Five for 2000
Five Austin athletes set their sights on the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney
JULY 5, 1999: Warm climes, top-notch facilities, and the University of Texas' sports machine combine to make Austin a hotbed for talented athletes hoping for the chance to showcase their stuff on the world stage next summer. We talked to five local Olympic hopefuls about the journey to Sydney 2000.
Laura WilkinsonTheir spindly, midair arcs seem other-worldly. It seems impossible, but that's a body up there in the air, a real live human body contorted so elegantly into effortless twists and spirals that average bodies like yours and mine achieve only under the rare, extreme cases of sensual stimulation -- and even then for but indiscernible milliseconds. These spindly, midair arcing mortals seem alien, immortal, convincing their bodies to do things that should be reserved for the gods.
Few people, let alone professional athletes, achieve the cloud-kissing heights of boundary-breaking the way titled divers do. Their sport combines the grace of gymnastics with the fierce athleticism of track and field. On top of all that, a diver had better be a damn powerful swimmer.
"People say we [divers] are crazy," laughs U.S. National Diving Team member and Texas homegirl Laura Wilkinson. "They might be right," she adds with pride. Folks might have wondered about the 21-year-old University of Texas junior's sanity when she decided this spring to "go pro" and abdicate her eligibility to ever again compete at the college level. But few questioned her decision to take her senior year off to train full time for the Olympic trials in Seattle next June. After all, chances like this come once in a lifetime, even for mega-mortals. How sane does one need to be?
Even for superhumans like Wilkinson, there is a moment of truth, a turning point that sets lives on an Olympic-bound course. For the young UT champ, that moment came at the 1997 U.S. Summer National Championships at SMU in Dallas, where she became the first diver since two-time Olympian Mary Ellen Clark to win both the three-meter and platform events at the U.S. Nationals.
For Wilkinson, those very same Nationals would take on even greater significance. "It was right after freshman year; everyone was there." Wilkinson means her old club team from The Woodlands, where she practiced diving through high school. Sadly, their reunion was colored by the blue of losing a good friend. Hillary Grivich, a Texas gymnast and first alternate in the 1992 Olympic trials, had died in a car accident earlier that spring. The club team "stuck together," Wilkinson remembers. "We grew up idolizing her. Then she became our friend and teammate." You could say that the team dedicated the meet to the spirit of their lost friend, but a more accurate description would be that they dedicated it to themselves. "We got the whole team together and decided that good or bad, win or lose, that we were in this together. We dedicated that meet to our team, to our family."
Wilkinson's two major wins at the Nationals was certainly a worthy tribute. It also turned her toes toward the 2000 Summer games. That Sydney-ward gaze is what keeps her getting up every day at 6am to begin training through a day that doesn't end until about 8pm. Her coach, Ken Armstrong, keeps her going, and is, according to Wilkinson, her perfect match. "He's inspirational, motivating, a father figure, and friend," she waxes.
She's well aware of how fortunate she is both to work with Armstrong and to have the opportunity to exclusively train this year. "I've never had the chance to train without distractions like school and work. At times I want the [Olympic] trials to be over, so that I can know the outcome. Other times I just want this to last forever."
Thinking beyond Syndey ("If I even make it to Sydney!" Wilkinson is quick to add) makes her head swim. She's focused on the here and now. She's currently on her way to the 1999 World University Games in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. Next up are the Nationals in mid-August in The Woodlands. Talk about your home-court advantage. Then, it's all about Seattle and the Olympic trials.
It's easy to get caught up in the giddy enthusiasm of a young woman with so much ahead of her. It's easy to forget that what she does flies in the face of reason, physics, and plain ol' common sense.
"So, it's all about the dive?" I ask the young pro, trying to sound informed and philosophical. "Well, it's really about confidence," Wilkinson chirps. "When you see the water rushing up behind you and know just when to kick out so that you don't totally wipe out, and when you're standing 10 meters up, scared but excited ... Hah! The hardest part is getting off the tower!" she says.
