Missed by ‘that much’! For some Olympic hopefuls, four years of hard work ends in heartbreak

EUGENE, ORE. — Take any journeyman Twins player and think how many chances he gets to fail and succeed in his career or, even better, during a season.

A couple of hundred at-bats? An error one day, a diving play the next. A cheer here, a boo there. A sizable paycheck, to be sure. Lots of do-overs after a ground out. Called third strike? No problem — there’s another plate appearance in three innings.

Then, think of the Olympics, that every-four-year merry-go-round in sports that is often ignored by most of us in years one, two and three.

Today, save for some dangling team selections, Team Minnesota in the U.S. Olympic team is set. For too many of our locals, their trials ended out of the money and the recognition.

Since early April, I’ve attended U.S. Olympic team trials in tae kwon do, wrestling, judo, gymnastics, swimming and track and field. The latter wrapped up Sunday in Eugene, which is, without doubt, to track what Eveleth is to hockey and La Scala to opera. Hayward Field is track’s Fenway Park.

Against this lush backdrop of drama in the perfect setting, there was pathos.

Fourth-place finish is not enough
Consider this: St. Louis Park’s Katie McGregor finished fourth in the 10,000 meters. The top three women get to go to Beijing.

McGregor has now finished fourth two Olympic cycles in a row.

Fourth in the nation at what she does, and she’s discarded.

Consider this: St. Paul’s Carrie Tollefson, we’ve chronicle here at MinnPost, didn’t get into the finals of the 1,500 meters here. She underwent dramatic reconstructive abdominal surgery so she could get on her second Olympic team.

Didn’t do it. Got to wait four more years. She said Friday she’s going to keep on keeping on. In four years, for the 2012 London Olympics, Tollefson would be 35 years old.

As she spoke, she could barely fight back tears.

Consider this: Minnetonka native Will Leer, whose meteoric rise we discussed last week, had a terrific trials here but finished . . . fourth. He wound up beating Alan Webb, the three-time national champ, but got caught in a slow start and never could get up to the front against more experienced runners.

Leer is 23. He told me he’s headed off to Europe for the first time to get into that circuit. He’s already looking toward the 2012 Olympics. Talk about long-distance running . . .

I guess I gravitate to the almosts, to the coulda-beens, to that deep feeling of trying so hard and falling just short. In an Olympics year, the cutoff is clear. It’s unforgiving.

Sunday, Nicole Denby, a hurdler from Champaign, Ill., finished seven-thousandths of a second out of third place. That’s fourth. Her time in the 100-meter hurdles was the 10th fastest in the world this year. She’s going home, not to Beijing.

No second chances.

Goucher makes track team
And then there is Kara Goucher, the Duluth native.

Goucher, who was known as Kara Grgas-Wheeler when she ran at Duluth East High, will be one of two members of the U.S. Olympic track team with Minnesota connections. The other is former Gopher and Brooklyn Park resident Shani Marks, the triple-jumper.

Goucher qualified here in both the 5,000 meters and 10,000 and, unless something dramatic occurs, wants to run in both in Beijing. It’s a lot of work, but she’s one of those tightly wound, intense runners who wants to keep proving she belongs.

St. Paul writer Jim Ferstle, one of the nation’s top running journalists, produced a long profile of Goucher in Running Times recently. And when she qualified in the 5,000 last week, the Star Tribune’s Rachel Blount nicely chronicled it.

When I spoke to her Friday night after her spectacular victory in the 5,000, Goucher mentioned a factor that always makes me skeptical, but worked for her: sports psychology. Her shrink is noted psychologist Darren Treasure. Goucher has been living and training in Portland, but Treasure is mostly based in Arizona. He was in Eugene for the trials.

“The major thing is how to focus, how to zone everything out,” Goucher said of Treasure’s role. “I used to be so distracted by other runners, other factors . . . It’s so simple. I can’t even explain it. Today, it was honestly five minutes [with Treasure]. And I walked out of there like, ‘I’m going to win.’ “

Sounds like hypnosis. She laughed.

“He’s a mad genius,” said Goucher.

In an environment in which the goal is so narrow and the opportunity so rare, athletes do whatever it takes . . . to not finish fourth.

Team Minnesota
With a month to go until Opening Ceremonies, Team Minnesota in Beijing is a bit slimmer than in years past.

The final, official U.S. Olympic roster won’t be announced for all sports by the U.S. Olympic Committee until July 15. Still, here’s how things are shaping up:

Basketball: Lynx guard Seimone Augustus is on the Team USA roster. Former Gopher and current WNBA star Lindsay Whalen, who grew up in Hutchinson, has, according to published reports Sunday, been named, but nothing official yet.

Baseball: Will there be any Twins prospects? The players can’t be on the Major League roster. Final group still to be named.

Swimming: Jillian Tyler, a University of Minnesota swimmer, will compete for Canada in the 100-meter breaststroke.

Track: Besides Marks and Goucher, two local men will compete for their native countries: sprinters Roman Cress will run for the Marshall Island, and Gophers All-American Ibrahim Kabia will run for Sierra Leone.

Becky Holder of Mendota Heights remains a strong candidate in the multi-discipline eventing team, in which jumping, dressage and a cross-country race are part of a three-day event.

Matt Schnobrich and Micah Boyd, both St. Paul natives whose families still live there, were named last month to the men’s eight squad. They both moved East in 2005 to paddle to their Olympic dreams.

Volleyball: Cassie Busse, of Prior Lake and the Gophers, and Lindsey Berg, another former Gopher, are on the 19-woman U.S. roster that will be trimmed to 12 next week.

Beach volleyball:
Former Gopher Nicole Branagh made the highly popular and scantily clad outdoor version of the sport.

Wresting: Ali Bernard, of New Ulm, and Jake Deitchler, of Ramsey.

If I’ve missed someone you know, please advise. Come August, we’ll have thumbnail bios and other factoids about each of our Minnesota Olympians so you can follow their progress in China.

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