2016 USA Track & Field Olympic Trials – It’s Gut Check Time!

The 2016 Olympic Trials for track & field was another successful event for USAT athletes. We qualified two current athletes, Donn Cabral in the steeplechase and Heather Miller-Koch in the heptathlon, and saw our former athlete Sean Furey qualify in the javelin for his 2nd Olympic Games in a row.

Donn, after qualifying for his 2nd Olympics in a row as well, was able to look back at the meet with satisfaction. “In my opinion the Olympic Trials is the best meet in the world because of the amount of drama and emotion that comes with it. This year didn’t disappoint! Now I’ve got a little over a month to settle down, put in some good last minute training, and give it all I’ve got in Rio!”

Heather, qualifying for her first Olympic team, showed great poise and focus during the grueling two day event.

Frank Harrison, one of USAT’s founding board members, was able to watch the entire process in person. Here’s his detailed and captivating account of the meet.

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“3 Perfect Days in Eugene”
by: Frank Harrison

“Fantastic!  Incredible! Spectacular! Fun! Exhilarating! Gut-Wrenching! Nerve-Wracking.”

All these words and emotions, and then some, describe what my wife Beth and I witnessed in seeing two of our USAT athletes qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics at the U.S. Olympic Trials Track & Field meet held at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon.

For us, it started on a Friday evening, July 8, 2016.  We watched events throughout the rainy afternoon that day with nervous anticipation waiting for the featured “final” in the Men’s Steeplechase set to go off at 5:23PM where we would see Donn Cabral attempt to make his second Olympic team.  By the time they introduced the finalists, the rain had stopped, but the air was heavy with humidity and the temperature was about 65 degrees or so.  Good conditions to race a 3000 meter steeplechase, but I must admit that I was not in good condition.  My heart was pounding and my leg tapping waiting for the starter’s gun to go off.  As the race began, I sprung to my feet and began screaming for Donn.  Beth, normally very reserved, also could not contain herself and stood up with me and began clapping and cheering as the runners came by.  There is something about knowing an athlete competing in a race of this magnitude that is simultaneously maddening, yet, makes life worth living!

The race is just short of 8 full laps and the first 3-4 were run at a very “pedestrian” pace.  Then things began to change.  Race leader and eventual winner Evan Jager, began to noticeably surge on the back straight on each lap.  Each time he surged, he seemed to break runners off the back.  Donn was forced to surge too to keep pace, and noticeable pain was clearly showing on his face.

With two laps to go, I was worried.  The surges had taken their toll on the field and appeared to be wearing down Donn too.  In fact, things would get worse before they would get better.  With 300 meters to go, another runner passed Donn dropping him into 5th place.  Donn looked spent.  I felt heavy and helpless.  For Donn, it was “gut-check” time.  He had reached his defining moment.

And like all the great ones, somehow he’d find a way.  He would have to bear down and somehow will himself onto the podium.  What happened next was epic in my view.  Donn grimaced in pain, but pushed hard to the final water jump.  There, and with about 150 meters to go, the magic happened.  A surprisingly talented runner named Stanley Kebenei, visibly exhausted from the torrid pace in the second half of the race, fell over the barrier into the water.  Donn, deftly and narrowly, avoided him as he went past the fallen runner.  Now, in 4th place, and with less than 150 meters remaining in race, Donn summoned extraordinary courage and what he did next is the stuff made of legends!  He accelerated mightily blowing past the 3rd place runner named Andy Bayer.  And when I say he accelerated, well, think of 100 meter dash kind of sprinting – that’s the kind of burst he summoned to will himself into 3rd.  Bayer is a training partner of the eventual winner Evan Jager.  Donn blew by him so quickly, in fact, you could see that he completely broke Bayer’s will.  Bayer was done.  The noise in the stadium was deafening and my voice was completely gone too!

