4 amazing Olympic moms

We think these Canadian mama-athletes are good as gold, juggling tough training schedules and child care. We wanted to know: How do they do it?

Photo: Claus Andersen

PRISCILLA LOPES-SCHLIEP

Sport: 100-metre hurdles
Age: 29
Married to: Bronsen Schliep, currently training to be an orthodontist
Children: Nataliya Eva, 10 months
Residence: Whitby, Ont.
Olympic career: Bronze medal at 2008 Beijing Olympic Games

How do you handle the balancing act between athlete and mother?
At first, it was easy because I was at home for the first month with Nataliya. It was all about bonding with her, taking care of her and meeting every one of her needs. Honestly, when they’re a month old, it’s just “eat, sleep, change my diaper.”

How do you handle child care?
You can’t do it on your own. You have to have that family unit, and a strong group who believes in what you’re going after. My mom has taken a leave from work to help me out. It’s made a huge difference in my performance. My coach has noticed, saying, “you don’t look as tired.” It’s hard because in my field, no one has babies. There are a couple competitors with older kids, but no one’s in the same boat as me.

How did you stay in shape throughout your pregnancy?
I worked out until a week and a half before having her. In the last trimester, I was in the pool three times a week and at the track twice. Plus, I did lots of walking.

If you could use one word to describe motherhood, what would it be?
It’s a gift. It’s an amazing ex­perience to have this blessing. I didn’t know if I was even going to be able to have kids — I lost my right ovary in 2007 due to an ovarian cyst, so it was always a huge worry for me.

Finish this sentence: As a mom, I never thought I’d…
Lose this much sleep!

How has motherhood affected you as an athlete?
It’s made me better because I’m no longer just Priscilla; I’m a mom, I’m a wife, I’m a daughter, I’m a sister — all of the above. It’s made me a stronger athlete, too, to come back, have this drive and know that I have a little person who’s looking up to Mommy.

JESSICA ZELINKA

Sport: Heptathalon
Age: 30
Married to: Nathaniel Miller, water polo coach and former professional/Olympic water polo player
Children: Anika, 3
Residence: Calgary
Olympic career: Fifth at 2008 Beijing Olympic Games

Your husband has taken time away from his athletic career to focus on family life. How did you make this decision?

It’s not a long-term solution; it’s very temporary. We decided that he would support me until 2012, and then we’ll revisit to see if he can go back to playing water polo.

How do you balance child care?
My husband usually gets up with her, then we have breakfast and get her ready. I bring her to her daycare and then go to the track. I have her in the evening when he’s coaching.

How do you involve Anika in your career?
She runs around the track, jumps on the mats and throws little balls like a shot put. She thinks being a grown-up is all about running fast, jumping and throwing.

How has Anika helped your career?
She gives me balance in my life, and helps me get my mind off other things. I leave the track at the track, and I come home and focus on her.

What’s more difficult —training for the Olympic Games or parenting?
Well, what they both have in common is you’re always getting worn down! You have to find downtime, and make it part of your routine, or you’re going to get burnt out.

You returned to training five months after Anika was born. What was the toughest part?
Breastfeeding and scheduling. My coach was waiting for me at the track, working around my breastfeeding schedule and Anika’s nap schedule. If I didn’t have a coach who was flexible like that, it would’ve been really, really difficult.

How is travelling with a toddler?
We rent apartments — we don’t stay in hotels. Sticking to good routines of sleeping , napping and eating well are really important.

What is the best parenting advice you’ve ever received?
I can tell you the worst: What I heard a lot from people — including strangers — when Anika was first born was, “Cherish these days — they grow up so quickly,” and that’s always stressed me out a little bit. I’m like, “OK, I’m trying to be in the moment! I really am!”

What has parenting taught you about training?
When you have a baby, you find out really quickly how patient you are. I’m definitely more patient in my training now, and able to work through problems without the emotional side getting in the way. I think it comes from trying to be more patient with Anika.

Finish this sentence: As a parent, I never thought I’d…
Become so much like my own parents!

