Priscilla Lopes-Schliep twirls around the kitchen to a thumping J-Lo song, balancing her daughter Nataliya on one hip. The little girl clutches her mom’s strong shoulders and erupts in giggles, her mouth stretched in a wide smile.
This is the softer side of the fierce athlete.
Motherhood agrees with the former world No. 1-ranked hurdler, who ran Canada’s fastest time in her event last year just nine months after giving birth to Nataliya.
And she’s about to do it again.
The 30-year-old from Whitby, Ont., and husband Bronsen Schliep are expecting their second child, deciding to expand their family now following a health scare.
But Lopes-Schliep has no intention of retiring, and in fact has her sights set squarely on the 2016 Olympic podium.
“I’m definitely looking forward to coming back and proving you can do it having two babies,” Lopes-Schliep says in a recent interview. “I know it’s going to be harder because now it’s not only one, it’s two little munchkins running around.
“But I’m ready for the next challenge. And I hope everyone who has supported me, my sponsors, and people who have been behind from before until now will continue to be behind me now until the next one. I’m not going to give anything less than I have in the past.”
Lopes-Schliep announces her news in an interview at her parents’ home in Whitby, Ont., the same house in which she grew up and where Nataliya spent much of her first year while her track star mom trained and competed.
Lopes-Schliep won Olympic bronze in the 100-metre hurdles at the 2008 Beijing Games. Two summers later she was thoroughly dominating her event. She won the 2010 Diamond League title, which rewards consistency, and posted the world-leading time that same season.
Despite fears she wouldn’t be able to have a baby after having her right ovary removed in 2007 because of a cyst, she became pregnant the following winter. Nataliya was born Sept. 16, 2011.
Then, last fall, she almost lost her left ovary due to ovarian torsion — a condition where the ovary twists to the point where blood supply is cut off.
She and Bronsen had arrived home one afternoon and she was lifting Nataliya out of the car when she felt a stabbing pain in her left side. She was admitted to hospital the next day. Doctors were able to save the ovary. But she and Bronsen, whom she met when they were both athletes at the University of Nebraska, had always wanted two children.
To them, the close call was a warning.
“It was just like a time bomb, you don’t know when it’s going to go off. I have no control,” Lopes-Schliep says. “That’s why we made the decision to try.”
Pregnancy was once considered a career-ender but in 1991, race walker Ann Peel won the right to retain her carding money — the monthly stipend the country’s top athletes receive through Sport Canada’s Athlete Assistance Program — through her pregnancy.
Now more and more women are having babies and returning to sport rather than postponing motherhood until retirement.
Canadian heptathlete and hurdler Jessica Zelinka continues to post personal bests three years after becoming a mom to daughter Anika. (And there’s no hint there was ever a baby under those ripped abs.)
American Lashinda Demus, silver medallist in the 400 hurdles at the London Games, is the mom of twin boys.
Plus, there have been numerous other women — Belgian tennis star Kim Clijsters and British marathoner Paula Radcliffe are just two — who’ve rebounded from pregnancy better than ever.
“If there’s a strong athlete out there, it’s definitely her. She did it last time and still was the top Canadian,” says her manager Kris Mychasiw. “In terms of fitness, she knows what the hard work and perseverance are all about.
“She’s the Rocky Balboa of track and field, she doesn’t give up.”
Lopes-Schliep trained almost throughout her previous pregnancy, performing modified exercises — using bungee cords for resistance, for example.
She’s battling a bit more morning sickness with this baby, which is due Aug. 13 or 14. But she’s working regularly in the pool and weight room, and other than the barely noticeable baby bump, looks like she could step on the track tomorrow and post a world-class time.
Lopes-Schliep acknowledges childcare might be her biggest hurdle with baby No. 2. Her husband Bronsen, who played basketball in college, is finishing up his orthodontics studies at the University of Toronto. Her mom Sharon took a leave from her job to help raise Nataliya in the leadup to the London Olympics, but doesn’t think she can swing a second leave.
“It was great for me, I got to spend the first year with Nataliya, I missed out on that with Priscilla because I had to work, we didn’t get a year off. So it was lots of fun,” Sharon says.
Lopes-Schliep takes pride in being a positive role model for moms.
“Keep pushing, keep striving, enjoy the little ones that you have but make time for yourself also,” she says.
She knows there will be plenty of people who will write off any potential return to the top of the world hurdles rankings. She doesn’t care, she’s heard it all before.
“I’m a fighter. I don’t care what anybody says. People have told me before ‘You can’t do this because you’re a girl,“’ she says.
She launches into a story about working out in the high school weight room. Some boys were bench pressing 225 pounds. She asked if she could try. They laughed at her.
“I tried the first time and it was a little off, I didn’t get it,” she recalls. “I gave myself a second to get mentally focused. I came back and pulled it down, pushed it back up, threw the bar up and those guys were like ‘Oh my gosh.’
“Don’t tell a girl she can’t do something because if you really set your mind to something, you can do whatever you want to.”
Mychasiw is hopeful her sponsors — Nike is her biggest — and international meet directors believe as strongly in her return to the track.
They were very supportive of her first pregnancy, he says.
“Some people would take it the wrong way, say, ‘You’ve had a baby, you’re done.’ But we took it the opposite way (with Nataliya). We said ‘There’s some strategic partners you could get involved with.“’
Following Nataliya’s birth, Lopes-Schliep signed sponsorship deals last season with both Pampers and a stroller company.
Her top-16 world ranking will mean Lopes-Schliep will also keep her federal carding income for now.
Lopes-Schliep, who didn’t qualify for the London Games in a shocking result at the Olympic trials, said her decision to stick around for the 2016 Rio Olympics has nothing to do with recent events.
London or no London, baby or no baby, Lopes-Schliep had always focused on Rio as her target.
“That has been her goal since we started working together in ’07, she said ‘Look, 2016 is where I’d like to make the biggest bang,“’ says Mychasiw.
Lopes-Schliep was considered one of Canada’s top hopes for a medal in London. But the woman who has been one of the most consistent performers over the course of her career uncharacteristically hit a hurdle in the final at the Olympic trials. She finished a shocking fifth and was left watching the Games from the home.
But she takes the positives from that heartbreaking turn of events. That’s the way she is.
“Obviously it was not what I had hoped for,” she says.
“But at the end of the day I got to see Nataliya walk. If I had gone, I would never have got that back, it’s something that only happens once in a baby’s life, and I’d already missed out on a few milestones.
“Obviously there was some tears shed, but I was like: you know what, that’s the best I could do, I finished the end of the year being a mom and having the fastest time in Canada for the hurdles that year so. . . not too bad for all the moms out there.”