Now, in the clear and in 3rd position with his Olympic team spot secure, Donn merely needed to hold his form on the final straightaway over the final 70 meters or so.  As he crossed the line safely in 3rd place having qualified for Rio, I could see both joy and relief on Donn’s face.  No more pain!  Personally, I thought I was within a moment or two away from having a heart attack, and I was the one completely exhausted!

Beth and I caught up with Donn later that night, along with his college coach, Steve Dolan, who now is head coach at Penn, – we partied hard!

After the race, Evan Jager, the Men’s Steeplechase winner, said in in an interview that he was more upset by his teammate, Bayer, failing to make the team than happy for himself that he (Jager) did.  He also said it was a deliberate strategy to put in those surges over the second half of race.  He said he wanted to “break” his competitors.  He broke many, including his training partner, Bayer, but he could not break Donn.  I guess Donn ruined Jager’s day after all!

1 cabral jager

2 cabral frank

Link to YouTube to watch end of Men’s Steeplechase

And that was Friday…..

On Saturday, July 9, 2016, slightly hungover but with our nerves steadied, Beth and I headed back to Hayward Field to see another USAT sponsored athlete, a Women’s Heptathlete named Heather Miller-Koch.

USAT issued a grant to Heather in 2016.  As our newest sponsored athlete, we have a limited history with her.  In fact, until the Trails, I had never met her (and I was careful to let her concentrate, so I would not meet her until her event was over).  What struck me, however, was seeing her in warmups before the 100M hurdles, which is the first event in the heptathlon.  She had the look of a champion, and the eye of the tiger.  Her presence and her powerful physique stood out to me.  Moreover, I watched how she warmed up, and, trust me on this, she does everything perfectly.  She’s well-coached and has obviously put in humongous amounts of training.

I told Beth prior to the competition that she has the look of an Olympian, and it would be easy to see a “USA” uniform on her.  I decided I was going to carefully watch Heather on every run, jump and throw of this 7 event competition.  While I had not yet officially met her, it wouldn’t take me long to start suffering from nervous anxiety again.  That familiar shortness of breath, dry mouth, heart pounding and leg tapping would start all over again.  This time, however, it would last over 7 events and two days of competition!

In virtually every championship competition, the winners must deal with, and ultimately overcome, some kind of adversity.  Just as Donn faced his with 300 meters to go in steeplechase, Heather too would soon face a serious test.  There was to come a key, critical moment in the competition: pass the test and you are an Olympian; fail and you go home.  Goodness, did she ever pass!!! (I’ll explain.)

The first day of competition was sunny, but very, very windy.  In fact, the women were forced to run the hurdles directly into a very stiff headwind.  Heather was rock solid in every event that day.  Roughly 20 women started the competition, and Heather finished no lower than 5th in any event.  After the 1st day, (100 meter hurdles, high jump, shot put and 200M) her point total put her in 3rd place overall.  All good!

Heather is an amazing athlete.  She’s pretty tall – about 5’10” I’d say.  She high jumped almost 6’ that day!  In other words, she actually jumped over her head!

On Sunday, July 10th, or Day 2 of the competition, the test would come.  The weather was cool and it was raining.  Yuck.  Heather is a natural jumper and she started the day by long jumping almost 21’, an outstanding mark.  The strong jump moved Heather into 2nd place in the overall competition with just two events to go.  All good!

Could it be happening?  Was she a lock for making the team?  Would she make this easy for me?  Well, not quite.  The weather deteriorated substantially for the Javelin (to get an idea, see picture of fellow competitor – Chari Hawkins).  Heather struggled on her 1st throw hitting only 117 feet; among the worst throws of any competitor.  Her cumulative point score after the 1st round of throws in the javelin dropped her to 5th place!  And, quite frankly, she didn’t look good.  And the rain kept coming!
3 jav

