Competition had Beijing on its mind

05/11/2008 3:28 AM

05/14/2008 11:57 AM

As dress rehearsals go, the 67th California Invitational Relays shone like found gold.

Modesto's contribution to world-class track and field deferred gladly, of course, to more important affairs this summer. Every athlete, every coach and every knowledgable fan understood the day's essential truth: The goals are the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., beginning in late June and, two months later, the Olympics in Beijing.

Each jump, stride, vault, throw and thought was connected to Eugene and Beijing, one huge group entry. You've got to advance past one to arrive at the other. So, at many levels, the times and marks in Modesto mattered little. Athletes rated themselves on technique, progress and, yes, mental approach.

As Modesto's two-time Olympian Suzy Powell said, "As much as I really and truly enjoy the Relays, it's not the end-all be-all of my season."

Powell, who tossed 200 feet, 1 inch, placed third Saturday behind 2004 Olympian Stephanie Brown Trafton of Galt (207-7) and runner-up Anna Soderberg of Sweden (200-8).

Powell won't fret much about Soderberg, a Northern Arizona product hoping to represent her country at the Olympics for the third time. Brown Trafton, however, re-emerged in a big way this week. She put down a marker at the Salinas throwers meet Thursday with her 217-1, the world's best this year, and underscored it in Modesto with a take-charge rip on her first try.

"This is a traditional meet for the best discus throwers in the USA," said Brown Trafton, who starred at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. "The conditions in Modesto weren't as good as Salinas. I still had a pretty good mark."

For the record, Powell failed to win at the Relays for third time in the last four years. "The distance wasn't anything to write home about, but the technique is very close so that's encouraging," she said. "My performance was OK. Not outstanding and not horrible."

If she was bothered by the result, she hid it well. We'll add something else: It also was her 15th consecutive Relays appearance. Three-time national champion Aretha Thurmond, one of Powell's rivals, took her platter this weekend to Osaka, Japan.

"There have been opportunities I've passed by," Powell said. "Osaka this year was one of them."

Translate "opportunities" to "cash." Powell is loyal to the Relays for sure, but she also likes the hometown vibe. Today, she leaves for the friendly tradewinds of Maui, where she set the American record last year.

Powell seeks a fresh gust of confidence from those Maui breezes. She's hardly alone in that category. Sonora High graduate Tye Harvey (17-8½, fifth place in the pole vault), still grinding toward his first Olympic trip, has ridden every high and low of the journey.

"People are having a hard time today. There's a lot of pressure on everybody right now," Harvey said. "Everybody is in a somber and serious mood, trying to figure out how to jump a foot higher."

Taken by itself, Harvey's words reflect an every-year norm. Track and field athletes always chase time and distance. Only this year, all norms are magnetized. They're pursuing something beyond personal bests. Every four years, they climb the Olympian mountain.

It's why Jenn Stuczynski easily cleared 16 feet in warmups, then collected Stacy Dragila's meet record while the former pole vault Olympic gold medalist watched. It's why shot putter Christian Cantwell placed himself No. 2 on the all-time Relays list behind only Brian Oldfield (1981).

Besides the Olympian feel of the day, I also was struck by the 33 Cal athletes -- 18 men and 15 women -- brought by interim coach Tony Sandoval. They also were locked into tune-up mode. Their target is the Pacific-10 Conference Championships next week.

But there's another reason for the Golden Bears' presence at MJC. The late Tom Moore, the Relays lifeforce for six decades, ran and jumped for the Golden Bears 70 years ago. He set a world record in the hurdles at Berkeley in 1935 and is inducted into the university's sports hall of fame. Hurdles races at both the Relays and Cal's Brutus Hamilton meet are named in his honor.

Six years after Moore's passing, no one has forgotten him. Not the fans. Not the officials. And certainly not the Golden Bears.

"If nothing else, (we come to Modesto) just as respect for all the years Tom helped track and field at Cal," said Sandoval, who still is amazed how Moore -- the starter at many Cal meets over the years -- always arrived barely minutes before the first race. He stressed meet organizers, but he never missed.

See, Moore understood when to practice and when to perform. Which is why he would have loved this Olympic dress rehearsal.

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

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