Priscilla Lopes-Schliep says she’s back and as fast as ever.
But the hurdling game facing the 29-year-old from Whitby, Ont., has changed. There used to be three world class athletes bidding for Canada’s Olympic berths -- Priscilla, Perdita Felicien of Pickering, Ont., the 10-time Canadian hurdling champion and Angela Whyte of Edmonton who has been both an Olympic and world championship finalist.
Now, there are at least five says the new mother. Add in Lopes-Schliep’s training mates, Nikkita Holder and Phylicia George, who ranked in the top 11 internationally in 2011. They will likely meet up at the Canadian Olympic track and field trials in Edmonton, June 30.
“Coach Anthony [McCleary]has brought some more hurdlers into the game,” Lopes-Schliep says. Her 2008 Olympic bronze medal and Felicien’s indoor and outdoor world championships have made the barrier event attractive for women. Thanks to Lopes-Schliep and Felicien, Canadians have role models for success.
George won the inaugural National Track League title in the hurdles and finished seventh at the world championships. Holder finished sixth at the worlds and fifth in the Grand Prix Diamond League competition. Both started the season with 100-metre personal bests in the mid 13-second range and lower their times significantly by almost a full second.
“With Nikkita and Phylicia it’s nice that you don’t have to worry about ‘Oh, I can’t let this person know (of an injury). Everything’s out on the table. We all work hard, everyone’s on top of what they’re supposed to be doing... If there’s something I’m not doing Nikkita and Phylicia will cheer at me or yell at me... It honestly keeps us on point for the track season. What better way to prepare yourself than to be training with the people you’re going to be competing against? We all have training camp in Arizona (early in April) where we’ll see how everyone’s doing and touch base....
“It seems like Beijing was just the other day... but a lot for me has happened between ’08 and now.”
Unanticipated motherhood was a big one. Lopes-Schliep had a cystic ovary removed in 2007 and wasn’t sure she’d even become pregnant. But in September, Lopes-Schliep and husband, dentist Bronsen Schliep -- whom Priscilla met when she was studying at the University of Nebraska -- became parents of an eight-pound girl, Nataliya.
Lopes-Schliep had gestational diabetes during the pregnancy and had to watch her diet but put on 15 pounds and developed a large baby bump. Nevertheless, she kept up a non-jumping training regimen while pregnant. She resumed racing only a couple of months after the birth.
She had a complete support system. Coach McCleary and Canadian Olympic team doctor Dr. Julia Alleyne have supervised her comeback to make sure Lopes-Schliep doesn’t take on too much too soon, as she tries to resume the world No.1 mantle she had in 2010. Mother Sharon Lopes took time away from work to look after her granddaughter while Priscilla pursued the dream of going after a second Olympic medal. Husband Bronsen, who is studying to be an orthodontist, also provides child care and moral support.
“I opened up indoors in Sherbrooke [March 2012]with 8.28 seconds for 60 metres,” she said of a second-place finish in her comeback race. “That was amazing ... it was basically the time I opened up with the season before, before I got pregnant,” she said.
“Being a mom and what that does to the body, and then to come back and get ready for an Olympics, my body underwent some serious transformations. But it’s amazing what the body can do. I’m definitely feeling strong and excited about what’s coming up.
“What pressure there is I put on myself, but I keep working hard... and what I feel is going to happen is really, really good,” said the ambitious Lopes-Schliep. She said being a mother has helped feed the fire and desire in her. She wants to firm up ligaments loosened during pregnancy, lower her best time of 12.49 seconds for the 100-metre hurdles and even rewrite Felicien’s Canadian record of 12.46.
“It’s pretty neat the way the body and the muscle memory connect together, it’s like riding a bike. The body’s used to hurdling, I know what to do. It’s just to get sharper and cleaner over the hurdles.
“If anyone can do it, I have the drive. I heard guys say ‘she can’t bench 225 in the weight room.’ I want to prove them wrong. I want to better myself and go after big goals. ... Why sell yourself short with the attitude ‘Oh, I just want to make the team.’ Why even bother? Go after the biggest thing you can and see what happens...”
Getting enough sleep for high performance workouts has been helped, she says, by her mother Sharon’s sacrifice.
“I was always close to my mom, but what she’s doing now for me, it’s like a whole new kind of love for your grandchild,” says Lopes-Schliep.
“I still want to run and make Canada proud and be a great role model for moms and athletes and kids who are coming up... I’m hitting a whole new area -- mothers. You can do something if you really want to do it.
“For my mom to sacrifice her job to help me get ready for the Olympics and look after Nataliya so I can train hard, work hard and get the rest is definitely helping to make this possible.
“She showed me what a great strong woman she was before, and now she makes changes in her life to come and stay with me Monday to Friday. It’s a huge sacrifice.”
Before Lopes-Schliep won her Olympic medal in 2008, she saw heartbreak firsthand as Felicien’s roommate in Athens. Felicien, a world hurdling champion, had been favoured to win the race in the Olympics and appeared to be comfortably on her way to capture the final when she inexplicably fell at the first hurdle.
“There was a lot of pressure... it could have been anything. All I know is that it was really tough,” said Lopes-Schliep, who was eliminated before the final.
“I was her roommate there, and my heart went out for her. It was sad. It was really hard... It’s the Olympics, wouldn’t you take it hard?
“I gave her space. You can’t really talk to someone about it, say ‘tell me how you feel’. But it is what it is... and you do what you can to come back from it. She’s a great girl and it’s sad it had to happen there...
“The hurdles can be a great thing or it can be a mean thing... and I’ve taken my spills, too. I fell down in the indoor worlds before Olympics... I busted the fat pad in my right heel, I scraped up my chest, my chin everything. It wasn’t fun... but you’ve got to dust off and go again and do the best you can.”
One thing Lopes-Schliep knows will stand her in good stead is her work ethic. She won’t skip out on workouts. It would be cheating herself, she says.
“There’s workouts that Anthony gives us and you might feel tired and be tempted to say ‘we’ve done the runs already.’ You say ‘No’, because your opponents are lining up on that line, too. When you’re at the Olympics or at the worlds, and that starter says ‘on your mark’ and you’d better have put the work in... I’m not handing anything over on a silver platter...”