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HELENE ELLIOTT

Lashinda Demus clears obstacles on and off the track

World champion in the women's 400-meter hurdles has overcome an unexpected pregnancy that took her away from competition to rally back and become a favorite to make the U.S. team for the London Olympics.

March 19, 2012|Helene Elliott
  • Lashinda Demus flexes at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, where she works out.
Lashinda Demus flexes at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, where… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

Lashinda Demus had her life mapped out, and it included becoming a mom. That was natural. The Inglewood native and Long Beach Wilson High track standout, second of three sisters, grew up surrounded by cousins and foster children her parents took in. She would have a career as a world-class 400-meter hurdler, a husband and, later, her own family.

She married former runner Jamel Mayrant, whom she met through a mutual friend. She made the 2004 U.S. Olympic team but didn't reach the finals in Athens. She had won two U.S. titles, finished second at the 2005 world championships and was ranked No. 1 in the world in 2006 when she learned she was pregnant, dramatically altering her life.

Demus, then 23, fell into an emotional tailspin and isolated herself from friends and family. She was angry at this change in plans and on a deeper level angry at herself for being unable to accept it joyfully.

"It was like a brick wall stopped right in front of you. You know, you're going fast and just bam," she said, slamming her fist into the palm of her hand. "I thought my life was over. The only thing that I thought I had as a skill was track and field."

Her despondency lifted when she saw her twin sons on her first sonogram.

"They were dangling and legs were moving and all that stuff," she said, smiling at the memory. "A glimpse of happiness came out and I was happy and excited about being a mom. It was just at that time I thought my life was over."

The best parts of her life and career were still to come.

After a difficult pregnancy that required five months' bed rest before she gave birth to Dontay and Duaine in June 2007, Demus returned to the track and barely missed making the 2008 Olympic team. Determined to close that gap, she left South Carolina, where she had lived after winning an NCAA title for the Gamecocks, and returned home to be coached by her mother, Yolanda, a former college runner.

The move has been a success personally and professionally. After winning her third U.S. title last year, she won the 400 hurdles world title in Daegu, South Korea, in 52.47 seconds, the third-fastest time ever. In breaking a 16-year-old American record she also established herself as a favorite at this summer's London Olympics.

"I figured out that you can have it all together. It doesn't have to be either-or, and that's kind of what I thought that was, that you had to pick," said Demus, 29. "I think a lot of women do that. … I realized that I can do it all, that I'm kind of getting everything I asked for."

It comes at a price, and with assistance. Her parents help look after the twins and her husband manages her career. She gets the boys ready for preschool and drives them there every day, trains at College of the Canyons — where she also serves as a volunteer coach a few times a week — grabs lunch, and picks up the kids. She also maintains a Facebook page called Lashinda Demus' Road to Gold: London 2012, chats on Twitter (@LashindaDemus) and will speak to women's groups next month for National Women's Health Week.

"It's worth it," she said. "I like leaving a legacy for my kids, something they can look back at and not have an excuse to do whatever they want to do and take the easy way out. You can't beat hard work.

"At first I used to run for the cash, the money, and of course the accolades. But now it's more like a legacy. And the accolades too, but the priorities switch around."

She was a good all-around athlete as a child but became a runner almost by coincidence. As Yolanda remembers it, a neighbor suggested that Lashinda's older sister, Tania, try running and Lashinda eventually went along. She took to it and moved on to hurdles "because it brought some zestiness to running," Lashinda said. A third sister, Shanna, played basketball at San Diego State.

Lashinda intended to ask her mother to help her find a coach when she returned to California, but decided Yolanda would best fill that role.

"It works. I don't really have any problems," said Yolanda, who lives in Palmdale. "She does what I ask her to do. She doesn't talk back. She believes in what I tell her and knows that I'm not going to steer her wrong."

That trust is important.

"My mother knows what she's doing and I don't treat her like my mom on the track. I'm a straight-up athlete," Lashinda said. "And she hasn't lied to me yet. Everything she said I'm capable of doing, I've done."

Demus is scheduled to compete in a few outdoor meets before the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., where she must finish in the top three to earn a London berth. Standing atop the Olympic medal podium is the next part of a plan that includes competing through the 2016 Games before retiring to add to her family.

She constantly imagines her London race unfolding.

"I see myself winning. Every time I envision myself running I see myself winning," she said. "I always think about how nervous I'm going to be and I tell myself, 'Don't be nervous this time.' I see the flashes and the people, but I don't hear the noise, really."

That's one plan she hopes won't go astray.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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