Barbara Nwaba Runs for Rio

Agony and Ecstasy During Last Weekend’s U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in Oregon

BARBARA GOES BIG: Barbara Nwaba (left, training at Westmont in April) will be the top American woman in the heptathlon at the Rio Olympics this summer thanks to a first-place finish in Oregon last weekend.
Paul Wellman (file)

Come hell or polluted water, the urgency to compete in the 2016 Olympic Games drove some athletes to extreme measures. At the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials last weekend, runners were throwing themselves across the finish line to finish in the top three and win a ticket to Rio de Janeiro. Many who missed out collapsed in tears. The 10-day trials at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, were the best show the sport has to offer.

It comes along only once every four years, the opportunity to perform on the Olympic stage. For athletes in track and field, it is a quest fraught with uncertainty. An injury or sickness at the wrong time, or a mishap in the competition, can shatter one’s dreams. By contrast, the U.S. team trials in swimming are predictable. Katie Ledecky is not going to hit a hurdle, or be boxed in, or bumped around during her races in the pool.

Some of the strongest favorites in the track trials were bounced out by misfortune. The most heartbreaking exit was by Alysia Montaño in the women’s 800 meters. She tumbled to the track during a collision on the final turn. Brenda Martinez, also knocked out of contention by the incident, came back Sunday and dove headlong at the finish of the 1,500 final to place third by three-hundredths of a second.

It was only slightly comforting to Barbara Nwaba, the defending U.S. champion in the heptathlon, that her score of 6,500 points was the best U.S. performance in the past three years. She had to achieve that level again, with no second chances, to make her first Olympic team. It was something she had been pointing for since 2012, when she finished fifth in the trials for the London Games a month after graduating from UCSB.

Gaucho assistant coach Josh Priester groomed Nwaba, out of University High in Los Angeles, for the heptathlon. He gave her and other heptathletes the opportunity to continue training by starting the nonprofit Women’s Athletic Performance Foundation. It later became the Santa Barbara Track Club (SBTC), embracing the men’s decathlon, as well, and secured the sponsorship of Abeo footwear. Workouts take place at Westmont College, where Priester is now coaching.

“I was freaking out where I was going to go [after college],” Nwaba said. “Josh Priester made this whole thing happen.”

Nwaba proved she was up to the challenge last weekend at Hayward Field. She started out by recording the 10th fastest time in the 100-meter hurdles, but that was a race she just wanted to complete safely and smoothly. A shining moment occurred in the second event, the high jump. Nwaba was one of three competitors to clear 1.84 meters (6′½″), but she was the only one to make the next height and then face the bar at 1.90 (6′2¾″), higher than she had ever gone before. Priester told her to visualize: “See it and do it.” She flew over on her final attempt. After the shot put and 200-meter dash, Nwaba finished the first day on top of the scoring table, but five other women were close on her heels.

On Sunday, a 14th place in the long jump dropped Nwaba to fifth place in the overall standings. She rebounded with a huge toss of the javelin (161′4″) to seize the lead for good. A solid finish in the 800 meters (2:11.71) gave the 27-year-old a victorious score of 6,494 points, just six off her best. Runners-up Heather Miller-Koch (6,423) and Kendell Williams (6,402) both scored big personal records. Williams, a 21-year-old Georgia athlete, was totally exhausted after running her fastest 800 to make the U.S. team. “My brother told me the pain would go away, but being in the Olympics will last forever,” she said.

(l to r) Barbara Nwaba, Heather Miller-Koch and Kendell Williams.

Nwaba’s emotions poured out when she saw her mother, Blessing Nwaba, in the stands during her victory lap. “That’s when the waterworks came down,” said Barbara, who did not anticipate her mother’s presence. “She didn’t want to distract me. She wanted me to be focused and not worry about where she was. When I saw her, I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’”

Lindsay Schwartz, a SBTC member from Wisconsin, had a fan club including both her parents, sister, brother, and 20 others wearing pink “Team Schwartz” shirts. “It was awesome,” said Schwartz, who set a PR of 6,036 points while finishing ninth in the heptathlon. Also representing the Santa Barbara club were Lindsay Lettow (10th, 5,960 points) and Chari Hawkins (15th, 5,720).

One competitor who made the finals and was not at all disappointed to fall short of making the U.S. team was 18-year-old Michael Norman. “It was a good experience for me. Honestly, my body’s been telling me I’m getting tired,” said Norman, the California high school champion in the 200 and 400 meters. The USC-bound sprinter placed fifth in the 200 at the Olympic trials in a time of 20.14 seconds, just behind another prep phenom, Florida-bound Noah Lyles of Virginia, who set a national record of 20.09.

Coley Candaele coached Norman at Vista Murrieta High with an eye toward assuring his success over the long term. “We didn’t come with the intention of making the [U.S.] team,” said Candaele, who was the state champion in the mile at Carpinteria High in 1990. “We didn’t train Michael like he’s a professional athlete. My job is to develop him as a high school athlete. … Going from a young man to a man, he’ll be able to handle more. There’s plenty more to work on. I’m not going to jeopardize what’s possible later in his life.”

The honors in the 200 went to two gold-medal-winning sprinters who passed their 30th birthdays, Justin Gatlin (a blazing time of 19.75) and LaShawn Merritt, and Ameer Webb, 26, who persevered through ups and downs after winning the NCAA championship in 2013. Webb’s advice to the high schoolers: “Stay humble, and your time will come.”

Gatlin said some profound words in the spirit of the Olympic trials: “There’s been a lot going on in America the last couple days, and it’s sad that it happens around the Fourth of July when we should all be proud to be Americans. … [T]here has been so much love in the stadium the last couple days. Take that love with you, and just give it to somebody you never loved before, and just go up to them and say, ‘I love you for being an American.’”


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