Beijing may be site of a farewell fling for Powell

July 20, 2008 

TB Track training 05

Modesto Olympian Suzy Powell prepares for a practice session at the Tri-Valley Athletics training facility at Rough & Ready Island in Stockton on Tuesday, March 25, 2008. Ted Benson/The Modesto B

TED BENSON — Modesto Bee

As Suzy Powell prepares for her third Olympics, she admits the end is near.

It's been a wondrous run: the American record-holder in the discus, twice a national champion and seven times runner-up, three second-place NCAA finishes and three U.S. Junior championships.

"I almost feel as if I'm mentally pacing myself for a grand finale," says Powell, 32 in September, who's tossed the discus since she was in fifth grade, long before her days at Downey High.

All together: Will the Games in Beijing wrap up a distinguished career, Suzy?

"Could be," she says.

First, there is unfinished business. Not only has Powell not medaled in the Olympics, she's never qualified for the finals. She must finish among the top 12 on Aug. 15 -- or hit a qualifying standard -- to give herself a shot at a medal on Aug. 18.

For all her success inside these borders, she's never excelled overseas. Her size and strength handicaps have held her back against international fields.

That said, Powell believes the podium is possible. She thinks 65 meters (about 213 feet) will put her in the chase. She tossed 206-5 at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., to place second behind longtime rival Aretha Thurmond.

The so-called stars aren't aligned on her side. Only one American -- 1984 silver medalist Leslie Deniz -- has climbed onto the medal stand since the Olympics welcomed women's discus throwers in 1928.

No matter. Powell has powered through all adversity, from injuries to disappointment, and has persevered since her surprise victory at the Trials in 1996 as a UCLA sophomore. Dismissing her chances always has been a fool's bet.

"I'm doing what I always do, but I'm also training at a higher level," she said. "I'm approaching it as an opportunity to do my best on the biggest stage in my sport."

Powell, along with Olympic and World Cup soccer champion Tisha Venturini, are the most decorated Modesto athletes of the past 20 years. In Powell's case, however, her development is striking on several fronts.

She was first coached by her father, Mac, who purchased training films of male discus throwers. Copy them, he advised.

"I didn't have any knowledge of the discus, so we viewed the tapes of stars like Mac Wilkins and John Powell (no relation) along with tapes of her and compared the two," Mac Powell said. "It was an innocent thing. We knew we couldn't make a girl into a male thrower. We picked up a few of the basics and things she could apply and went from there. Ultimately, she had the natural ability to do anything well. She managed to figure it out."

Powell tossed 188-4 in 1994, the national high school record that still stands. Last year, she took advantage of Maui tradewinds to launch an American-record 222-0. Indeed, she's figured it out.

Her re-emergence last year, after a hamstring injury cost her a berth in the 2004 Olympics, was hard-earned. She switched coaches in December 2005 from her father to the respected Dan Pfaff. The change was difficult. Other than her tenure at UCLA, Mac served as her guide.

"By that time, she knew a lot more about the discus than me," Mac said. "Her expectations were always so high. I sat down with her two or three years ago and talked about that. I told her she had two reasonable goals, a national record and another national title. She accomplished both."

To no one's surprise, Mac is concerned about his daughter's direction post-Olympics. She says she'll make her decision this fall, long after the flame has been doused in Beijing. Does she continue on for one more shot at a World Championships in 2009, or perhaps even another Olympic campaign in 2012? She's married to Tim Roos, who will attend the upcoming Games.

"I'll have to see what's in my heart after the Olympics," she said.

Besides her heart, she'll also check in one more time with Dad.

"In this last portion of her career, she's done everything she can possibly do," he said. "I don't know how she'll handle it. She does have to get on with the rest of her life. Up to now, she's made a pretty good living. It's hard to tell an athlete like her, 'Time to get a job at the bank.' "

For now, the bank can wait.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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