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.
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."
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."
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."