"The dive? The dive is easy." --Kate X Messer
Jacob DavisUniversity of Texas junior Jacob Davis came very close to quitting pole vaulting. He was getting weary after a pressure-filled two years ... of high school.
Yes, coming to the high-profile world of college sports was actually a bit of a relief for Davis. The real stress was trying to live up to the pole vaulting traditions of Orangefield High School, a tiny class AAA school in Orange, Texas. Down on the bayous, Orangefield track coach Joe Hester has developed the premier high school program in the nation for vaulters, and Davis is just one of a series of greats that Hester has produced (Davis' former teammate Eric Eshbach broke the national high school record last May).
"I was getting burned out," Davis says of his high school years. After state championships his freshman and sophomore years at Orangefield, "I had some outside interests I was pursuing. Pole vaulting was all I ever did, and then I started getting into academics and a social life."
Nonetheless, he regained his enthusiasm for the event and won another championship his junior year, and likely would have gone four for four if not for an injury sustained while warming up at the state meet as a senior.
Having jumped 17'6", he entered college with high expectations placed upon him. But college actually allowed him to unwind a little.
"I came to Texas and it was a totally different environment," the 6'4", 220-pounder says. "I got some balance in my life, in my academics, my social life, and my religion. It's not as emotionally draining."
One can't imagine why, since he has been in a bigger spotlight and in higher-stakes circumstances than ever since he got here. His sophomore year, he cleared the second-best height in NCAA history, a colossal 19' 41*4" at the Texas Relays. That jump earned him cover-boy status in Track & Field News magazine, "the bible of the sport," and thrust him into "world-class" status.
This year, he won both the indoor and outdoor NCAA championships, and the latter was certainly a pressure-cooker. He didn't enter the competition until the other competitors were out. All he had to do was clear the bar once, and he had three tries to do it. But he missed on his first two. Facing a bar set at 18' 23*4", he was faced with rags or riches: Clear it, and he would be the national champion. Miss, and he would finish in last place with no height. He got the riches.
"It was nerve-wracking," Davis said. "Not just because it was my last try, but also because of the weather. It was windy and cold. The wind is bad when you're jumping, and I kept waiting for breaks in the wind. The wind would die down for only about 30 seconds every two minutes."
Davis' continued improvement in the event is due to passing from the hands of one great coach to another. UT assistant coach Dan Pfaff is internationally recognized as a master of the science of biomechanics and coached Canada's Donovan Bailey to a gold medal in 100 meters at the 1996 Olympics.
"He's really worked on my run-up," Davis says. "Hester really worked on my upside-down technique after I leave the ground, but to use that ability, you have to be set up when you come off the ground. Coach Pfaff changed my running style completely."
Of course, there is a much simpler reason why Davis came to UT : "I'm from Texas," Davis says. "If I did anything big, I wouldn't want anything but 'Texas' across my chest." --Lee Nichols
Christa WilliamsIn the summer of 1996, Christa Williams was a hungry 18-year-old with a wicked change-up, ready to take on the world. She was fresh out of high school and full of big plans: Win a gold medal. Attend UCLA. Win three or four national titles with the legendary Bruins. In that order.
At first, things went according to schedule. The Houston native was the youngest member of the world champion U.S. National softball team -- part of the finest five-woman pitching rotation ever assembled. But in the three years since Williams left Atlanta with a gold medal around her neck, she's learned a funny thing about life -- one of those facts you hardly ever realize when you're still a fresh-faced kid.
Christa Williams is no longer the rookie -- though at age 21, she's hardly a grizzled veteran, either. Still a steely-eyed competitor with a change-up that leaves you breathless, Williams has had to face several disappointments since the summer of '96. Unhappy with UCLA, Williams came home to the University of Texas after her freshman year. Her transfer immediately helped catapult the Longhorns program from relative anonymity to the national spotlight. She's made three trips to the College World Series in the past three years, but her team has yet to win it all. This year she earned Second Team All-America honors from the National Fastpitch Coaches Association, to go with her First Team honors in 1998 and her Third Team laurels as a freshman at UCLA in 1997. She finished fourth in the NCAA in strikeouts per seven innings (314 K's over 223 1/3 innings) this season, and her 0.97 ERA led the Big 12.
