This article was originally published on the Toronto Star website.
Émilie Turgeon sees a trampoline and knows just what to do — bend your knees and bounce.
She knows how to do a seat drop too, but she prefers to face plant and then, looking over at mom’s concerned face, burst into giggles.
That this 20-month-old is comfortable at Skyriders Trampoline Place is little surprise given her pedigree.
Her mom is Karen Cockburn, a three-time Olympic medallist on the trampoline, and her dad is Mathieu Turgeon, a retired Olympic medallist.
Even Émilie’s middle name, Sydney, has to do with this sport. Her parents started dating at the 2000 Summer Games and picked up the family’s first Olympic hardware in Sydney, his and hers bronze medals in trampoline.
After the London Olympics, Cockburn, then 32, knew she wanted a baby and didn’t want to put it off any longer.
But that doesn’t mean she intended to give up her career.
“Society likes to put people in boxes,” she says. “You’re a parent now, that’s who you are or you’re this age, you shouldn’t do this anymore. I don’t want to be put in a box.”
As it turned out, having Émilie would be the easiest of the two challenges she faced to get back to her sport in time for the Toronto Pan Am Games in July.
Last November, two days before the world championships, Cockburn was thrown off balance in a jump and landed on the metal side of the trampoline. It’s covered in padding but that doesn’t mean much when coming down from 18 feet in the air and she smashed her ankle into pieces.
“I was finally back at the world class level and then, boom — that was pretty depressing after climbing such a big mountain to get back there.”
A metal plate and eight screws later, she spent the winter chasing a toddler around on crutches before embarking on yet another comeback to the trampoline.
She has been back jumping for two months now. “It hurts” she says, but nowhere near enough to quit.
She doesn’t like to give up on anything she sets out to do and the draw of competing at the Pan Ams in Toronto is enormous for her.
“I’ve never got to compete in Toronto at a major event. I just think it would be awesome to be part of that.”
All the time off, planned and not, from her sport also served to rekindle her passion.
“For 2012 it kind of started to become a job,” Cockburn says. “When I came back to jumping I was having so much more fun.”
That hasn’t helped get her spatial awareness back any faster or made throwing a 10-trick routine any easier, though.
“It’s like with any sport. The athletes make it look easy but it’s really not,” she says laughing.
Émilie, for one, isn’t that impressed by mom’s jumping.
“She sees me jump and she laughs, she thinks it’s funny.”
Rachel Seaman was so worried about the prospect of starting a family that it messed with her head — and athletic performance — at the London Olympics.
“What if I never get here again,” she recalls thinking.
Now, having just celebrated her daughter’s second birthday, Seaman is faster than ever and a second Olympic appearance, likely in Rio next year, looks to be a lot brighter than her first.
Just last month she won the Canadian women’s 10-kilometre race-walking record with a time of 43 minutes and 52 seconds and she now holds every possible national record from 3 km through 20 km.
“She has really revitalized my career and my life,” says Seaman, of her daughter Isabella.
The time off she had while pregnant was her first real break from race walking — a demanding and little understood sport — in 11 years. It was something she clearly needed even if she didn’t know it ahead of time.
And, more than that, when she returned to race walking it was with the new attitude of an athlete-mom forced to find balance between her two roles.
“Before, I was majorly over-focused on my training and I was way too obsessed with what I thought it took to be an elite athlete,” she says, recalling that absolutely everything from her hours of training to sleep had to be perfect.
“Once I had her, I had to get over the fact that I thought I needed to be training longer or napping. Now I don’t have a choice, if she’s up all night, I’m up all night.”
Before the London Olympics, Seaman had worried that becoming a mom might be the end of her competitive days. But learning to let things go and balancing life with elite sport, she was surprised to discover, actually made her a better athlete.
“I really have excelled a lot since I had her,” Seaman says. “I dropped two and a half minutes last year (in the 20 km) and I broke four Canadian records that had been standing for over 20 years.”
She hasn’t given up obsessing entirely, though. She is already worrying about how to limit the pressure her daughter will feel to excel in athletics given her parents. As well as mom, there’s dad, Tim Seaman, who competed for the United States at two Olympics in race walking.
Seaman grew up Peterborough, Ont., in the athletic shadow of her parents, Nil and Christine Lavallee, who were high school and university cross-country champions and later talented marathoners.
“I felt like I had a lot of pressure growing up, the way they were, and now I think it’ll be harder for her,” says Seaman.
For now, at least, the athletic pressure in the Seaman household is all on 29-year-old Rachel, who wants to win a medal for Canada the Pan Am Games in Toronto this July.
“I have a really good shot of coming top three.”
Then, the athletic side of her focus will shift to preparing for the Rio Olympics and getting “revenge on how I did last time.”
Anika knows all about what mom does for a living: she runs, she jumps and she throws things.
Sometimes she wins and sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, Jessica Zelinka’s heptathlon career has become a full-on family adventure.
“It’s not often that your children can be so involved in your career,” Zelinka says. “When I grew up I had no idea what my parents did.”
“It’s pretty cool that I can come back from training and we talk about it. It’s almost an easy parenting thing, today was a bad day at training, this went well or I’ll try to do this better tomorrow. Or in competition she’s like, ‘Why didn’t you win?’ Well, I can say, that I didn’t win because I didn’t have a good start and I need to work on that.”
Zelinka was coming off a fifth-place finish at the 2008 Beijing Games and planning her path to a medal at the next Olympics when she became pregnant.
“It was never part of my plan to be raising a child while I was still in my career. It’s really cool that I’m able to do this and have a family to support me.”
Her husband, Nathaniel Miller, knows all about the lure of elite sport. He was an Olympic water polo player for Canada.
While she had her family’s support she had no idea how her body would react. But she came back to the grueling seven-event track and field discipline stronger and was the star of the Canadian Olympic trials for London, shattering her then national heptathlon record and winning the 100-metre hurdles.
There are challenges, of course, to balancing athletics with family life. Elite sport of any kind is usually a selfish business, with athletes deciding everything from their training schedule to where they live based on what’s best for their performance. Combining motherhood with athletics forces compromise and discipline.
“I go to the track and focus because I know that’s the time I have to be at the track, and then I can come home and I don’t think about track all day because I have other things to think about.”
Zelinka doesn’t know if being a mom has made her a better athlete or not but it has made sure that she never becomes complacent about her career.
“I continually have to be evaluating, do I want to do this, do I still have the drive to put in my best, because there are people in on this, it’s not just me.”
The family is getting ready to move back to Calgary, where the London, Ont., athlete has done most of her training — but not until five-year-old Anika is done kindergarten.
“We’re on a mini-adventure that we know is not going to last forever,” Zelinka says. “I’ll be 34 or 35 when I have to retire from this career,” she says, noting that will come after this summer’s Pan Am Games and the 2016 Olympics.
“Rio is it,” she says. “Well, maybe one more year for worlds but that’s about it.”