Monday, July 18, 2011

Summer Gold in Davis

And Thomas Phillips thought winning All-America honors last month was cool. I wonder what he's thinking now after capturing a gold medal with Great Britain on Sunday at the European Under-23 Championships held in the Czech Republic? Dual citizenship has its perks and Phillips earned a big one with his fellow countrymen in the 4x400 relay.

I've always been fascinated at the term "gold medal." I mean, I don't care if someone gives you a gold medal for pulling weeds - and I wish they would try - you'd feel pretty special about clearing your garden. Take it up a notch and mention "Olympic gold medal" and, well, you're in a different stratosphere of thinking. 

I remember very clearly the feeling I got when Olympic fever came to UC Davis back in 2000 when, as Billy Joel said, "I wore a younger man's clothes." It came in the form of two remarkable athletes in sprinters Michael Johnson and Marion Jones. Johnson was one of the greatest sprinters of our generation as was the multi-talented Jones until scandal disgraced her and eventually sent her to prison.

But in 2000, they were "it." Johnson already had three gold medals under his belt from Atlanta in 1996 in the 200, 400 and 4x400, and Jones was promising to win five that summer in Sydney, Australia. They were America's brightest track and field hopes for "down under" and they were in our own backyard competing at the U.S. Trials at Sacramento State.

I was working in media relations at the trials, primarily handing out results and other information to the hundreds of journalists from across the world who descended upon Sacramento to cover an event that arguably had more firepower than the Olympics itself.

UC Davis also had a pretty good presence at the meet. Besides countless Aggie volunteers in media relations, sports medicine, drug testing and meet organization, we were also represented by former track coaches Jon and Dee Vochatzer who were not only instrumental in bringing the trials to the region but also in staging them. Dee, in fact, was the head coach for the U.S. women's team in 1996 which is noteworthy by itself.

Heck, I can still recall my former boss, Doug Dull, researching average July temperatures for Jon and Dee to help with the bid process. Let's just say it promised to be warm and Sacramento delivered that blistering summer, and then some. 

Jon and Dee are also very well plugged into everything and everyone involved in track and field in the United States which is no small reason I got a request to sneak away from my work at the event in order to meet up with a Nike representative. I don't recall the rep's name but I do remember him saying Dee referred him to me to help quietly make arrangements so one of his athletes - turns out it was Johnson - could do some training at Woody Wilson Track on campus.

With all the media that was enveloping Sac State, there was no way Johnson would get quality time on the practice track there without being hounded. Davis was close enough to the action but far enough from anyone that cared to allow Johnson to work out without much interruption. 

So, a few phone calls here, a couple of "need to knows" there and voilĂ , Johnson and his entourage were able to slide in with their SUV's into the adjacent parking garage and use the track. Really, outside of campus security and a few folks in the athletics department, no one knew what was happening.

I was lucky enough to be able to stay inside the track and watch. It was like having the only seat at a Super Bowl practice. I'm not sure who else was there but unless you knew who it was on the track - and if world-class strides didn't catch your gaze - there was no reason to stop and look. A few people trickled by and looked in but by the time word started spreading, Johnson was warming down and ready to leave without the media so much as sniffing where he was.

I was able to chat with him for a bit, he signed a couple of programs and then I graciously allowed him to take a photo with me. OK, so maybe I asked HIM. He was very nice, down to earth and appreciative of UC Davis helping him out. And just like that he was whisked away to later win gold medals in the 400 and 4x400 in Australia - the latter which was later stripped by the IAAF because of teammate's malfeasance.

Jones, meanwhile, was garnering similar attention prior to Sydney even though she had yet to claim Olympic gold in her career. She was confident, she was talented and she was making promises she intended to keep. I don't recall when the request came to help arrange some practice time at UC Davis for her but it was after Johnson and maybe because things went so smoothly for him that the same representative decided to press his luck. It's not like I was doing anything special except quietly opening a gate.

Jones came with her then-husband - and Olympic hopeful - C.J. Hunter, a shot-putter who had to move the logs in the throwing area at Woody Wilson Track back a little bit in order to accommodate his practice. I guess they throw a little farther at that level than we're used to seeing at our usual meets.

Jones and her folks were very cordial and not demanding in the least bit. In fact, she didn't even ask for us to close the gates to the track and if other people came in to use it, so be it. She was chatty while getting her post-workout massage from her trainer and they even asked me to recommend any Jamaican restaurants nearby. That one stumped me. 

Again, the secret practice location worked well and the media had no idea where to find her. It only came to light in the paper a few days later that if anyone was looking for Johnson and Jones during the trials, they should've looked in Davis.

Jones went on to win gold medals that summer in the 100, 200, 4x100, 4x400 and long jump and I'll admit to a sense of pride in her accomplishments. She grew up just south of me in Southern California and I followed her track career beginning when she was a high school phenom. It was disheartening to see lose those medals in her fall from the pedestal a few years ago but I won't forget how nice she was while on campus.

I still have a meet program that both Johnson and Jones signed for me. I'm not sure how many other of the same items they both signed that year but I've always felt privileged to have one. The autographs have faded some and while both athletes will be remembered by the track world in different ways, I'll still recall fond memories of them on our campus back in 2000.

- Mike Robles, Assistant Athletics Director

1 comment:

  1. Jennifer (Radzienda) NickelsJuly 19, 2011 at 10:46 PM

    I was out of UCD by 2000, but the story brings back great memories of Doug, you, Jon and Dee Votchazer and the whole Sports Information Department I worked with back then. Thanks Mike!