The new breed of Olympic superhuman isn't a steroidal mutant from Sweden who can dead-lift a beluga whale, nor is it a cyclist who spends hours a day in the laundromat waiting for his blood to finish its spin cycle — it's a mother or, more specifically, a Belgian mother of two named Tia Hellebaut who claims that, at 34 and after two childbirths, she is stronger than she was four years ago when she won Olympic gold at Bejing for high jumping the shit out of her competitors.
Hellebaut, a native of Antwerp, — a city less famous for its disciplined, world caliber athletes than for its red light district, chocolates, and piles of diamonds so bloody that the Belgian tooth fairy sometimes mistakes them for discarded baby teeth — retired from high jumping after the 2008 Bejing Olympics to give birth to her first daughter, Lotte, unretired, got pregnant again with her second daughter, Saartje, and unretired a second time with perhaps a diminished faith in her birth control. Last month, to qualify for the Olympics, she jumped 6 feet 4 ¾ inches, which, to put it in perspective, is roughly the height of Jeremy Lin with a juvenile cat perched nervously on his shoulders. "Tests show," says Hellbaut, "that, when it comes to pure power, I am stronger than I was four years ago."
With her qualifying jump, Hellebaut will join a group of other recent mothers in London this summer that includes Russia's Anna Chicherova and the 28-year-old American mother of two Chaunte Howard Lowe, each of who will be vying with Hellebaut for gold despite having endured the general muscle trauma that constitutes childbirth. During labor, the pelvic floor and lower hip muscles stretch and tear, and, according to Kari Bo at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, Caesarean sections are too risky for professional athletes because the procedure can potentially compromise the structural integrity of the abdominal wall. So athlete moms are pushing all the way, like that self-righteous douche in the gym who has to grunt out each repetition of his barbell exercises. Add to these Olympian birthing efforts the fact that pregnancy comes with a weight-gain sticker price — Hellebaut says she gain 55 pounds during each pregnancy — and it would seem that motherhood could be the single greatest disadvantage for a female athlete, as it was in 1948 for Dutch sprinter Fanny Blankers-Koen, who might have added a high jumping gold medal to her four sprinting medals if she hadn't gotten pregnant with her second child. High jumping, moreover, is purportedly a tough sport to come back to simply because, according to Bo, "Anything that involves jumping and running is more risky for the pelvic floor," which in a high jumping scenario I imagine to vacillate a lot like the elevator in the Tower of Terror.
There is, however, a precedent for mothers succeeding in the high jump, as current world-record holder Stefka Kostadinova was a new mother when she won gold at Atlanta's games in 1996, and the current class of mom high jumpers agree that motherhood offers some intangible advantages that help boost an athlete's focus and time-management skills. These mothers explain that an infant's predawn crying marathons and the constant demands of caring for young children help athletes deal calmly with high-pressure situations. "It allows you," says Bo, a former gymnast herself, "to deal with some failures because you have other things in life. You get another view on life, because athletes are very self-centered."
Hellebaut believes that family life has imbued her with a serenity she might have never developed otherwise because, as we all know, us single, childless people are selfish and totally unreliable, never having cared 24/7 for a living creature that wouldn't merely make a a raid on the trashcan if we forgot to fill up its food dish. "I don't want to call singles unstable," Hellebaut says, "but it is a different kind of life."
A life that clearly puts single, childless women at a competitive disadvantage. Childbirth and child-rearing may be arduous mental and physical trials, but anyone who can successfully endure those trials develops an edge that a woman who hasn't incubated and a tiny, mole-like human until it was ready to claw its way out of her vagina simply doesn't have. How hard can waking up for interval training at 4 AM be when you've had a selfish little monster parading naked through your bedroom and using your jewelry boxes as makeshift castanets? And, just like the little cabals of steroid users that would gather to swap needle-aiming tips in gym locker rooms, new mothers like Chicherova and Hellebaut overcome their fierce rivalry to bond over how inferior non-mom athletes are. Hellebaut says of the new friendship with her old rival, "You know there have been many tough moments. How tired you've been, how hard it was and how you persevered. It creates something special. Something non-mothers cannot grasp."
Insider knowledge, access to hormonal therapy, and power-outage proof wailing alarm clocks do not champions make — these women are obviously cheaters and the faster they're barred from Olympic competition, the sooner the Olympic committee can prevent a rash of performance-enhancing pregnancies. And if you think that's so outrageous it has to be facetious, consider that Arnold Scwarzenegger once said he'd eat a pound of feces if it helped him gain a pound of muscle and then try to convince yourself that the hyper-competitive mania that drives professional athletes wouldn't create Junior situations in shady medical clinics if it ever got out that giving birth to a child was the ultimate way to train for the Olympics