Prior to her second throw (each athlete gets 3 throws), I began to hyperventilate fearing Heather’s spot on the team was literally slipping away.  I told Beth the bottom line was that Heather needed to throw far enough to hit the first line to have a chance.  The line was set at 40.0 meters (about 131’) and her 1st throw was well short of that line!  And that bloody, annoying rain kept coming!  No doubt about it, this was her defining moment.  Like the champ she is, her second throw, a mighty heave, sailed right on past the 40 meter line.  Incredible.  She hit 41.02 meters (about 135’).  Back in the game!  Whew!  The additional 18 feet adds about 100 points to her score; a massive improvement in a tight competition.  With that effort, she moved back up to 3rd place with just one event to go: the 800M run.  First place was pretty much sewed up by then by a woman, and a tremendously gifted athlete named Barbara Nwaba.  While Heather entered the final event in 3rd, each woman from 2nd place through 5th place had a legitimate chance to finish in the top 3 depending on how well they would run in that 800M run.  Bottom line: with first place secure for Nwaba, there were 4 women competing for 2 spots, and it is going to be close – two will be happy and two will be devastated.  Welcome to the U.S. T&F Trials!

And so, just like it was for Donn’s final in the Steeplechase, here come my nerves for the women’s Heptathlon 800M right on cue.  And I mean bad nerves.  They held the girls at the starting line for an excruciatingly long time during what I gathered was a TV commercial break (forget Heather, the delay was killing me!).  The gun goes off and at the 200 meter mark, Heather surges to the lead!  Yes!  Several of the athletes make spirited attempts to pass her, but she would have none of it.  She fought off everyone, lead wire-to-wire, and held her form without tightening up, and she won the event!  That’s how you do it – just go out and win the event, and then let the other women battle for the final spot.  Beautiful!

Link to YouTube to watch Heptathlon 800M

Her points in the 800M moved her up in the standings to finish the competition in 2nd place overall.  In fact, her score of 6423 is a new lifetime best for her, despite the very difficult weather conditions.  Moreover, the world governing body for T&F, the IAAF, reported that the Trials Heptathlon was one of the closest and highest quality heptathlons ever held at the U.S. Olympic Trials.  Way to go Heather!  Way to stand tall!
4 koch frank

Donn faced his adversity with 300 meters to go; Heather did the same after her 1st throw in the javelin which is the 6th event in a 7 event competition.  This means that at almost the exact same point in their respective competitions (i.e., late in their event and with little time to recover), our athletes’ faced “gut-check” time – unbelievably, the two were in fact mirror images of one another.  Ironically, each had dropped to 5th place toward the end of their competition, and things were not looking particularly good for either at that point.  How much of this can I take?!!  But neither panicked – each had quite the opposite reaction.  They both dug down deep.  And they both came through like true champions, overcoming their adversity, and punching their tickets to Rio.  Olympians will do that!  Their ability to focus and to literally will themselves to achieving their goals when the chips are down, is what makes them Olympians while most of us are mere mortals.

I met Heather shortly after she secured her spot.  Her husband (and coach) and her whole team must share a strong sense of pride.  In a few brief minutes after finally meeting her, I felt like I have known her all my life.  She is a very matter of fact and a very down to earth person.

That night Beth and I celebrated and partied hard yet again!

Both Donn and Heather are on the rise.  They are healthy and are peaking at the right time for Rio.  These two athletes truly embody what we at USAT hope to achieve.  I lived vicariously through the achievements of these remarkable athletes and, personal anxiety attacks aside, the reality is I never felt better!

They make us proud to be Americans!

Frank & Beth Harrison

5 frank beth

P.S.    Another one of our star athletes, Men’s High Jumper Justin Frick, similarly showed great courage and athleticism by clearing the opening height (2.14 meters; 7’0.25”) in monsoon-like conditions to qualify for the final – see photo below.

In fact, 12 men could not clear this height that day, including Olympian Jesse Williams.

In the final, Justin, along with 4 others, failed to make the opening height of 7’1”.  While I know he is very disappointed, we were very proud of the way Justin competed, particularly when he cleared the bar in that driving rain and chilly conditions in order to make the final.

 

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