|Grace Upshaw, a former resident of Menlo Park, stood at the closing ceremonies of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, and wondered where her career in track and field was headed.
Only a few days earlier she had finished 10th in the women's long jump finals, leaping just 21-9 1/2 after finishing second at the U.S. Trials at 22-5.
"I was really disappointed with my results," Upshaw recalled. "There was definitely a heaviness at the closing ceremonies. People came up and asked me what I was going to do. I said, 'I don't know.'"
Upshaw already had achieved her dream in the sport.
"The big huge goal for me in 2004 was the make the team," she said. "I thought it was a-once-in-a-lifetime chance. I didn't think I'd be going another four years."
As the ceremonies came to a close, however, officials from Athens passed the proverbial torch to Beijing, China, site of the 2008 Summer Games.
As Upshaw watched China's presentation, something happened.
"There was something in there that stirred my emotions," she recalled. "There was something there that got me charged."
So, the commitment was made and Upshaw re-enlisted for another four years. Today, the Los Altos Hills resident is glad she did. The 2008 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials begin Friday in Eugene, Ore. Upshaw, 32, will be there to live the dream one more time.
"Obviously, I want to make the team," she said. "If I can focus on my execution, I should have a very good result."
The top three finishers in each event will qualify for the U.S. Olympic team. In order to make the trip to Beijing, athletes must have reached the 'A' qualifying standard for the Games. In the long jump, that magic number is 22-0 3/4. Upshaw got her automatic mark last season, thus only needs to finish among the top three.
Qualifying begins Monday for Upshaw with the finals set for July 3.
Upshaw feels quite at home in Eugene, where she spent her freshman year of college (before transferring to Cal) and later competed there in numerous meets. She was there a few weeks ago for the annual Prefontaine Classic, which gave her an opportunity to test the newly resurfaced track and runways.
While Upshaw equaled her season best of 21-11, she came away from the meet disappointed. Instead of making that her final meet before the Trials, Upshaw found a low-key meet in Chula Vista and produced a 22-4 leap with a slight aiding wind of 2.2 meters per second (2.0 mps is the legal limit).
That effort definitely re-charged Upshaw and gave her even more confidence to make the 2008 U.S. Olympic team.
"In '04, I was just enjoying the experience," she said. "I'm still doing that, but I have more confidence."
That boost in confidence will be needed. In 2004, only two jumpers had the automatic Olympic qualifying mark — Marion Jones and Upshaw. Those two finished one-two. The field will be a lot more competitive next week.
"There are a lot more girls with 'A' standards," Upshaw said. "I think there are at least five."
Heading into the Trials, Upshaw is tied for fourth on the U.S. list with Ola Sesay, both with legal 21-11 jumps. The American leader is Brittney Reese at 22-9, following by Funmi Jimoh (22-8) and Akiba McKinney (22-1).
"It'll be more competitive, which is better for me because I like competition," Upshaw said. "I've been able to respond throughout my career."
Upshaw won U.S. title in 2003, '05 and '07. She was second in '04 (at the Trials), giving her a pretty good track record, as it were, in national championships.
Still, it hasn't come without hard work and some hardships a long the way. When her coach, Edrick Floreal, was named director of track and field at Stanford University in 2005, he no longer could work with "open" athletes. Time just didn't permit it. Upshaw turned to her sister, Joy, a former track and field assistant coach at Cal who has her own age-group track club.
"A lot of people thought I couldn't do it without Edrick," said Upshaw, who worked with her sister for two years, during which she ranked No. 4 in the world in 2005 by Track & Field News and No. 4 in the U.S. in '06. Upshaw then moved to Los Angeles in 2007 to work with UCLA assistant Mike Powell, the world recordholder in the men's long jump. Upshaw won her third national title that year and finished the season ranked No. 2 in the U.S.
Upshaw's 2008 season got off slowly when she was dealing with an Achilles' problem in early May. Since then, she has jumped 21-11 four times to show her consistency. Upshaw likely will need to surpass 22-0 to earn her way to Beijing.
Should Upshaw do that, she'll be greated there by her parents — Carol and Monte. They already have their tickets to the Games. That also was the case in 2004, when just about every family member had a ticket to Athens before Upshaw even competed at the U.S. Trials.
"My mom even had tickets to Sydney (Australia) in 2000," Upshaw said. "She's ever the optimist.
"My dad said, no matter what, that they're going to Beijing. The Olympics are a great experience so they'll have a great time."
And show their daughter join them as a member of the U.S. Olympic Team?
"It'll be even greater," she said.
Upshaw said if things go well, she'll compete one more year.
"I'll still do it if I enjoy it and the results are there," she said. "But, I don't see myself going for the next Olympics. I'd like to have a family of my own in four years."
But, first things first. There's a medal stand that Upshaw wants to climb one more time.
"If you make it, it's the best feeling ever," Upshaw said of making the U.S. team. "I remember Sacramento in 2004. I had just taken my last jump and I walked away from the pit thinking I had just made the Olympic team. The feeling just washed over me. I am an Olympian. You just smile from the inside."
It's a feeling Upshaw would like to experience at least one more time.
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