Priscilla Lopes-Schliep marches methodically down the track, arms pumping, her legs straining against the resistance of bungee cords that are hooked around each ankle.
Her rock-hard physique looks virtually unchanged from the one that carried her to bronze at the 2008 Olympics. Look past the protruding belly, and Lopes-Schliep resembles any high-performance athlete with an eye on the podium.
Seven months pregnant with a baby girl, and a year out from the 2012 London Summer Games, the Olympic podium is exactly where the Canadian hurdling star plans to be at this time next year.
"And whoever doesn't believe in me, you can go take a hike because I believe in myself and that's all that matters," Lopes-Schliep says through a smile.
But she clearly means business.
"I'm a fighter, I don't back down, when people say negative things I take it and turn it into a positive, and make it work for me," she adds during a recent practice at York University in Toronto. "You can call me silly or not, but I'm here for the long run, I'm trying to come back, and I'm hoping for an Olympic podium. Whatever is meant to be is going to happen, but it would be amazing to have that kind of a story, to come back after having a baby, and do what I did before."
The former world No. 1-ranked hurdler and her husband Bronsen Schliep, whom she met while attending the University of Nebraska — she ran track for the Cornhuskers and he was on the basketball team — hadn't planned to become parents so soon.
Lopes-Schliep was coming off a season that saw her thoroughly dominate the women's 100-metre hurdles. She won the prestigious Diamond League title that rewards the most consistent athletes, and the 12.52 seconds she ran at the London Grand Prix was the world-leading time last year.
Once over the initial surprise, the 28-year-old from Whitby, Ont., says she and her husband, who's doing his residency in dentistry, were thrilled with the news.
"Nothing happens before or after its time, it happens when it's supposed to happen," she says. "It's just so exciting to know that I'm going to be a mom. It's like 'Oh my gosh.' The more I say it, the more it's real."
Lopes-Schliep, whose daughter is due Sept. 20, says she's had a relatively easy pregnancy. She experienced no morning sickness, and has added just 15 pounds — what looks to be almost all baby — on her powerful five-foot-four frame.
The mom-to-be does hurdle drills and weights — toned-down versions of both — with her training group at York three afternoons a week, and swims in her pool at her downtown Toronto condo on alternate days.
Her coach, Anthony McCleary, and doctor, Julia Alleyne, closely monitor her progress.
"I just have to stay as healthy as possible," Lopes-Schliep says. "[Training] has been modified a lot, and it's a really different ballpark for me because I'm just so used to go, go, go and train hard and attack the blocks and get out over the hurdles. But I have someone growing inside of me right now."
The fact Lopes-Schliep is considered a medal threat shows how much attitudes toward athletes and motherhood have changed over the past couple of decades. Pregnancy was once considered a career-ender, but in 1991 race walker Ann Peel fought for, and won, the right to retain her carding money — the monthly stipend the country's top athletes receive through Sport Canada's Athlete Assistance Program — through her pregnancy.
And as Lopes-Schliep points out, there have been plenty of world-class athletic moms whose footsteps she can follow, including Canadian heptathlete Jessica Zelinka, who won silver at the 2010 Commonwealth Games a year after becoming a mom.
Belgian tennis player Kim Clijsters took a two-year break to give birth to her daughter, and is No. 2-ranked in the world, while Scottish golfer Catriona Matthew won the women's British Open 10 weeks after giving birth.
Paula Radcliffe won the 2009 New York Marathon 10 months after giving birth, wrapping her daughter Isla in the British flag to carry along on her victory jog.
And of course, there was Fanny Blankers-Koen, the famous "Flying Housewife", a mother of two who captured four gold medals in track and field at the 1948 Olympics.
There have been some reports that motherhood can actually improve athletic performance — the so-called "baby boost" — because of increases in hormones and blood volume during pregnancy.
Athletics Canada team doctor Linda Thyer says Lopes-Schliep's biggest challenge will be regaining the strength in her abdominal muscles, but adds there's no reason why the hurdler can't resume training within weeks of giving birth.
"If an athlete is able to maintain a certain degree of fitness during pregnancy, that's definitely a big benefit," Thyer says.
"To get to the high level, the [Olympic] medallist level, for any athlete — baby or not — it's a challenge. But she's been there before, she's been at that level, that gives her a huge benefit obviously as well."
Lopes-Schliep says being a mom will definitely make her tougher mentally, if not physically.
"Because I'll have that little one looking up, like 'Hey mom, I'm looking up to you,"' she says.
Lopes-Schliep is half of Canada's one-two punch in women's hurdles. Former world champion Perdita Felicien of Pickering, Ont., will be gunning for the one major title that has eluded her after falling at the 2004 Athens Games and missing the 2008 Olympics with a foot injury.
The women's hurdles is easily one of Canada's strongest events, with promising youngsters Phylicia George of Markham, Ont., and Nikkita Holder of Pickering, Ont., pushing the veterans.
But Lopes-Schliep isn't ready to hand over the torch.
"As soon as the baby comes and I have the clearance, you'll see me on that track …,"she says. "And then it's just getting back physically and mentally focused for the big dance in London."