Sunday, June 12, 2011

Our sporty summer

"I never believe I can't go any further. There is always a way and always an opportunity to get better." — Walter Dix, American sprinter

THIS PAST WEEK Paul and I attended the 2011 NCAA Track and Field Championships held at Drake University. I'd never been to a college track meet until the 2008 Drake Relays, and then I only went because I volunteered with other Rotarians to help in one of the hospitality tents. 

The few races we could see while working were so thrilling that Paul and I got tickets to the NCAA Championships two months later, also held at Drake. It was an Olympic year, so we knew we would be watching potential Olympic champions. I picked out Walter Dix in the early heats; he just seemed like he had the goods. Walter went on to qualify for the 2008 Olympics where he took bronze in the 100 and 200 meter races.

Walter Dix

That NCAA track and field championship meet in 2008 was the beginning of what we called our sporty summer. Later that same month, we flew to Philadelphia to attend the United States Olympic trials for gymnastics where we cheered on home-town girl, Shawn Johnson. By accident we were seated next to Jonathan Horton's parents and agonized and cheered along with them. He went on to help the American men take the Olympic all-around team bronze medal, and he won silver on high bar, our only men's individual medalist, and he was the 2009 and 2010 all-around national champion.

I picked Jonathan in the early rounds of the Olympic trials before he became such a star.

The women were awesome at the '08 Olympics. The team took the all-around silver medal, Nastia Liukin won gold and Shawn got silver in the individual all-around; Shawn earned silver on floor and Nastia took the bronze; Nastia won silver on the uneven bars; Shawn walked away with gold on balance beam and Nastia won the silver. We absolutely loved seeing all these incredible athletes and their coaches up close and personal and having the opportunity to talk with parents and even some of the team members.

We got to see all these young women compete! Shawn JohnsonNastia Liukin
Chellsie MemmelSamantha PeszekAlicia Sacramone and Bridget Sloan.

That same summer, the USA Olympic swimming trials were in Omaha. How could we not go when they were so close?! Neither one of us had ever been to a swim meet, so we weren't sure how we'd like it. We loved it! 

The Olympic pool and arena in Omaha are built perfectly enough that it's impossible to have a bad seat. We saw so many Olympic stars compete, not the least of whom was Michael Phelps, winner of eight Olympic gold medals that year. We also saw Jason Lezak, Peter Vanderkaay, Larsen Jensen, Aaron Peirsol, Ryan Lochte, and Matt Grevers to name some of the stars. The men went on to take gold at the 2008 Olympics in:

  • 200 meter freestyle
  • 100 meter backstroke
  • 200 meter backstroke
  • 100 meter butterfly
  • 200 meter butterfly
  • 200 meter individual medley
  • 400 meter individual medley
  • 4x100 meter freestyle relay
  • 4x200 meter freestyle relay
  • 4x100 meter medley relay
It was a great year! We also got to see the incomparable Dara Torres who competed in the 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2008 Summer Olympics and has  a total of twelve Olympic swimming medals to her credit — four gold, four silver and four bronze.

In 2007 at 40 years of age, just 15 months after giving birth to her first child, Dara won the gold medal in the 100 meter freestyle at the USA Nationals. A year later we were yelling for her at the Olympic trials, where at age 41 she became the oldest swimmer ever to earn a place on an Olympic swimming team. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics she won a silver medal in the 50 meter freestyle, and 35 minutes later she was the anchor swimmer on the 4x100 meter freestyle relay where she helped the team get silver. Her split time in that race was the fastest freestyle split in relay history. 

Dara Torres and her daughter

Our last venue that summer was the national championships for acrobatic gymnastics — a different category from artistic gymnastics and rhythmic that you see at the Olympics. They were held in Des Moines, so it was easy to add it to the list.

Since our sporty summer, we've attended the Outdoor National Championships for track and field held last year at Drake, and of course the NCAA Outdoor Championships this past week. We thought we'd get bad seats because we were only able to take time to buy them the first day of the meet, but we ended up with seats at the finish line. Behind us there was an extra-nice bunch of retired guys from Oregon who follow their track and field Ducks all over the country. Track is almost a religion at the University of Oregon, and boy-howdy, do these guys know all the teams, times and rivalries. 

The championship ran Wednesday night through Saturday, but Paul got stuck at the office with the phone system installation guy for much of the evening Thursday, so I was there by myself. I happened to sit next to Lamont Johnson, a sprinter coach at the University of Alabama. Having him fill me in on which teams, coaches and individual athletes to watch in which events made the meet extra interesting.

We got rained on a lot Thursday and Friday and had to evacuate a couple of times for lightning, but we had so, so much fun. Saturday, we did what we did last year for nationals; we watched the last day of finals on TV at home in bed. We were worn out! But we discovered that it's actually a great system: watch all the preliminary heats, semi-finals and many of the finals in person at the stadium, then watch the last day of finals on TV. By that time you've gotten to know which teams and individuals you're most interested in, and you can watch them with the clarity and unblinking focus of a TV camera zoom lens that follows them the whole way round the track.

Over the course of four days, there were triumphs and disasters — favorites who pulled up lame, split-second finishes, batons dropped, hurdles missed and gutsy comebacks, but the most dramatic and scary moment was Wednesday night during the women's 10,000 meter final. It had been really hot and humid all day, and two runners collapsed during the race. Betsy Saina from Iowa State, who had led much of  the race, collapsed at 8,750 meters, and Morgan Haws from BYU collapsed about two body-lengths from the finish line. She crawled on her hands and knees to put one arm over the line to finish 12th. She would otherwise have placed around 6th or 8th, but I'm pretty sure she finished first in the esteem of everyone in the stadium for literally laying it all on the line for her team.  

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