CHASING THE OLYMPIC DREAM
by Steve Politi, The Star Ledger
The thin beam of light bounced away with each stride, illuminating everything except Erin Donohue's path around the track.
She would see the sky.
Then the trees at her side.
Then her sneakers.
Then the sky again.
"It kind of bobbled around a lot," Donohue said of the flashlight that became her unlikely training companion.
This is what happens when Olympic dreams are chased at night, hours after leaving a full-time job, on an unlit track. This is the challenge when the one person who believes in that quest is the one holding a flashlight like a baton, pushing herself to prove everyone else wrong.
Her coach had a better idea: a headlamp. The Haddonfield native started strapping the contraption to her forehead like a miner each night as she trained, which gave Donohue a clear view of her path ... one that now leads to Beijing.
One month from today, the most controversial Olympics in recent history will open in China, and you no doubt will hear about the bad stuff first. The pollution in the air and the algae in the sea. The human-rights violations and the political protests. The doubts about performance-enhancing drugs that will hover over every world record.
It is almost enough to make you forget what attracts us to the Olympics in the first place -- the stories about athletes who overcome long odds just to compete. Athletes like Erin Donohue.
She is one of the most decorated track stars in New Jersey high school history, winning three national titles and nine prestigious Meet of Champion titles during her career at Haddonfield High.
Teenage stardom, however, rarely guarantees success on the next level. At the University of North Carolina, Donohue was an above-average distance runner. When she graduated in 2005, agents and shoe companies -- the potential sponsors for a full-time track career -- turned to other runners.
The message from the track world was cruel and simple: Get a real job. And so Donohue did, but she took one that would put her just miles from the track where Team USA would hold its Olympic trials.
"I wasn't one of those runners who sticks out, who you say, 'Oh, she's going to be an Olympian,'" said Donohue, 25. "I had to work for it. I've improved a little each year and it's got me to where I am now."
She landed a job as a Nike marketing intern in Beaverton, Ore., and continued training on her own. This is how John Cook discovered her one night in 2005, running alone in the dark. The former George Mason track coach knew Donohue had the potential to become an Olympian, but faced a challenge he had never encountered in his long career.
How can you coach a runner if you can't actually see her run?
Soon, they were both wearing headlamps, working through Oregon's less-than-ideal running conditions. There were nights Cook hoped his pupil would stay away, nights when the weather was cold and raw, when rain fell on the unlit track. Donohue never did.
The coach had encountered better athletes than Donohue, but none more tenacious. Donohue never had perfect form, even when she was winning nearly every event she entered in high school. Other runners would glide across the track while Donohue -- at 5-foot-7 and 145 pounds -- looked like she was trying to punish it with her feet.
Cook made his runner focus on strength training and change her diet. She quit her job at Nike, even though, at first, "she and I looked at each other and said, 'How are we going to sustain this thing?'" Cook recalls. The sponsors came around when her times rapidly improved.
Her best time in the 1,500-meter run in 2007 was a 4:05.55 -- the third best in the country that year. Once considered a longshot for Beijing, Donohue had worked herself into a favorite for making the team.
Her battle wouldn't have mattered if she had stumbled Sunday in Eugene, Ore., during the Olympic trials. But Donohue had come too far to let that happen. She ran the perfect race, sprinting those final 100 yards to finish second and earn a spot on Team USA.
She can start packing for China, and for this trip, she can leave that flashlight at home. The lights in Beijing will be plenty bright. And with all the controversy waiting to unfold in one month, we can only hope they'll spend as much time as possible shining on athletes like Donohue.
Article written by Steve Politi, Newark Star Ledger firstname.lastname@example.org