Les Gramantik likes to joke about how he took up drinking the day Jessica Zelinka called him to say she was pregnant.
“I practically fell off the chair,” chuckles Gramantik, who can laugh about it now.
Zelinka was coming off a fifth-place finish at the Beijing Games and she and Gramantik were already talking about a medal in London when the 30-year-old heptathlete from London, Ont., became pregnant.
While he may have had his doubts at the time, in hindsight Gramantik now says her announcement of impending parenthood was great news — Zelinka is heading into the Olympics in the best shape of her life, and one of Canada’s top hopes for a medal in track and field.
“If this had been a scientific decision based on what’s possible, that was the perfect timing to get pregnant. It may turn out to be perfect,” Gramantik said.
Zelinka was the star of last month’s Olympic trials in Calgary, shattering her Canadian heptathlon record and beating a world-class field to win the 100-metre hurdles. Her performance has put an end to any questions of whether she could rebound from having a baby to once again find success in track and field’s most gruelling event.
Zelinka, whose three-year-old daughter Anika is a perfect curly-haired combination of her and husband Nathaniel Miller, said that being a mom has given her a sense of balance that has in turn made her a better athlete.
“Before being a mother, you get caught up in you, you, you, this is what I need. Now I’m not taking so much, I can give to her and feel good about that,” Zelinka said. “She’s just a little girl and I can do so much for her and she looks up to me so much.
“It’s nice and I feel it’s very much me. I really like that role as a mother, I don’t resist it, I like the balance.”
Zelinka broke her record in the seven-discipline heptathlon in Calgary, scoring 6599 in a meet in which she ran away from the field virtually unchallenged in the hurdles, 200 and 800 metres.
“This score now, this Canadian record, she’s going to break it again,” said Miller, who played for Canada’s water polo team at the Beijing Olympics. “She’s an incredible athlete and she still hasn’t gotten to the full pinnacle of what she can do.”
Gramantik said there’s no scientific evidence to prove female athletes come back stronger after giving birth, but it’s definitely been done before.
Tennis star Kim Clijsters rebounded from becoming a mom to win the 2009 U.S. Open. Paula Radcliffe, arguably the greatest women’s distance runner of all time, had a baby in 2007 and marked her return to racing by winning the New York City Marathon.
Physically, Zelinka — whose muscle definition is as remarkable as you’ll see on any athlete — is fitter than ever, Gramantik said.
“Body composition is as good as any female athlete you can find anywhere,” Gramantik said. “I challenge anybody in the world to look physically fitter and better.”
But there are also intangibles, the coach added, that prove Zelinka is a better athlete after becoming a mom.
“Her ability to sustain effort is better, her ability to focus and respond to challenges is better. Tougher. Just simply tougher,” the coach said.
“And she’s a lot less confrontational. We’ve had 10 years now together, and there were some tough times, there are still tough times, it’s the relationship we have as a coach and athlete, we’re not in love necessarily, sometimes I’m sure she hates me,” he added, laughing. “But that’s OK, that’s my role to make things go.”
Miller said he’s “incredibly proud” of Zelinka’s ability to combine being a mom and a world-class athlete.
“You see what she goes through to put on these kind of performances,” he said after Zelinka smashed her heptathlon record in Calgary. “I don’t want to speak for all moms, but watching that progression when you go from being an adult to being a mother, everyone deals with those challenges and your priorities change, but she knew right from the start she wanted to continue doing track and she wanted to continue seeing how good she could be.
“But when you become a mother, your daughter, your family, becomes the most important thing, so a lot of times the training demands and the travel demands. . . it’s incredibly difficult. She’s done a really good job of separating the two, of coming home and being a mother and focusing on being the best mom she can be, but when she’s at work then she’s focused on work.”
Zelinka will be one of the busiest athletes in London. Two days after she wraps up the heptathlon, she’ll take the track for the 100-metre hurdles with Canadian teammates Phylicia George and Nikkita Holder.
Olympic bronze medallist Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, who’d been considered one of Canada’s top medal hopes for the Games, and former world champion Perdita Felicien failed to qualify for the team in a dramatic hurdles final at the trials.
Zelinka’s time of 12.68 seconds in the event was barely slower than Lopes-Schliep’s quickest time of 12.64.
She’ll have a huge family contingent cheering her on in London, including her husband and his mom, Anika, her parents, two sisters, and an aunt and uncle and their families.
To help with travel costs, she auctioned off her race bib from the Olympic trials on Twitter. The University of Calgary Alumni bought it for $4,250.
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