London Eye: Tia sets the bar high after pregnant pause


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The Independent Online

It could be the mother of all Olympic comebacks. When Tia Hellebaut announced she was pregnant in December 2008 – four months after her historic victory in the women's high jump final at the Beijing Olympics – she said she had fulfilled everything she had ever wanted to in track and field and would be hanging up her spikes to concentrate on motherhood.

After giving birth to a daughter, Lotte, in June 2009, the tall, bespectacled Belgian – the country's first female Olympic champion in the athletics arena and as popular a sporting figure in her homeland as the Grand Slam tennis champion Kim Clijsters – dusted down her jumping shoes, got back into training and competed at the European Championships in Barcelona in August 2010, finishing fifth with 1.97m. She then announced she was three months pregnant. And that, the athletics world presumed, was that for the thirtysomething in terms of competition. Not so. In March this year Hellebaut gave birth to a second daughter, Saartje, and in June she announced she was back in training again. This week she set a date for her second comeback: the Golden High Jump Gala in Antwerp on 28 January.

Now 33, Hellebaut is setting the bar high as she prepares for life in the international arena a third time round. Her aim in Antwerp is 1.95m, the Olympic A standard qualifying height. Her aim for 2012 is a place on the Olympic podium in London.

"I only want to go to London if I have a chance of a medal," she said. "I don't want to go to make up the numbers. I will not go unless I am jumping 2m. If I am struggling in June and July I will ask my coach what he thinks and I know he will be honest with me." Hellebaut's coach, Wim Vanderen, also happens to be her husband.

A Flemish and French speaker, Hellebaut enjoys a popularity in her homeland that crosses the Belgian language divide. She became a national heroine with her stunning success in Beijing, where she cleared 2.05m and ended Croat Blanka Vlasic's winning streak at 34 competitions.

In doing so, harnessing an ability to rise to the big occasion that won her European Championship gold in Gothenburg in 2006 and World Indoor Championship gold as a multi-event pentathlon competitor in Valencia in the spring of 2008, Hellebaut became only the third Belgian athlete of either sex to earn an Olympic track and field title.

Now the challenge is to become the first Belgian athlete to retain an Olympic crown. Hellebaut is something of a female Clark Kent figure, taking on the world and soaring to great heights wearing her spectacles. She added: "I started to jump in my glasses when I had an eye infection in 2005. I feel very good with them. I can see much better with glasses than with contact lenses."