Upcoming events –

Napa-Sonoma Half Marathon, July 20, 2014
Noble Canyon 50km Trail, September 20, 2014

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Chasing Glory '08

My friend Chris Rael has put together a great tribute website to the women who will be racing in the 20km racewalk Olympic Trials next week. He asked me to write up a little something about what it means to race at the Olympic Trials from the insider's perspective. I think I took the project a little too seriously. But here is what I wrote for him and his many readers:

We talk about the Olympic Games as though it were the greatest show on earth. The Olympics are referred to as the “Big Dance” and athletes who compete at the Games are considered the best in their field – the living, breathing gods of sport.

Don’t believe the hype. The drama, agony and ecstasy are all happening this weekend in Eugene at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials. On Sunday, the 16 fastest women walkers in America will toe the line knowing that no one gets to Beijing without passing through Eugene. As a coach of mine liked to say, “In order to get to heaven, you have to walk through hell.”

The U.S. Olympic Trials are more stressful than the Olympics themselves. Curt Clausen and I used to talk about it all the time. If you don’t do well at the Trials, the Olympics don’t matter at all; you stay home. Before the race, athletes often sound like cancer patients waiting for their latest biopsy results, “I just want to get it over with. I just want to know one way or the other. It’s the waiting I can’t deal with.” In the press tent afterward the winner gushes: “Man, I’m so relieved. Now I can just relax and have a good race at the Olympics. I don’t have to worry about making the Team anymore.”

The Olympic Games don’t mean anything if you don’t make the Team. That’s what the Olympic Trials are all about, right, making the Team? Right?

Well, yes and no. It depends on who you talk to, how honest they are with you, and what their expectations are going into the race.

Yes, in the U.S., the Olympic Trials decide everything. Either you finish in the top three with the ‘A’ standard or you don’t. There is no fuzzy gray area about making the U.S. Olympic Team, and that’s the drama of the Trials. (Years ago, they called them the “Olympic Trials and Tribulations” but it didn’t fit on the t-shirts.) Win it and you punch your ticket to Beijing but lose it, and there’s no second shot. There are no mulligans in the U.S. Trials. Already in Eugene two Olympic gold medalists from 2004 failed to qualify for the 2008 team. We’ve seen Christian Smith, ranked 29th out of 30 starters, have the race of his life and finish third in the men’s 800mt to make the team. And Katie McGregor finished fourth in the women’s 10,000mt after finishing fourth in April’s marathon Olympic Trials – heartbreaking.

Which brings us to this Sunday’s race, the women’s 20km racewalk. Two women, Teresa Vaill and Joanne Dow, have the Olympic ‘B’ time standard making them the pre-race favorites. Vaill won the 2004 Trials, the only woman in the field with Olympic experience, and got the better of Dow earlier in the year on this same course. Dow has been close twice, achingly close: in 2000 and 2004 she was the first alternate. Fast on Dow and Vaill’s heels will be Sam Cohen, Susan Armenta and Jolene Moore with recent bests within a minute and a half of the ‘B’ standard. If any of them has a breakout race, they will be right in the thick of things.

It is likely that only the winner will make the Olympic Team. In order for more than one woman to qualify for Beijing, two must walk the ‘A’ standard on Sunday and no U.S. woman has walked the ‘A’ standard since Vaill in 2005 and that was by a slim two seconds. Once that gun goes off, it’s just a footrace to the finishing line. Whoever crosses the line in front continues her journey to Beijing. If I were a betting man, I would keep my mouth shut and not make a fool of myself. This could be anyone’s race.

I’ve spent most of this article talking about making the Olympic Team. It’s a big deal, of course, but most of the competitors don’t make the Team and maybe never expect to. For them, the Olympic Trials is the “Big Dance.” The Trials truly is the greatest show on earth. It is huge. Everyone who is anyone in U.S. Track & Field is in Eugene this week: athletes, coaches, fans and officials are all there. It’s as close as you get to the mysticism of sport, the elevated state of being, nirvana. Forget about all the hype, the logos and the slick sponsored Lycra. Just soak up the raw power, the grace and the beauty of these athletes. It only happens every four years.

The media and so many professional athletes today talk about legacy and reputation and respect. Athletes race for records and for championships and for glory. And these things are important. They are used to determine who is the fastest athlete, who will be remembered years from now in the record books. But what so many athletes forget to do is be an athlete. They neglect to live in the moment and embrace this incredible talent they are given. They preen and strut and imagine that they are bigger than life. Olympic athletes are ordinary people that do extraordinary things, nothing more and nothing less. An athlete is only complete when she finds that quiet place of perfection, when years of practice and discipline manifest themselves in one shining moment of grace. If she wins that’s good. If she is her best, her most graceful and powerful in Eugene on July 6, 2008: even better.

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