Commentary

Brown Trafton, Taylor spur sluggish American track team

Updated: August 18, 2008, 6:19 PM ET
By Luke Cyphers | ESPN The Magazine

BEIJING -- The world champs fizzled. The shot put locks got picked. The jumpers took a great leap backward. For three solid days, the U.S. Olympic track team laid goose eggs all over the Bird's Nest, going without a single gold medal and, in some cases, without a single qualifier for the finals in some of the country's best events.

So Monday night, when the squad needed some gold, it turned to the people in the blue collars.

[+] EnlargeBird's Nest
Arty BerkoThe Bird's Nest hadn't been kind to the Americans. Until Monday.
Stephanie Brown Trafton, a wild-pig-hunting discus thrower who has a sense of humor and a day job, broke the American losing streak with an upset victory.

Then Angelo Taylor, a former gold medalist who two years ago was waking up at 5 a.m. for a job laying electrical cable, reasserted American sprint pride by leading a sweep of the men's 400-meter hurdles.

The two were unlikely saviors of U.S. pride. Neither one was in consideration for a Wheaties box photo in the pre-Olympic hype. It's likely that neither one has changed that. But the Yanks will take their performances. By Monday afternoon, they'd take anything.

Here's how badly the U.S. stunk it up for three days: On Day 1 of track and field, the U.S.' "Dream Team" in the shot put, a good bet to sweep here, managed only Christian Cantwell's silver medal, which he won on his second-to-last attempt. In the 100-meter dash, an event the country has won in 27 of 44 Olympic finals, the men's and women's teams managed a single bronze medal, thanks to a late surge in the men's final by Walter Dix.

In the 1,500, not a single American, not even reigning world champion Bernard Lagat, made the final. Likewise for the men's high jump, long jump and triple jump -- in which the country of Dick Fosbury, Jesse Owens and Mike Conley usually hauls in multiple medals. Here in China? Not. One. Finalist.

A team that U.S. coaches predicted could be among the best ever, alongside the 1968 and 1996 squads, looked like the Jamaican junior varsity.

Enter Brown Trafton. She qualified third at the Olympic trials. She still has to work 15 hours a week doing computer-assisted design for a company called Sycamore Environmental Consultants in Sacramento, Calif.

Her husband couldn't make it to Beijing because, well, they'd used up all their vacation days on hunting trips. Brown Trafton and her beau like to hunt wild pigs. And geese. And ducks.

"He doesn't really like traveling," she said. "The only way he'd have come is if there could have been a hunting trip." The only drawback about her gold medal, which she won with her first throw of 212 feet, 5 inches, was that she'd missed the opening of hunting season back home.

Brown Trafton came into the Games knowing that if she could just make the final, the medal round would be a crapshoot. Or a duck hunt. Or something.

Anyway, "anything can happen." She learned that from former U.S. discus star Mac Wilkins, with whom she chats often.

The 6-foot-4 former Cal Poly San Luis Obispo basketball player has no shortage of confidence. She loved Mary Lou Retton growing up and wanted to be a gymnast, but she outgrew the leotard. Now she's proud of her height and her discus thrower's build: "long and lean."

Brown Trafton put up her winning throw on her first attempt. "Nobody else stepped up," she said. So she won the first U.S. gold in the women's event since 1932.

[+] EnlargeAngel Taylor
Phil Walter/Getty ImagesAngelo Taylor celebrates Monday after becoming the first 400-meter hurdler since Edwin Moses to win gold medals eight years apart.
The 29-year-old Taylor had similar confidence, but it came from a different source. He had his own history: He'd won the 400 hurdles at the 2000 Games in Sydney.

Supremely talented, Taylor fell long and hard, first struggling with injuries, then finding himself with no sponsorship and a career on the brink after he pleaded guilty in 2006 to contributing to the delinquency of two underage girls. He was sentenced to three years probation, and basically was out of track, doing electrical work in Atlanta.

But he still knew he could run. So did Innocent Egbunike, a former Nigerian Olympian who was coaching in Atlanta. "I saw him and told him that he was wasting God-given talent," Egbunike said. Taylor wanted to run, so he started showing up, and throwing up, during Egbunike's workouts. He conditioned himself first to handle the training, then to compete. And finally to win again.

"He's come full circle," said Taylor's mother, Subrena Glenn-Everett, after the race. "He put God first, and everything came into place." By turning his life around, Taylor put himself first in Beijing, running a career-best time of 47.25 and leading silver medalist Kerron Clement and bronze medalist Bershawn Jackson to the first U.S. sweep of the event since 1960.

Not every down-to-earth American took gold Monday. Pole vaulter Jenn Stuczynski settled for silver behind Russian glamournaut Yelena Isinbayeva, who broke her own world record with a jump of 16 feet, 6¾ inches.

But Stuczynski, who trains in an icy tin building during the winter in upstate New York, has the right blue-collar attitude. "This is my first Olympics," she said. "In 2004, I was a 12-foot vaulter. I'll keep working at it. It's just a matter of time." Spoken like a true working-class hero.

Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Luke Cyphers is a former senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.