By Vicki Hall, Calgary Herald May 15, 2010 – At a casual glance, the life of Canadian Olympian Jessica Zelinka seems awfully similar to that of any new mom. She changes diapers. Does endless rounds of laundry. Breaks up wrestling matches between the baby and the attention-starved feline of the family.
“She pins him down and rolls on him,” says Zelinka, pointing at her black cat named Nietzsche (after the German philosopher.) “Anika just never stops moving. She’s so quick at picking things up and putting them in her mouth. “I’m lucky to have good reflexes.”
Good reflexes? Try outstanding. Less than a year after giving birth, Zelinka is flexible, fluid and fast.
And today, the University of Calgary grad is set to compete for the first time since the Beijing Olympics. “I want her to regain the competitive desire that made her so good,” says coach Les Gramantik. “The numbers don’t matter to me at this point.”
Her standards are awfully high. After all, the London, Ont., native placed fifth at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. Her goal for the 2012 Olympics in London? To hit the podium and win a medal, preferably gold. Today, she’ll settle simply for surviving the competition at the Calgary Spring Challenge at Glenmore Athletic Park. “I just want to go out there and feel good again,” she says in a quiet chat at her southwest Calgary home after Anika has gone to bed for the night. “I keep telling myself this is a transitional year.”
There’s no manual on how to transition from childbirth to Olympic athlete — especially in a discipline that includes hurdles, shot put, high jump, long jump, javelin and running. “In May 2009, her tummy looked like a medicine ball,” Gramantik says. “I don’t think many coaches have experienced the process of returning a world-class athlete to training after pregnancy. “Four decades of coaching and this is the first time it ever happened to me.”
For Zelinka, 28, and husband Nathaniel Miller, the original game plan didn’t exactly call for childbirth in the prime of their athletic careers. But life rarely follows a script of any kind. So Zelinka and Miller, captain of the Canadian water polo team, chose to improvise. To Zelinka, every mother deserves a medal for surviving the agony of childbirth. “Being pregnant was crazy,” she says. “It gives you a total new appreciation for the human body. Your body is so smart. In labour, it takes over. “The contractions were overlapping, one after the other. It was all very intense. Not comparable to anything I’ve ever endured in my life.”
Her coach is known as a taskmaster. But after giving birth, Zelinka figures she can withstand anything Gramantik throws at her. “While I was in labour, I kept thinking, ‘how can I describe this pain?” She never came up with the suitable adjective. But that pain led to the most overwhelming blessing of her life. Anika is a busy, busy, baby. “She’s already bored of her toys,” Zelinka says. “She just wants to go and explore the world.”
With Olympians for parents, she’ll get the opportunity to do just that — provided her mom and dad can juggle the demands of athletics and child rearing. The early signs are encouraging, Gramantik says. Technically speaking, Zelinka is showing the best form of her career. “I’m surprised how well she is doing athletically,” Gramantik says. “The challenge for the female to get back into shape after pregnancy is something that no male will probably ever fully understand.”
But Gramantik has researched the issue, and he realizes Zelinka needs time to regain the muscle mass lost. “The challenge is a hormonal issues,” he says. “Testosterone is beaten up by pregnancy. “It might take six months. It might take a year. Maybe two years. We don’t know.”
Zelinka realizes the secret to success — in sport and motherhood — lies in her ability to be present in each moment. In other words, she leaves the track at the track and the baby stuff at home. “I find joy in coming back and taking care of her,” she says. “It used to be that after track, I would come home and think about what didn’t go right and what I had to do the next day. “I can’t do that anymore.”
She also can’t waste time at the gym. Half-hearted training sessions are a thing of the past. “I think motherhood brings resiliency,” says Gramantik. “Jessica is a calmer person. On the track, we have no blow-ups. No arguments. No negotiations. She’s far more determined. “Far more focused.” Her immediate focus is on the Calgary Spring Challenge. Then, she’s off to the annual Hypo-Meet at Goetzis, Austria. In October, she hopes to hit the podium at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.
Unfortunately, the Hypo-Meet conflicts with Anika’s first birthday. So the celebration will take place a week early. On the big day itself, Anika is scheduled to be in Montreal with her dad and grandmother.
At the tender age of 11 months, Anika is already flirting with frequent-flyer status. “And she hates flying,” Zelinka says. “She has to move around all the time. When she has to sit still, she screams.”
Such is life for the child of two Canadian Olympians shooting for glory at the 2012 Summer Games in London.
“Actually, this is a very special time for us,” Zelinka says. “We have two-and-a half more years. Athletes have a very limited time compete. “One day, we’ll look back and say, ‘those were the good old days.”
And they’ll marvel over how they ever found the time.