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Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Irish walker crashes out of Olympics

August 18--Irish walker crashes out of Olympics

I'm a bit glum today having heard the tragic news of Ireland's top 50km walker getting into a car wreck a couple days ago. My friend and one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, Jamie Costin, was returning from a workout with Poland's Robert Korzienowski outside Athens. He had just dropped Robert off and was driving along in his rental car when he was hit by a large petrol truck. The latest news is that he has suffered serious injuries to his back and legs but is alive and well otherwise. His Olympics are over and he is planning on heading back to Ireland in the next day or two.

It's really very sobering. It makes me realize how lucky I am to be here at all. Something outside my control, like a car accident or a freak injury, could suddenly and irreversibly change everything. I'm not a huge believer in destiny and all that, but it makes me stop and think. Why am I here in Greece? I had knee surgery last November only 12 weeks before the Olympic 50km racewalk Trials. I wasn't quite ready to walk the 'A' standard, but through a combination of factors, I was fortunate enough to finish in the top three. Five weeks later, despite laryngitis, a terribly sore throat, and plans to stop at 35km of the Tijuana 50km, I dipped under the four hour Olympic 'A' time standard and qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team. Even now I'm struggling to regain the fitness that I lost after the World Racewalk Cup 20km when my knee started giving me more troubles.

I feel so lucky to be back here at the Olympics and yet I know there are others who are just as deserving. My good friend Sean Albert walked thousands of kilometers with me over the past six years. He switched to the 50km a couple years ago and was beginning to make good progress. He finished fourth at the 50km Trials and put in two valiant efforts in search of the time standard, one in Germany at the World Cup and the other in Ireland at the Dublin Grand Prix. He didn't get it. And of course there is Al Heppner. He killed himself just three days after the 50km Olympic Trials. He was in such good shape and wanted to make the Olympic Team so badly. Who knows if it was just the disappointment of missing out on the time standard or something far more complex that none of us understands. It's just so sad, because Al would be having such a good time here. There isn't a day that goes by when one of us doesn't say, "If Al were here, he would be .... talking to the NBA basketball players at Opening Ceremonies; trying to meet all the single women on the Team; playing beach volleyball when he should probably be resting; walking up and down the beach looking at the topless sunbathers; hounding Maurice Greene for a photo or an autograph..."

Somehow Jamie's car accident really hit me and put things in perspective. I'm continually reminded of the Olympic creed that Pierre de Coubertin coined years ago. The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part With my less-than-perfect fitness and my recent knee troubles, it has been on my mind a lot. I don't expect to win. I would be fooling myself if I thought a miraculous race would somehow deliver a gold medal performance. If you have ever done a 50km, you know that it can't be faked. I'm not being pessimistic, just realistic. There are times when you prepare yourself for a struggle. You search your very core for that which is most vital and pure, and you tap into that energy, somehow. just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. I know that during the race I will be thinking about the people who helped get me here, the people who have helped sustain me along the way, the people who I wish were walking along side me. They are my family, my friends, my coaches, my fellow walkers from all over the world. They will keep me company in ways they cannot know. Sean and Al will be walking with me as they have for thousands of kilometers. The fellahs from my Carleton cross-country days will run along side. My twin brother will give me his strength if I falter, he will pick me up if I fall. My parents, my wife, my mother-in-law, thankfully, will be at the race in person cheering me every step of the way. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

Yes, I'm being overly sentimental. It's just how I feel today. I feel like crying. I feel like screaming. I feel like laughing. I feel happy and sad and all mixed up. But deep deep down, I know that I am in the right place. I belong here and I will race with the conviction that years of training have developed in me. I will race knowing that I will finish. I will race knowing that I will keep moving no matter what obstacles are placed in front of me. It is so satisfying to know that the only thing I fear is humiliation, and how could I possible be embarrassed by being an Olympian? I'm very excited to get back to Athens now, start this race, endure, and finish.

Then I can go relax on a sandy beach on a Greek island I've never heard of and not think about racewalking at all.

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