There is a fear among female athletes that having kids might compromise a promising career. That is especially true in track and field, where the brutal workouts, time demands and international travel are hard on anyone -- let alone a new mother with a couple of babies in tow.
So when Lashinda Demus missed qualifying for the 2008 Olympic team by 14 hundredths of a second in the 400-meter hurdles, she would have been forgiven for seeing this as a sign that she should hang up her cleats and focus on raising her twin boys, Dontay and Duaine, born in 2007. But Demus had other plans.
"I was devastated after the '08 trials," said Demus, now 28. "I had worked so hard to get back in shape after having the twins -- I was ready to show I still had it."
Instead, she worked too hard, exhausting her body with overtraining and fading to fourth place in the race after starting strong. "I learned my lesson about overworking myself," she said. "The body can only handle so much."
Demus' year leading up to the 2008 Olympic trials was perhaps the hardest of her career. Learning that she was pregnant at age 23 meant taking time off right at the peak of her career; then, after giving birth, she joined the roughly one in 10 women who battle postpartum depression. She knew if she was going to find her footing again as the country's best 400-meter hurdler, she needed to make some changes. So she and her husband, Jamel Mayrant, left their home in South Carolina, where Demus had lived since graduating from the University of South Carolina, and moved back to Southern California, where she was born and her mother, Yolanda Demus, still lived.
Being closer to home has helped with caring for the boys, and it's also allowed Demus to train under her mother's watchful eye. A former NCAA champion in the quarter-mile, Yolanda knew what it took for her daughter to be the best. More important, she knew what it took to help Demus beat back the demons of depression. Together, they created a training plan that culminated in last September's win at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea.
Demus ran a 52.47 in Daegu, the third-fastest time ever and a U.S. record, bettering Kim Batten's mark of 52.61, which had stood since 1995.
"My mom and my husband are at almost every single meet," Demus said. "Knowing I have their support makes a huge difference."
All in the family
It's still a struggle figuring out how to juggle the roles of a mom and a world-class athlete, but it's gotten easier as the kids have aged. "They're 4 now, so this year they started preschool," Demus said. "It helps having them in school for part of the day."
She is unsure what will happen when she travels abroad to meets this year -- "I'm trying to figure out if I should take them or if it's less disruptive to leave them at home" -- but one thing's for sure: If she make the Olympic team, her boys are coming to London.
"I have such a different perspective now on what it would mean to be in the Olympics," she said. "It's not just about me and my goals. It's about leaving a legacy for my kids, so one day they can look back and understand why I did the things I did."
As for making the team, Demus is pretty relaxed about her prospects right now. "I don't allow myself to start thinking about it this early," she said, adding that a perk of competing since age 21 means she's more or less mastered the mind games. "It's too overwhelming to worry now about an event in several months. I just approach it as if I am going to London, and the trials is my stepping stone to get there."
The long haul
Between then and now, Demus is fine-tuning her game on the indoor circuit, though her season is off to a slow start after some nagging injuries, which she described as "nothing serious," kept her out of action for a few weeks. Her training is intense, but this is the time to put in the work to reap tomorrow's gains.
"Right now, everything in training is pretty long, painful stuff," she said. "It's the buildup for the season, then about a month before the trials, I'll start scaling back a little and really work on fine-tuning my performance."
The biggest change for this season is the team she has assembled to help her perform at her peak. "I've hired a trainer, a nutritionist and a [physiotherapist]," she said. "I'm getting older, and recovering from workouts isn't getting any easier. I needed help staying healthy throughout the season." Her nutritionist, in particular, has been helping her with issues of inflammation, working foods with natural anti-inflammatory properties into her diet.
Though 2012 may be her best shot at capturing Olympic gold, Demus won't stop there. "I don't think I'll retire until at least after the 2016 Games," she said. "I keep improving my times -- why would I stop now?"