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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.

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That point came sooner than she expected – when she returned to judo full-time and moved to Texas. "I was completely overwhelmed," she says. "Over time, I realized I had to let this go."

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Easiest part of the day: pumping iron

For other Olympian mothers, the feeling of being overwhelmed is familiar. "Weightlifting is the easiest part of my day," says Roach.

It is an odd thing to hear from a 5-foot-1, 30-something with a pageboy haircut. Then she talks of being owner-operator of a gymnastics academy, wife of a Washington state legislator, a Sunday School teacher, and a mother of three, including an autistic son – all in her high-energy, quick-talking, perma-smiling persona – and Olympic weightlifting does appear a welcome distraction.

"Because I spend my day preparing the kids for the school bus, making sure we have dinner, getting the kids off the bus, getting homework done … when it's time to go to the gym, I get to take a breath," she says. "It's like a moment to myself, something that most moms don't get."

Last month, Roach was named to the No. 1 slot on the four-woman team that will compete in Beijing.

Ms. Demus, the hurdler, gets that moment away from her year-old twins, Dontay and Duaine, thanks to her husband. For an Olympic sprinter, perhaps, it is natural to see parenthood as the Great Relay Race: "[My husband] doesn't have to go to work until the afternoon, so it's basically, 'Tag, you're it.'"

A silver medalist at the 2006 World Championships, Demus says she's had to work twice as hard as other Olympians to return to podium-level performances. When she started running three months after giving birth in June 2007, she was losing races to her mother.

"You know you're 50 percent behind [your competition] so you have to work that much harder, so I did things I never would have done" as a sprinter, including 40-minute jogs, she says. "I wanted to quit about 1,000 times … but I'm stronger because it was 10 times harder getting back to normal."

With US trials for Track & Field coming up at the end of June, her times have been improving steadily. From late April to early May, she dropped nearly 1.5 seconds off her 400-meter time, finishing in 53.99 at a race in Martinique – the fastest time posted anywhere in the world this year, and 1.65 seconds off the world record, set in 2003.

A comeback 12 years after quitting

Gotay came back to judo essentially on a dare. Although she had one brief and aborted comeback attempt in 1996, she had gone some 12 years without training when she learned that the 2004 national championships would be held in her hometown of San Diego. Four months before the event, she decided to try to qualify.

In her first tournament back, in Britain, her goal was not to lose in the first round; she made it to the finals. Without much effort, she acknowledges, she qualified as an alternate for the Athens Games. But that ambivalence was her spark.

"I really should have tried," she says. "I always felt that I've never lived up to my potential."

In the Chicago ballroom, these two sides of her nature seem to be at war: The child of unrealized promise versus the mother who found such fullness in days spent with her daughters, learning a little about everything.

She loves talking about judo, but there is far greater pride when she notes that her older daughter, currently finishing fifth grade at a San Diego school, reads at an 11th-grade level. Separating herself from them is her great concession to who she thought she once could have been – judo champion and Olympic medalist.

"Other athletes only have to worry about themselves," she says. "They can go home and go to sleep. I go home and it's, 'Mommy, I'm hungry.' "

"When I had the children with me [in Texas], I was still a mom," she adds. "It took my mind off what my mind needed to be focused on." But, she concedes: "They're coping better than I am."