wants to be a hero to her children.

"Every parent wants their kids to be proud of them and brag about them: 'My mom does this, my mom does that'," Demus said. "I'm an example.

"Why did I think my life was over? What I was thinking of as a burden is a blessing. Now I'm back to where I was. Even faster now."

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