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Before Beijing, these moms are already Olympians

Eighteen women, from 30-something judoka Valerie Gotay to hurdler and mother of infant twins LaShinda Demus, have managed to combine motherhood with top-level training and competition.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 5, 2008

Beijing bound: Weight lifter Melanie Roach says pumping iron is the easiest part of her day.

Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times/AP

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CHICAGO

There was a moment when Valerie Gotay realized that, amid all her meticulous preparations for the Beijing Olympics, something had gone wrong.For six months, she had thought that the life she lived at home in San Diego could continue at the national judo training center in Brownsville, Texas: Her two daughters could come with her, and she could go on home-schooling them as she always had.

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But in the end, she could not – and making the decision she had so desperately wanted to avoid, she sent her girls back to her husband in California.

"This was not the life I wanted for them," says Ms. Gotay, who will compete in the US Olympic trials for judo on June 14.

She is one of 18 mothers with their eye on competing in Beijing – from hurdler LaShinda Demus, whose schedule juggling infant twins is so hectic that she sometimes forgets to eat, to weight lifter Melanie Roach, who sees squatting hundreds of pounds of iron as a refreshing break from the responsibilities of the rest of her life.

For Gotay, however, the days since her daughters Breanna and Isabella left Texas nearly a year and a half ago have unspooled as a different test of character from any she has learned from a mat or a match-ending chokehold.

"Sometimes I think I am weakened mentally and emotionally" as a competitor by being a mother, says Gotay, who has not been back to see her family in San Diego since January. "But it also strengthens you – to fight for your kids, for all your sacrifices."

There have been many. Indeed, even in the opulent, Beaux Arts-style Chicago ballroom where she and other Olympic hopefuls gathered in April for a media summit – in a setting that bespoke white-fingered gloves rather than roundhouse kicks – her intensity percolated like a rumbling coffee pot past boil.

How do birds fly, Mom?

Gotay is making up for missed opportunities. There was a time, nearly 20 years ago, when she was the 18-year-old up-and-comer – a Barcelona Olympian whose promise and confidence suggested that the podium was more a matter of time than doubt.

"Since I was 4 years old, I was training intensively," says Gotay, who was drawn to the sport because her father was a judo master in France. "I loved the training, I loved the intensity, I loved it all."

But she pushed herself too hard to reach that moment on the verge of her first Olympics. She had tried to compete in a lower weight class than was natural for her body type, and before the weigh-in, she collapsed and went into convulsions. The illness was so severe that there was little choice but to quit judo.

Yet the intensity that had once taken form in a precocious young judoka, drinking in the life of an elite athlete as though through a hosepipe, now found another outlet: her daughters. It began as a dissatisfaction with her local schools and became the focus of her second act: being a teacher as well as a mother.

She had no course curriculum, only a deep desire to touch her children's inquisitive minds.

"Any time my daughter had a question – like, how do birds fly – it was like: That's our lesson for today," says Gotay, unable to prevent a grin at the memory. There were days spent surfing the Internet, building models, and cooking – a great way to teach children math, Gotay insists.

"It's teaching a love of learning," Gotay adds. "Once you do that, there comes a point when you just step away."