Wednesday, July 5
Track stars are people, too
 
By Jeff Hollobaugh
Special to ESPN.com

 I remember one of my high school coaches scowling at me when he saw a teammate and me look in awe as one of the state's top runners ran past us.

"Don't get into hero worship," he said. "Work on making yourself that fast."

Of course, I never got that fast. However, I have met many, many great athletes over the years. And I've encountered friends and fans who have said, "You've met so-and-so? What's he like?"

I'm often tempted to give them my coach's answer. After all, they're just people.

I remember my first big, in-person interview with a legend. I set up an appointment to meet with hurdler Roger Kingdom when he won Track and Field News Athlete of the Year honors in 1989. I went to his hotel room at the appointed hour, and knocked on his door repeatedly, feeling more foolish every moment. Finally, he answered, bleary-eyed, in his underwear.

The interview went great, but I still find it hard to think of someone in his underwear as a hero.

Perhaps in the sport world we are too quick to assign hero status to the fleet of feet. After all, in winning races and setting records, they are merely doing what they are paid to do. If a Wall Street trader scores big on the market, do we call him or her a hero, or simply a success?

I think we have to look at character, above and beyond the sport when we talk about heroes. Heroism, after all, involves doing the right thing at a significant risk to oneself.

Take Jesse Owens, for instance. He is often called a hero for turning his nose up at Nazism by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. A great athletic performance, surely, but was it heroism? He was just doing his job.

What Owens accomplished was by no means as risky as Poland's Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz winning the pole vault in the 1980 Moscow Olympics in front of jeering, obnoxious Soviet fans, and then giving them all an obscene gesture. That's risk.

A place in the world for minor heroes
One doesn't always have to risk life and limb to earn respect. Take Purdue high jumper Carri Long. Trying to make the NCAA qualifying height at a meet this spring, she noticed that an official had marked on his sheet that she had cleared the 5-foot, 10.75-inch height. Now, she could have just put on her sweats and gone home; on paper, she was in.

Long didn't, however. She told him it was a mistake. He told her it was not. She insisted. He relented. Then, on her next jump, she cleared 5-10.75.

"One thing you learn as a kid is to be truthful and honest," she told Jim Lefko, a sportswriter for the Lafayette Courier Journal.

Long is possibly the only rodeo star on the national class high-jump scene. Back in 1995, she qualified for her state track meet while wearing an arm cast, courtesy of a fall she had taken off a horse some four weeks earlier. She has continued to compete in the rodeo through her college career and plans to return to the rural life after graduation. It's not altogether surprising that Successful Farming Magazine named her to the All-Farm Team this spring.

Recent highlights
Allen Johnson is rounding into top form in the hurdles, cruising to a world-leading time of 13.10 at a GP II meet in Zagreb. Another hurdler who looks sharp is Eric Thomas (48.60, 400-meter hurdles). Other Zagreb winners included sprinter Obadele Thompson of Barbados (10.17/20.16), Jamaica's Gregory Haughton (44.99, 400), Kenyans Benson Koech (3:35.32, 1,500) and Julius Chelule (8:21.41, steeplechase), Canada's Kwaku Boateng (7-8, high jump), Onachie Achike of Britain (56-3.75, triple jump), and hammer thrower Vasiliy Sidorenko of Russia (262-2).

On the women's side, Gail Devers had a bad day, losing to Chandra Sturrup of the Bahamas in the dash as both clocked 11.38, then taking second behind Jamaica's Delloreen Ennis-London in the hurdles, 12.78 to 12.80. Alenka Bikar of Slovenia took the 200 in 22.94, and Svetlana Pospelova of Russia took the 400 in 50.66. Other winners included Letitia Vriesde of Surinam (2:00.02, 800), Daimi Pernia of Cuba (54.14, 400 hurdles), and Inga Babakova of the Ukraine (6-6.75, high jump).

The Maine Distance Festival produced an incredible 10,000-meter race. Ethiopia's Derartu Tulu, the 1992 Olympic champion, outfinished a tough field in producing her fastest time in five years, 31:08.27. That was just enough to beat Japan's Yuko Kawakami (31:09.46) and Mexico's Adriana Fernandez (31:10.12), both of whom scored national records. The top American, Melody Fairchild, finished two laps behind (33:34.22).

Other highlights from Maine: Michelle Ave (2:03.68, 800), Mary Jane Harrelson (4:15.00, 1,500), Molly Watke (9:06.08, 3,000), Breeda Dennehy Willis (15:36.96, 5,000). Male winners included Trinity Gray (1:46.53, 800), Alex Sharangabo (3:40.09, 1,500), Brian Baker (7:53.22, 3,000), Mark Croghan (8:22.09, steeplechase), and Toshihiro Iwasa (13:42.79, 5,000).

The GMC Envoy Open at Stanford produced a great batch of performances. Adam Nelson's shot put of 71-2.5 stands out as the best, but great action happened on the track as well. Notable were Pascal Dobert's 8:25.13 steeple and Yvonne Harrison's 55.30 in the 400 hurdles. Johnny Gray's quest to make the Olympic 800 team at age 40 is looking shakier than ever, with another last-place performance (1:53.27).

Coming up
In Wednesday's big Lausanne GP, Donovan Bailey is being hyped as the headliner, while pole vaulter Sergei Bubka and France's Marie-Jose Perec are making season debuts. Then, on Saturday, the greats descend on Nice for the Nikaia GP. Not many tune-ups are left on this side of the pond for U.S. Olympic hopefuls. On Friday is a Can-Am distance meet in Montreal, but other than that, the only action is local.

We're getting close to the U.S. Olympic Trials. In Sacramento on Friday, July 14, at approximately 9:13 p.m. PT, the men's 10,000-meter team will select itself, with many more to follow over the next week.

Passings
News comes from Texas that former Houston star Len Hilton, a two-time national champ in the 1,500 (1973 and 1975), passed away at age 52 after a long battle against pancreas and liver cancer. Hilton ran his mile PR of 3:55.9 in winning the 1973 AAU crown.

Track historian Ed Grant notes that actor Walter Matthau, who recently died, once was a thrower on his track team at Seward Park High in New Jersey. Writes Grant, "He told of feigning illness one day when his school had a meet with Dickinson HS of Jersey City. They had this guy who could throw the shot out of sight, he said, and I didn't want to be embarrassed. The 'guy', of course, was Matthau's contemporary, future world indoor record-holder Al Blozis."

Jeff Hollobaugh, former managing editor of Track and Field News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached by e-mail at michtrack@aol.com.

 


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