Modesto's Powell earns her third Olympic bid

AGOSTINI: Winning, not qualifying, is always Powell's goal at Olympic time

07/01/2008 5:03 AM

07/01/2008 5:04 AM

Suzy Powell returns to Modesto today with her bags packed for Beijing, the city of her dreams the last four years.

If you think she's happy, you're right. If you think she's relieved, you're right again. If you think she's blessed, you've just hit the trifecta.

Powell, 31, celebrated Sunday night with family and friends in Eugene, Ore. A few hours before, she earned her third trip to the Olympics by placing second in the discus at the U.S.A. Olympic Track and Field Trials.

"There is a lot of joy after four years of hard work. I'm very proud and very happy," she said. "I had a pretty solid performance, and I'm going back to the Olympics. What's to complain about?"

What you must understand about Powell is that she doesn't back down -- from a challenge, an opponent or, yes, an injury. She almost always saves her best throw for last, which says all the obvious things about her competitive fight.

So it happened again Sunday when she tossed 62.92 meters (206 feet, 5 inches) for second place behind longtime friend and rival Aretha Thurmond. When Powell walked into the ring (in third place), she knew her Olympic bid was sealed.

Point is, though she's compiled seven second-place finishes in the nationals alongside her two titles over the years, she doesn't compete for runner-up or third. She isn't wired that way.

"I was throwing to win," she said. "I never count myself out. Playing for second never entered my mind."

For further proof, let's revisit the 2004 Trials in Sacramento, because the results of 2004 and 2008 are forever connected on her résumé. Four years ago, slowed by a painful hamstring injury, Powell placed sixth. But look closer: Throwing virtually on one leg, she qualified for the finals on her final attempt. Two nights later, she closed with her event-best 190-11.

"I wasn't a chump tonight," she said. "I'm not done."

That's Powell, one of the best athletes Modesto has produced. Beating her is possible. Outlasting her requires special stuff. Her performance in Eugene underscored why she's been either at the top or close to it in her event for 12 years.

Why? Here's a clue.

Powell didn't disclose until Monday that, once again, she wasn't 100 percent at the Trials. Weightlifting three weeks ago, she strained cartilage attached to five ribs and damaged a muscle underneath the clavicle. Throwing for one week was impossible.

The timing, of course, was nightmare bad. The worst happened in 2004 -- the 11th-hour injury -- and the cycle nearly repeated. To Powell's credit, she didn't howl at the moon or do a Nancy Kerrigan "Why me?"

This time, she recovered to be nearly pain-free the day of the Trials. Adrenaline whisked away what was left of the discomfort.

"If it wasn't for the outstanding medical treatment I received, it would have been difficult. I would've been hurting," she said. "There were one or two moments when I was nervous (about being able to compete). I was so lucky to have a great network of people around me."

One is Thurmond, who made her own comeback after giving birth to a boy last June. She and Powell have pushed each other since their collegiate years -- Thurmond at Washington and Powell at UCLA. Thurmond won the Pacific-10 Conference title at UCLA, and Powell returned the favor the following year in Seattle. A decade later, both are bound for their third Olympics.

"Iron sharpens iron, and we have made each other better over the years," Powell said. "She is a fantastic thrower and a fantastic person."

As for Beijing, Powell remains resolute. She's never reached the Olympic finals, but just qualifying -- as you might expect -- isn't the goal.

"I'm going for a medal," she said. "The women's discus is wide open."

Powell also hinted that the Olympics might be her career farewell. Her options are provocative, given the fact discus throwers can excel deep into their 30s. Still, she and Tim Roos married nearly four years ago. Contemplating life without spinning in a tiny circle sounds reasonable.

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

She ended her thought thus: "One never knows."

Correction: We've known for a long time about Suzy Powell.

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

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