Two months after winning Olympic bronze in Beijing, hurdler Priscilla Lopes-Schliep is opening up about just how hard it was to get there.
Enjoying the limelight while keeping up a steady pace of appearances, events, and school visits - about 30 so far - the Whitby athlete has been candid in describing being broke, bullied as a kid, and wanting to quit after falling at the indoor worlds in Spain just five months before Beijing.
"It was a really hard journey," said Lopes-Schliep, 26. "People need to know it was hard. Everybody thinks, 'Oh, she's got it so easy now.' No."
THERE WAS A TIME
There was the time her coach asked her which vitamins she was taking, and was shocked when she answered, "None." He took her out to buy her some because she couldn't afford any. That coach was Anthony McCleary of Pickering, who in 10 years never has charged her. She started training with him at age 16.
"I've seen his kids grow up," Lopes-Schliep laughed. "Now it's like I'm one of his kids too."
Equal parts glamorous and down-to-earth, Lopes-Schliep is most compelling as a speaker when she declares that yes, she went to Beijing to win gold, though not everyone considered her a contender. She's thrilled with her bronze from a photo finish involving five athletes.
"Two weeks before, I had a dream of running around the stadium with a flag behind me," Lopes-Schliep said. "I'm tired of hearing, 'Oh, you're from Canada.' Why should I go there and settle for fifth? I believed. Once you believe in yourself, that's a powerful thing."
Hers was a journey filled with hard work, drama and doubt. At the indoor worlds in Valencia, Spain, in March, Lopes-Schliep fell near the end of the race and burst the fat pad in her heel. She also scraped her chest and face on the track, leaving scars. She still placed sixth, but agonized about healing in time for Beijing.
"I cried every night for two weeks to my husband," Lopes-Schliep admitted. "It was so hard. He told me I'm not the kind of person who quits."
Last year, she had surgery to remove an ovarian cyst after doctors initially told her the stabbing pain in her abdomen was just gas.
These days, Lopes-Schliep chuckles about the kids who made fun of her veiny, muscular legs. Legs that ended up serving her very well. She still remembers who it was, though.
"The things kids say, it's hurtful," Lopes-Schliep said. "I just let it go."
Now guys ask her in admiration, "How do you get your calves to look like that?"
During a visit to Ottawa this week, Lopes-Schlep met the woman who has been her only sponsor to date. Author Linda Rainville Wagar donated $3,000 from the sale of her book, Canadian Marathon Stories, to the Canadian Athletes Now Fund. The fund notified Wagar that her donation was supporting the hurdler. In all, Lopes-Schliep received $12,000 from the fund this year.
"I had no idea who Priscilla was," Wagar said. "It was only after she won the bronze that I connected. I thought, 'Oh my God, she won the bronze and I gave her money.' "
Lopes-Schliep is the first Canadian woman to medal in athletics at an Olympics since Angela Chalmers won bronze in Barcelona in 1992 in the 3,000 metres. She's the first Canadian woman in history to win an Olympic medal in hurdling.
So it's puzzling to her agent, Kris Mychasiw of the Surin Group in Montreal, as to why she hasn't yet scored a shoe contract to support her through to 2012. It's starting to wear on them, Mychasiw said, noting that lesser athletes are doing better financially than his client.
"Sometimes you do play a waiting game," Mychasiw said. "She's competing against the world's top athletes. I think people are so scared with the economy that people are stepping back."
Meanwhile, Nov. 1 is looming. That's when Lopes-Schliep will start training full time again, heading overseas to race next January.
By telling her story of perseverance, Lopes-Schliep wants young athletes to stay in sport.
"I've seen tons of athletes running amazing times in high school," she said. "It's so sad how many athletes just fade away. Don't ever sell yourself short."
Visit Lopes-Schliep's website at www.gopriscilla.com.