Commentary

Bringing 'mama power' to high jump

Updated: July 1, 2012, 11:58 AM ET
By Luke Cyphers | ESPN.com

EUGENE, Ore. -- This one was about "mama power" and apple pie.

The U.S. is sending not one, but two mothers to the London Olympics in the high jump, an event not normally associated with maternity.

Chaunte Lowe, who is busy chasing 14-month-old Aurora and 4-year-old Jasmine when she's not clearing bars set at 6-feet, 7 inches, and Amy Acuff, whose training sessions with 2-year-old Elsa are sometimes cut short by tantrums, were both able to find enough time between runny noses and juice boxes to make themselves, once again, Olympians.

[+] EnlargeChaunte Lowe
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PresswireChaunte Lowe won the high jump event at trials by clearing 2.01 meters (6 feet, 7 inches).

"Mama power -- I feel like I'm surrounded by it," said University of Arizona junior Brigetta Barrett, who finished second behind Lowe and ahead of Acuff to round out the U.S. squad.

The three high-flyers not only made the team, but they also electrified the crowd at Hayward Field, with clutch clearances (Acuff), personal bests (Barrett) and epic celebratory dance moves (Lowe). Mostly, though, they jumped high.

The diverse group was headed by Lowe, who didn't record a single miss on the way up the ladder to 6-7. All elbows and Day-Glo knee-high socks, Lowe sped up to the bar and flopped over it, as is her custom, completely unruffled by the on-again, off-again rain. "I was very excited about the conditions today," said Lowe, who's excited about everything, "because there's a good possibility when we go to London, there will be the same type of conditions. There's not gonna be a rain delay."

With each easy clearance, Lowe came up with an original dance move, including an octopus-like beat-box sequence and a Marilyn Monroe-like blown kiss to the crowd. She wasn't the only one having fun. Barrett, whose approach to the bar is pure power, bounced to two personal records on her way to tying Lowe for the best jump of the meet at 6-7. She, like Lowe, couldn't make 6-8¼, and finished second because she had one more miss. She cared not a whit. She was jumping with her girlhood idols, people she has been studying for years, and moved the crowd in her own way, with sheer enthusiasm.

"My mom says I'm kind of a ham," said the theater arts major.

Then there was Acuff, who was pregnant during the 2009 world championships and retired from the sport to have her baby. But a year after Elsa was born, Acuff started working out again at her home in Texas just to get fit. It felt good. She pushed herself a little more and felt better. By the beginning of the outdoor season, she was jumping in any competition she could find, sometimes at all-comers meets where she was the only participant. She met the Olympic qualifying standard coming into the trials, basically assuring herself a place on the team since Barrett and Lowe were the only other Americans to meet it.

But the 36-year-old earned her place the old-fashioned way Saturday, clearing 6-2¼ on her third and final attempt, then repeating the feat at 6-4¾ to finish alone in third. Acuff attributed her success partly to her changed life. Yes, Elsa can short-circuit her workouts.

"I've gotta find those windows where it's acceptable to her," Acuff said. "I'll bring some toys and stuff, and if she's in a bad mood and she doesn't want to play by herself and I have to entertain her, I have to cut it short."

Motherhood has benefits, though. "I think it changes your brain, the way you think, and allows you to multitask a lot more," she said. "People don't realize you've got to keep track of a lot of stuff in the high jump. It's not only these angles and this rhythm and this tempo and these body positions, everything has to be just right. I think my brain is better able to handle all that stuff."

Lowe, too, has been transformed, though it's been a struggle, sometimes in small ways -- doing Jasmine's hair can take two hours, and cooking for kids while on a strict diet takes some discipline. "I look at her macaroni and cheese and just want eat it," she said.

During her pregnancy with Aurora, Lowe had "intrauterine growth restriction, which means that when I was pregnant, my daughter didn't have enough blood flow. So at 7 months, she stopped growing."

Aurora was born seven months into the pregnancy to avoid the possibility of stillbirth, but because her lungs were not fully developed, she went straight to the ICU. "And I had to feed her every single hour for, I want to say, seven months, 24 hours a day -- I was up feeding my daughter because she had to gain weight," Lowe said.

Aurora also suffered from chronic ear infections and needed an operation to drain fluid. "There were times we thought my daughter was not going to make it," Lowe said.

Though her husband, Mario, was always there, as a mother, Lowe said, "You can't give all your attention to just one child, so I had to pick myself up emotionally."

She cautiously started training again, despite surviving on an hour or two of sleep a night. "I had this dream to go the Olympics, but my kids come first," she said. "And right around 10 months [old], my daughter started gaining weight. She's so chunky. I got a fat little chunky daughter, and I'm so happy for it."

Lowe won the high jump Saturday, but it turns out she wasn't jumping. She was floating.

Luke Cyphers is a former senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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