An outstanding career? Of course. The pre-teens who pack the stands at UT's Red & Charline McCombs' Field hope to achieve half as much. But Williams wants more.
Win another gold medal. Finish up at Texas. Win a national title with the scrappy Longhorns. Not necessarily in that order.
Atlanta 1996 was a heady time for young Williams, the USA softball team, and women's sports. The Atlanta games will be remembered as a showcase for women's team sports -- basketball, soccer, and softball. Williams' Olympic team is considered a chief reason softball is one of the NCAA's fastest-growing sports. But there has yet to be a fastpitch equivalent of Mia Hamm or Sheryl Swoops. No big-time Nike contracts for Lisa Fernandez or endlessly aired Gatorade commercials for Dot Richardson. Who knows? Maybe a second gold in Sydney 2000 will change that.
But before Williams can capture that golden souvenir, she has to make the Olympic team -- something that's not quite the lock she'd like it to be. Her chances are good, but no sure thing. She was among the 30 players -- two teams of 15 -- invited to the 1999 USA Softball Olympic Trials in Midland, Michigan, in September. But Williams was selected to USA Blue instead of the squad that will defend Team USA's gold medal in the Pan Am Games in September. Blue is considered to be the "more developmental" of the two teams, says USA Softball's Bruce McCall. Williams is one of three former Olympians on the roster, though. "The committee went with four pitchers instead of five this year (for the Pan Am team)," says McCall. "But that doesn't mean she's out of the process."
Williams has a busy few months ahead. She's currently on her way to Surrey, British Columbia, to compete in the Canada Cup from July 3 to 11. After that she will travel to Garland, Texas, and Oklahoma City as part of USA Softball's American Challenge series.
Williams says the lesson she learned from her 1996 Olympic teammates was to see every accomplishment as a challenge to achieve even more. The next few months will gauge whether she's learned to see disappointments that way too. --Lisa Tozzi
Suziann ReidWhen Suziann Reid steps onto the track for the World Track & Field Championships in August, she may finally get something that has been rare during her career: competition.
Through both high school and college, Reid has been thoroughly dominant at the distance of 400 meters (the metric equivalent of a quarter-mile). A native of Jamaica who grew up in Maryland, Reid won her high school state championships in the event four years in a row, and even added championship in the 100- and 200-meter events as well during her senior year.
At the University of Texas, Reid has been a central figure in the powerhouse squad that women's head coach Beverly Kearney has built -- a team which has won both the indoor and outdoor NCAA championships for the last two seasons. Reid's contribution to those efforts over the past four years have included five out of a possible eight national championships in the 400, and legs on a Lady Longhorns' 4x400 relay squad that has won the last four NCAA titles outdoors and two of the last three indoors. She capped her UT career this season with a school record of 50.76 seconds and helped the relay to a national collegiate record of three minutes, 27.08 seconds. Rarely has anyone come within 10 meters of beating her.
So she isn't bragging when she says, "My toughest competition is myself, basically. Right now, I'm in the best shape of my life. I'm just trying to stay focused, stay healthy, and listen to my coach."
That coach will continue to be Kearney. Although Reid is preparing to go from the college to professional track ranks (contrary to popular misconception, the Olympics officially stopped being "amateur" several years ago), she says she plans to dance with who brung her. "[Kearney] brought me from being a baby in this sport to someone capable of medaling at the Worlds," says Reid. "I didn't even second-guess about her; she's my coach."
