Every four years, the California Invitational Relays mushrooms in importance.
We like to think we care about it each year, which we do. Anything or anyone that has survived 67 years has received a group-hug or two. But with the Relays, Modesto's signature sports event to be contested Saturday at Modesto Junior College Stadium, timing is everything.
Especially when it coincides once every four years with the Olympic Games.
Many athletes have put "Modesto" on their itinerary, but their hearts are locked on Beijing, the site of the Olympic Games on Aug. 8-24. China is the ultimate destination. Modesto and other venues become steps, tuneup steps, along the way.
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"I'm still on course for the bigger goal this summer," said Modesto's Suzy Powell, the two-time Olympic discus thrower who hasn't forgotten her injury-induced missing of the 2004 Athens Games. "Anytime something is taken away from you, or you feel like it was taken away from you, you want it more. My desire to be on the team and to throw in Beijing is higher than it's ever been."
Powell will take that tunnel-vision to MJC on Saturday, and she won't be alone. We've seen what happens at the Relays on Olympic years. It's not exactly a coincidence that the best recent Relays were staged in 2000 and 2004.
In 2000, pole vaulter Stacy Dragila cleared 15 feet, 1 inch, to tie the world record, the first world record at the Relays in 19 years. A few hours later, men's pole vaulter Jeff Hartwig narrowly missed an American record. Save Mart Supermarkets and Coca-Cola came on board only the year before to save a competition that quickly regained traction.
We witnessed more of the same thrills in 2004. Toby Stevenson, wearing his trademark black roller blade helmet, arrived on the international stage by becoming only the second American to top six meters (19-8¼). His exciting series that day drew the kind of crowd reaction not heard in Modesto since, well, Dragila's world record.
"That was Toby's day, for sure," remembered Becky Holliday, a former NCAA champion from Oregon who placed third in the women's pole vault earlier that afternoon. Holliday, a member of Tri-Valley Athletics of Stockton, prepares for her second Relays experience. One of her current rivals, however, is reigning American record holder Jenn Stuczynski.
"I like having her at the meet," Holliday said. "It pushes us girls to get to her level."
The Relays has remained relevant through the pole vault, where the winds are favorable and the best usually are here. Meet director Gregg Miller, beset by a minimal budget, wisely has played to his advantages. He's forgone a sprinter or two in favor of a pole vault headline, a strategy that has delivered.
In fact, Modesto became the foundation for an American comeback in the event. The U.S. team staggered through three consecutive Olympiads -- 1988, '92 and '96 -- without a single pole vault medal. Some say Dragila's pathfinding brilliance on the women's side spurred a revival with the men.
Regardless, check out the turnaround: Americans swept Olympic gold and silver in both 2000 (Nick Hysong and Lawrence Johnson) and 2004 (Tim Mack and Stevenson). Today, Stevenson and reigning world outdoor champion Brad Walker round out the return to form, a movement which was ignited in part on the MJC runway.
"The renaissance started when Gregg (Miller) took the meet over. We have the best pole vaulters in the world coming out of the United States," said Sonora product Tye Harvey, a veteran pole vaulter. "The crowd (in Modesto) is second to none. They love the pole vault. They're seated right in front of the runway. We have some of the best athletes in the world training in California. Modesto is right here in our back yard."
If all systems kick into gear, the Relays will present a more rounded field Saturday. Sprinter Lauryn Williams, hurdler Anwar Moore, 800 expert and Relays favorite Khadevis Robinson, shot putter Christian Cantwell and others will complement the pole vault talent.
The meet has been aggressively marketed this year. Everything from a new title to the predictable Olympic buzz has ignited more than the every-year interest. But for some of that, we still can thank the late meet director Tom Moore, whose imprint on the event -- nearly six years after his death -- is lasting.
"A lot of the old coaches honor Tom by bringing their athletes to this meet," said Tri-Valley coach Dan Pfaff, a fixture at the Relays since 1983. "They honor Tom to this day."
Modesto in May. Beijing in August. Enjoy.
Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2302.