Photo: Ewan Nicholson

VICTORIA NOLAN

Sport: Paralympic rowing, and grade 3/4 teacher
Age: 37
Married to: Eamonn Nolan, a teacher
Children: Tarabh, 9, and Ceilidh, 7
Residence: Toronto
Olympic career: Sixth at 2008 Beijing Olympic Games

What got you into rowing at age 31?
After I had my kids, I lost quite a significant amount of vision in a small time. I have a degenerative eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa, and am now almost completely blind. It was a really low point in my life. I was scared to leave the house, and didn’t want to do anything. I thought: “How are my kids going to see me as they grow up?” I tried to find something that would force me to be independent, and physically active, too. Initially, it was just to get me out of the house, and then someone suggested I row competitively. I really didn’t want to, but they talked me into it and I loved it. When I lost my first race, I realized how competitive I really am. I thought: “I want to get better at this!”

What is a typical day like at your house?
I get up at around 5:15 a.m., and do my first workout on our rowing machine at home. My husband drives me to work and then takes the kids to school. I teach until 11 a.m., then do a core workout at lunchtime. After work, we get the kids from school, give them a snack, and then I row from 6 to 8 p.m.

How do you find a balance?
It’s really hard. It’s the love of the sport that keeps me going. Parenting, for me, is easy, because I love my kids and whatever they need, that comes first.

How do you handle child care when you’re away for training?
Eamonn is a single parent when I’m away. He’s unbelievable — he does everything. We have babysitters who help out once in a while, but he pretty much does it all himself.

What is your parenting philosophy?
We live a very fast-paced, busy life, but we always take the time to enjoy the little things — to stop and smell the roses, as they say.

What would you say your sport has taught you about parenting?
You think you’re exhausted, and you can’t do any more, but then you push through and realize you can. With my kids, I know I can always find the energy for one more story at night.

Can you tell me about the bond between you and your guide dog, Vegas?
It’s pretty incredible. He feels responsible for my safety, which is why he gets so upset when I’m  rowing. Seeing me get on the water really stresses him out.

What has family life taught you about your sport?
I’m teaching my kids about pushing your limits — they’re both really into sports — and not giving up. And even though I’m teaching them that, it still surprises and inspires me to see them do it. It’s kind of funny getting inspiration from a seven-year-old playing hockey, but I do.

Photo courtesy of Rowing Canada Aviron

 


SHERRAINE SCHALM

Sport: Fencing
Age: 37
Married to: Matteo Ortolina, who works in development
and franchising for an Italian lingerie company
Children: Gaia, 18 months
Residence: Verona, Italy (born in Brooks, Alta.)
Olympic career: Ninth at Beijing 2008 Olympic Games

What’s it like bringing Gaia to training with you?
Now that she’s walking, she follows me during  my warm-ups, she does arm circles with me, and touches the ground when I touch my toes. She loves to take the plastic swords for the kids’ classes, and brandish them around the gym.

What is your favourite me-time activity?
I love to read and write. I also play the guitar, piano and accordion. Gaia pounds on the keys and plucks at the strings.

What is one thing that no one told you about parenting?
How much effort it takes to get quality alone time as a couple.

How has Gaia influenced you as an athlete?
I’ve learned to be efficient. I used to sit and chat with colleagues or my coach during breaks. Now those breaks are spent changing a diaper, or preparing a bottle.

What languages do you speak with Gaia?
Matteo and his family speak to her in Italian, I speak to her in English, and when I’m training in Budapest, everyone speaks to her in Hungarian. She picks whichever word is easier to say.

How do you handle child care when you’re away at competitions?
If Matteo is at work, his mom comes to take care of Gaia. She’s amazing.

What’s the hardest part about being away?
Breastfeeding — when Gaia was five months old, I was away for nine days, which meant 63 bottles, and I only had a manual pump. Then I got a mechanical pump; it changed my life! I breastfed Gaia until she was 14 months old.

What was your biggest challenge when you returned to training?
Balance and form. My pelvic region was so stretched, and it took a long time to get really strong again. Mentally, at first it was hard to feel super-competitive again, but then I got too competitive, and occasionally lost my temper at the gym.

What has been your favourite stage with Gaia?
I’ve been happily surprised. It just keeps getting better.

Photo: Lorne Bridgman

For more Olympic fun, check out our Today’s Parent Olympics guide!

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