Motherhood fuels Demus’ running spirit

Motherhood is a wonderful thing.

Lashinda Demus wasn’t always sure about that, but she is now. It has its responsibilities and aggravations, but they vanish every time she looks at her 4-year-old twin sons, Dontay and Duaine.

They’ve given Demus a reason to run. They’re her chance to leave a legacy beyond track, so that when she finally walks away from the sport, she can say it wasn’t just for her — it was for them, too.

Maybe her opportunity will come this summer in London. Demus is the No. 1-ranked women’s 400-meter hurdler in the world, the current world champion and the likely favorite at the 2012 Olympics should she qualify at the U.S. Trials in Eugene, Ore., in June.

This probably isn’t her last chance at a gold medal, but it’s likely her best chance. And for the first time, she has a purpose other than herself.

“The way she looks at it is, ‘I have to leave a legacy. I have to get something out of this for my kids before it’s over,’ ” said Demus’ husband, Jamel Mayrant. “You never know when it’s going to be your last race or your last practice.”

Getting to this place hasn’t been easy. Demus, 29, struggled emotionally with her pregnancy, believing it was robbing her of the track career she had always wanted. She had bouts of depression five months into the pregnancy in 2007, and they continued beyond the birth of her sons that June.

But at some point, the realization kicked in that she was giving birth to two babies who needed her in every way. Instead of being hurdles, metaphorically speaking, they became reasons to succeed.

“Motherhood is difficult, because you go from being a selfish human being to loving somebody more than you love yourself,” Demus said. “So you’re constantly battling whether you’re giving enough, whether you’re doing enough, whether you’re being this perfect person for these perfect people that totally depend on you.”

It took her a while to figure that out. She was really just a kid when she became pregnant, but she had already begun winning races. At Long Beach Wilson High School, Demus set a national high school record in the girls’ 300 hurdles in 2001. A year later, she was a member of South Carolina’s first NCAA track and field championship team.

By 2004, she had qualified for her first Olympics and won a silver medal at the world championships, and by 2006, she was the top-ranked 400-meter hurdler in the world.

When she learned she was pregnant, she said, “It was a shocking moment for me.”

Her dreams suddenly were gone. She would never win an Olympic medal. Instead of standing on a podium, she would be standing at a changing table.

“I was depressed,” she said. “I was at the top of my career at the time, a young girl, only 23. I had it all, I thought. It was a part of my dream to be a professional athlete, to make the Olympic team, to win Olympic medals. I did everything but win that gold medal.

“I was in this dark hole for a little while thinking that what I wanted from my life was taken from me. I always wanted kids, but why did they have to come now? And why am I mad at being mad at myself for having these kids?”

The first time she saw the sonogram, five months into her pregnancy, Demus began to shake herself out of her doldrums. Even if she wanted to wait before having children, it was out of her hands. They were on their way.

Rather than wallow in her situation, she accepted it. In a way, it was that simple.

“One day, I just realized I have two living things in me,” she recalled, “and I was making them a part of humanity.”

Giving birth also required change. Demus and Mayrant, who were living in South Carolina at the time, moved back to Southern California to be closer to family. Demus also asked her mother, who at one time had been a gifted quarter-miler at Cal State Los Angeles, to coach her.

Mother as coach? It wasn’t always easy. Lashinda, who has pictures of herself in diapers on the track, says, “My mother is a tough woman.” But the grueling workouts eventually took her to another level.

“The only reason I kind of delayed her coaching me was because I knew how hard it was, and I knew that I would be training by myself,” Demus said. “I just didn’t want to do it.”

But she did, and the results proved successful. The only blip was a fourth-place finish at the 2008 Olympic Trials, causing her to miss a spot on the U.S. Olympic team by .14 of a second.

“I think I overworked my body,” Demus said. “I was training for a year straight with no rest, and my body still wasn’t acclimated to the newness that it had (after giving birth). I still had to get used to running in this new body. It just kind of went on (empty). I can’t describe it. I just didn’t have it.”
 
But she rebounded with a big 2009, winning silver at the world outdoor championships and gold in the 4×400-meter relay. Last year, she won her first individual gold at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea, passing Olympic champion Melaine Walker with two hurdles left. Her time of 52.47 was the third fastest in history.

Mayrant said Demus has improved by leaps and bounds since returning home.

“A lot of it comes from her mother coaching her,” he said. “She knows how she runs down to a T. When she got back, she had a hard time at first, but since she got back to her mother, it’s just been clicking. Every year she’s gotten faster and better. She was running good, solid times, but now it’s like her training and her mindset is, ‘I can break a world record.'”

Can she? Mayrant believes Demus can run under 52 seconds, but Demus’ primary focus next summer is winning gold. Although she intends to compete again in 2016, she’ll be 33 then. Time is running short.

“I think it’s definitely critical now,” she said. “I try not to even think about that until the time comes because I would drive myself insane. Like I’ve said, when I’m overwhelmed, I shut down. I just take it one day at a time. So I’ll just say yeah, it’s critical to get (gold) this year. I know I’m getting older, but I don’t think I’m that old.”

Perhaps not, but motherhood can sometimes affect priorities. Her boys will be 5 in June; they’ll be 9 in 2016. Maybe the Olympics won’t seem so important by then.

Right now, they are, and everything revolves around London. In June, the family will settle in Eugene for several weeks of training before the trials. Dontay and Duaine will celebrate their birthdays there. Demus will likely qualify for the Olympics and begin preparations for this summer.

But motherhood never stops.

“Motherhood is an extension of yourself,” Demus said. It just took her a little while to figure that out.