Medaling at the Worlds (and next year, the Olympics) will require Reid to reach a higher level than ever before, and she knows what it will take: "One of my goals for 1999 is to break 50 seconds," a time barrier that separates the women from the girls in the 400 -- in fact, only eight American women have ever done it. "For me to do that, I have to get into the right mindset and compete well against the pros. I hope I learn from them and get used to running professionally." Track & field's pro circuit is mostly based in Europe during the summer, but continuing to train with Kearney means keeping her home base here. That's just fine with Reid -- Austin is gradually becoming a hotbed for world-class sprinters, including 1996 Olympic 100 meters champion Donovan Bailey of Canada and several elite Americans runners. Of course, UT is the focal point.
"I liked the program," the sports management major says of her reasons for originally coming here. "I also liked the campus, and I liked the way UT takes care of women athletes and I liked the academic programs. ... We have a special facility where athletes get tutors and mentors. It's very family-oriented."
The combination of that environment and Austin itself will be enough to keep her here, Reid says. "What makes Austin special is the track facilities and the weather. It's hot, but trainable. Most of the time it's warm, and it's better to train where it's not always cold, like the East Coast. But what really sparks [Austin's track scene] is that you have a great coaching staff here, and people see that." --Lee Nichols
There's a man standing at the edge of the pool, and he's doing strange things. He squats down, and says something to the people in the water, then stands up and in a neat formation aligns his arms in front of him in an apparent attempt to resemble a long-beaked bird. Occasionally, he tucks his head down and places his arms behind him and just stands there, but he makes certain that the people who need to are watching him. The man is generally prone to make movements that most of us consider difficult, if not unnatural. Oddly enough, the movements trigger active responses in the people watching him. Some of them exit the pool and climb back up the lofty platforms and springboards they recently leapt from and, each in their turn, mimic his technique. They do this again and again and again until their airborne somersaults, back flips, and an entire host of other feats most of us would not even attempt on land are perfected. Perfected for today, at least, because this set of actions -- otherwise known as practice -- occurs just about daily for the diving team at the University of Texas and their coach Matt Scoggin.
In this environment, Troy Dumais has stood out. One senses from him and his record that he is accustomed to standing out. At the age of 19, having completed his freshman year at UT and after at least 14 years of diving, Dumais has already racked up 19 national titles (he won his first one when he was 11) and four world titles.
"Somebody could talk about 19 national titles -- I mean, whoopty doo," says Dumais. "After I got the 19th one did it make me feel better? No, because the first one was the best; who cares about the 19th?" If that comment seems a mite brazen, there are plenty more where that came from. In fact, most of the statements Dumais makes about himself and diving are clear manifestations of the self-motivation he says is so necessary in what is essentially an individualistic sport.
Dumais possesses several qualities that set him apart, according to Scoggin. They include his strength, the fact that he has been very well-trained from a young age with "mechanics and sequences of come-outs and starts" and a sense of timing that is the very definition of "pure." "And then one other definite quality that separates him considerably, and it could be the greatest quality," Scoggin says, "is he is competitive. ... He wants to do very well, and he gets done what is necessary to get that result."
"Troy is the most amazing example of a competitor that I have ever seen," his older brother Justin says. He should know. Justin began diving when he was about eight years old because he got tired of sitting around watching Troy practice and decided to join in. Just this past week, in fact, Justin moved to Austin after two years at the University of Southern California because of the way the two of them -- back home in Ventura, California, there are three more, younger Dumais siblings who also dive -- can spur one another on in competition. "That was the primary reason I'm out here right now," Justin says. "It worked for 18 years, us diving together so, I mean, I figure now is the key year for everybody. The Olympic trials [in June 2000 in Seattle] is just one meet."
Scoggin says that "if everything falls into place, if he's healthy, and he continues to train hard and continues to be very dedicated, and he's fortunate to not have any injuries between now and the Olympics, there's potentially no end" to Troy's -- and for that matter, Justin's -- potential.
"But you know what?" Troy asks. "It doesn't matter until you get to the Olympics." --Clay Smith
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