They sat in the shade of the grandstand and watched the events of their past lives unfold like a familiar old play on a sunlit stage. They were following the decathlon competition at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials. They still had a fervor for the sport that they practiced assiduously in the 1970s and ’80s at UCSB under the guidance of coach Sam Adams. That shared passion brought more than a dozen of them together at Oregon’s Hayward Field last weekend.
“It was real,” Tony Allen-Cooksey said of the old days. After graduating from college in Indiana, he came to Santa Barbara and finished fifth in the 1980 U.S. decathlon championships. Allen-Cooksey, director of a youth sports center in San Diego, chartered a bus to take a contingent of his fellow athletes to Oregon. In Santa Barbara, the bus picked up decathletes Ron Wopat and Ed Brown, heptathlete Joan Russell Price, and Sarah Sweeney.
None of them ever competed in the Games. “In my mind, I thought I could make it to the Olympics,” said Tom Harris, who holds the UCSB decathlon record and placed sixth in the 1984 Olympic Trials. “I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think so. But now I look back, and the work ethic we had, being first on the track and last to leave — that applies to the rest of your life.”
They became professionals in different fields. Harris was a sound editor for such television shows as ER and The West Wing and collected five Emmys. But during their athletic careers, they had to scrape to support themselves. Multi-event athletes are consigned to labor in a wasteland as far as lucrative sponsorships go. Brown told the story of John Sayre, the 1985 U.S. decathlon champion: “He drove from Illinois to the nationals [in Indianapolis] and slept in his truck in the parking lot the night before the meet. That’s low-key.”
Brown asked his fellow decathletes the question, “If you had to do it all over again…?” Wopat said, “I would play baseball. A Santa Barbara High pitcher [Kevin Gowdy] just signed for three and a half million.” But then Wopat, a teacher, would not be enjoying an 18-hour bus ride to watch a track meet.
With the nationwide decline of interest in track-and-field — you wouldn’t know it in Eugene, which has assumed the name “Tracktown” — even Ashton Eaton, the defending Olympic champion and producer of the two highest decathlon scores in history, does not get the attention of forebears such as Bob Mathias and Rafer Johnson, much less the attention that the former Bruce Jenner is getting.
The decathlon made a rare appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated last week. The magazine featured Caitlyn Jenner, the transgendered person who as Bruce won the Olympic championship 40 years ago. Although she’s hailed by many as a spokesperson for her community, Jenner’s notoriety is not universally applauded.
“After he became famous [at the Montreal Olympics], he always went for the limelight,” Allen-Cooksey said. “It’s a little bit of a bummer because Jenner was my hero,” Harris said. “But he’s not an evil person. I’ve seen what happens in Hollywood. He was a good-looking guy, but for years he was changing his appearance. You realize something was going on in [his/her] life.”
Jenner never did another decathlon after Montreal. Meanwhile, Eaton will try to win his second gold medal at Rio de Janeiro after winning the Olympic Trials on Monday with a score of 8,750 points — impressive considering the 28-year-old proceeded cautiously after having incurred a quadriceps injury six weeks ago. Trey Hardee, a three-time national champion, vowed to be back next year after a dislocated foot and hamstring injury did him in. Hardee said, “The awesome part of the decathlon is that every single athlete who knew me or not patted me on the back.”
Jeremy Taiwo, boosted by a 7’3” clearance in the high jump, finished second to Eaton in the trials. Taiwo, 26, summed up his experience as a competitor in 10 events over two days: “This is the hardest journey of your life. You’re broke; you want to quit; you want to work at Whole Foods or something. It hurts to be a decathlete.”
Thomas FitzSimons Jr. of the ABEO Santa Barbara Track Club was the ultimate grinder. He finished 14th. “The score [7,392] was crap, but it was special to be out here,” the 27-year-old Connecticut native said. “I didn’t know there would be 22,000 in the stands, like a Cleveland basketball game.”
FitzSimons finished the last event, the 1,500-meter run, two seconds ahead of Eaton. He hugged the champion and said to him, “Congratulations. You had so much pressure on you, and you came through.” Eaton trained in Santa Barbara during the spring. FitzSimons is in awe of his ability but even more impressed with his humanity. “Before the hurdles [Sunday], I’m in second-to-last place, and Ashton comes up to me and says, ‘Let’s go wait in the shade where it’s cooler,’” FitzSimons said. “I’m just chilling with the world’s greatest athlete.”
TRIALS, TRIUMPHS, AND TRIBULATIONS: The S.B. Track Club’s (SBTC) Barbara Nwaba, the defending U.S. heptathlon champion, will try to secure her place in the Olympics when the women’s seven-eventer takes place Saturday and Sunday, July 9-10. SBTC teammates Lindsay Schwartz and Lindsay Lettow also will compete. … Randall Cunningham was a 6’8” high jumper at Santa Barbara High before becoming an NFL star. His 18-year-old daughter, Vashti Cunningham, who just graduated from high school in Las Vegas, will go to Rio as the second-place finisher in the women’s high jump (6’5½”) behind 32-year-old Chaunté Lowe (6’6¼”), a four-time Olympian. … Ryan Martin of UCSB finished fourth in the 800 at the 2012 trials, but beset by injuries this year, he went out in the first round. … Former Gaucho distance runner Stephanie Rothstein Bruce, 32, gave it a go in the women’s 10,000 meters after giving birth to two boys, 15 months apart. She finished 20th in 34:27.48. Taking ninth place was Jordan Hasay, who’s only 24 but has been around a long time. As a 9th grader out of Arroyo Grande, she was shattering junior records and beating grown men by two minutes in 5K road races. “I gave it my best effort,” Hasay said. “We’re sending our best team [led by Molly Huddle] to Rio.”