ANTWERP, Belgium — The Olympic adrenaline was still flowing, the high jump gold medal just placed around her neck, yet one thought was coursing through Tia Hellebaut in the oppressive night heat of Beijing four years ago: her desire to become a mother.
“As of the first moment after the gold medal,” the Belgian said. “And as of the first moment that you say ‘I want kids,’ it can’t go fast enough.”
In the past three years, Hellebaut retired from the sport to have daughter Lotte, un-retired from the sport, retired pregnant again with second daughter Saartje, and then un-retired again. To cap it all, she made the Olympic qualifying height of 6 feet, 4 3/4 inches last month at her first comeback meet without missing a single jump.
Now, on the verge of 34, “tests show that when it comes to pure power, I am stronger than four years ago. So that is an excellent sign,” Hellebaut said.
Hellebaut’s return sets up a defining battle of mothers at the Olympic Stadium in London between the Belgian and Russian rival Anna Chicherova, who also became a mother before returning to her very best to win gold at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea, last August.
And don’t count out American Chaunte Howard Lowe, a mother of two herself and, at 28, five years Hellebaut’s junior.
A battle of mothers in London would be a fitting tribute to perhaps the greatest one of all — Fanny Blankers-Koen. The Dutchwoman won four sprint gold medals at the 1948 Games in the same city. With better planning, the mother of two could have been high jump champion, as well, considering she was the world-record holder at the time.
Hellebaut would be going for only one medal in London, but she and the other mothers will compete with bodies that have been changed by the rigors childbirth.
“The pelvic floor is really stretched and can have injuries during delivery,” Professor Kari Bo said of the muscles in the lower hips that can be stretched up to three times their normal length.
Delivery by Caesarean section is not really an option since things can go wrong with the abdominal muscles as well, said Bo, an exercise scientist at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences.
What is most obvious to the layperson, is the weight problem.
“I gained 25 kilos (55 pounds) — twice. I lost 25 kilos — twice. In three years, my body was a constant hormonal yo-yo,” Hellebaut said in an interview with The Associated Press.
If Hellebaut was a shot putter, or competing in another discipline that allows for bulk, there could have been some leeway. But in the high jump, where lithe bodies are essential and every little roll of fat is excess luggage when airborne, there is no way to cut corners.
What is more, high jumping is supposed to be a tough event to come back to.
“Anything that involves jumping and running is more risky for the pelvic floor” muscles, Bo said, citing swimming as a sport that is easier to come back to.
Yet high jump has been kind to mothers before. World record holder Stefka Kostadinova was a mother when she took Olympic gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Motherhood also makes it all more rewarding. One year after giving birth to Saartje, Hellebaut looked fit during the winter interview, only 4 1/2 pounds over the 132 pounds she weighed when she upset Blanka Vlasic for gold at the 2008 Beijing Games.
But beyond weight, Hellebaut’s body also reacted differently to injuries after childbirth.
“After Lotte, I regularly had small muscle injuries,” she said. “Now, it is a lot less, because we anticipate it.”
If it was all bad to come from childbirth, no mother would ever come back, and Chicherova would never have won her world title. That emotional experience of giving birth can offer added inspiration.
“My daughter changed everything,” Chicherova said.
After Nika was born in September 2010, Chicherova came back with a stellar season last year, jumping 6-9 1/2, less than an inch shy of the world record.
“She gives me self-confidence,” the Russian said of her daughter.
Being mothers also creates a special bond, Hellebaut said, even between fierce rivals such as Chicherova and Hellebaut.
“You’ve both gone through breast-feeding, the long nights. You know there have been many tough moments. How tired you’ve been, how hard it was and how you persevered,” Hellebaut said of her rapport with Chicherova. “It creates something special. Something non-mothers cannot grasp.”
If anything, despite toddlers marauding through the house and 3 a.m. crying sessions, it gives mother athletes a peace of mind, a Zen-like calm in the midst of high-pressure situations.
“It allows you to deal with some failures because you have other things in life,” said Bo, who herself was a gymnast. “You get another view on life, because athletes are very self-centered.”
Hellebaut concurs. “Family happiness gives me a sort of serenity, a feeling I am in the clear with myself,” she said. “I don’t want to call singles ‘unstable,’ but it is a different kind of life.”
Taking on the extra task of a return to the track combined with motherhood also provides a focus she never had. There is much less time so it needs to be well spent.
“Now I cherish the moments on the training track as my own. You want to use them 100 percent,” she said, pointing out that in the past there was no reason to stretch what could be done in three hours over a whole day.
And on top of everything else, she has perfect Belgian inspiration — Kim Clijsters.
The former No. 1-ranked tennis player won the 2009 U.S. Open just three weeks into her comeback after a 2 1/2-year retirement, during which she gave birth to her daughter, Jada. She defended her title at Flushing Meadows the next year and won the Australian Open last year. Her daughter was often a feature on center court.
“It is so nice to see someone who went through and proves that it works,” Hellebaut said.
Raf Casert on Twitter: http://twitter.com/rcasert