Ron Agostini

No place like 'home' for valley's world-class athletes

STOCKTON — Rusty sheet metal spans the roof. A slightly crooked "no smoking" sign hangs high among the lights near the rafters. The numbers "812" are scrawled in graffiti paint on one of the doors.

A dingy downtown boxing gym? A setting from an old "Dirty Harry" movie?

No, for a band of Northern California's world-class track and field athletes, it's a special place.

Home.

They're called Tri-Valley Athletics, and how they've arrived here — sequestered in an old Navy warehouse at the Port of Stockton — speaks to old-fashioned generosity mixed in with time-ticking desperation.

"It's wonderful," Modesto's two-time Olympian Suzy Powell says, "to be at a place where we're welcome."

To Powell and 37 teammates, Warehouse No. 812 looks like the Taj Mahal. It covers 40,000 square feet, nearly the size of a football field, which means the following happens, all at the same time:

Sonora product and pole vaulter Tye Harvey checks his form via cameras aligned along the runway.

Three-time Olympian Amy Acuff, Harvey's wife, trains in the high jump.

Powell tosses her discus into a huge net draped from the ceiling.

2004 Olympic sprinter Anson Henry (Canada) and friends race for about 60 meters on AstroTurf.

Throw in toilet facilities, electricity and a few space heaters, and it might as well be the Ritz for athletes pointing hard toward the Beijing Olympics in August or even the London Olympics in 2012.

"It's a little Spartan," admitted team coach Dan Pfaff, who has guided 33 Olympians over the years. "But it's needed."

The going price for such a facility is about $8,000 per month. The price tag for Tri-Valley Athletics? Zero. The athletes are charged $150 monthly for Pfaff's services, and that's all. The Port of Stockton will consider an Olympic medal a suitable payment.

"They're chasing their dream to represent their country," said Richard Achieris, director of the Port of Stockton. "I can't help but have great respect for their endeavors."

Achieris, whose uncle was the legendary football coach Pop Warner, and the Port Commission answered a need.

Many athletes in other countries don't sweat over details like facilities and training costs. They're assisted by their government or other agencies. But here, even medal-winning performers often are treated like orphans. Theirs is a hand-to-mouth existence, an everyday fight. Liability issues make it more difficult for athletes to train at schools, though Powell still practices occasionally at Modesto Junior College.

Simply, Powell and friends require a place on which they can rely, a venue for them.

For several months last year, that venue was a building on wind-swept Twitchell Island not far from Rio Vista. To get there, visitors navigated narrow two-lane roads and, eventually, a dusty levee top. Nearby ocean freighters, floating silently toward Stockton, spiced the otherwise stark landscape.

Realtor Tony Rosenthal provided the facility, but he was forced to sell the property this year as the economy tanked. In the Livermore Valley, another group of track athletes was left without funds or facilities.

Enter the Port of Stockton and Warehouse 812, one of 54 on Rough and Ready Island. Built during World War II, they hummed as a supply depot for three wars. It's been converted to civilian use in recent years, used for everything from wallboard companies to club volleyball tournaments.

Today, it's the headquarters for Tri-Valley. No doubt many of its athletes will compete at the 67th California Invitational Relays on May 10 at Modesto Junior College Stadium.

"Without the port and other helpers, they (the athletes) wouldn't have anywhere to go," said Michelle Doggett, team president. "Unless you're at the very top of the sport, you're on your own. This place is a godsend. They've come through at a time when we really needed someone."

Besides proven Olympians such as Acuff and Powell, and reigning world champion pole vaulter Brad Walker, promising young athletes ply their trade here. Athletes like Tommy Skipper, Oregon's three-time collegiate national-champion pole vaulter (2005-07).

Youth athletes, along with "masters" athletes and investors who work out there, also are invited. Yes, they're seeking funds to cover their $65,000 budget this year.

Powell is elated about the facility. For starters, it chops her drive time in half for training. She's also once again a part of a team, a throwback of sorts to her days at Downey High and UCLA.

"People think I'm set and taken care of," she said. "It's hard every day to reach my goal (a third trip to the Olympics). Believe me, an old dirty warehouse is a dream come true."

Tri-Valley Athletics is a non-profit corporation that measures its success solely through the progress of its athletes. To help them, visit www.trivalleyathletics.com, or call 925-449-7966.

Who knows? Warehouse No. 812 may spawn an Olympic champion someday.

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

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