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BEIJING 2008

Her throw breaks a U.S. gold drought

August 19, 2008|HELENE ELLIOTT

Beijing

The first American track and field athlete to win a gold medal here wanted to be the next Mary Lou Retton until her hardy English-German-Nordic genes kicked in and she hit 6 feet in junior high, on the way to her 6-4 adult height.

Stephanie Brown Trafton competes in the discus throw, an event that ranks low on the Summer Games food chain. Its stature in the U.S. isn't much better because it hasn't produced a female Olympic champion since 1932 or female medalist of any kind since 1984.

She hasn't been fawned over by NBC. Kobe Bryant hasn't been spotted cheering for her. She won't be headlining a post-Olympic tour.

But Brown Trafton did something wonderful Monday, something her more heralded compatriots couldn't accomplish in the first three days of competition at the Bird's Nest.

Brown Trafton, who lives near Sacramento in Galt, ended an embarrassing U.S. gold-medal drought in track and field when her first throw held up as the winner, a happy surprise on a warm and humid night.

She was the lone gold medalist for a few hours, until Angelo Taylor led a 1-2-3 finish in the men's 400-meter hurdles.

But Brown Trafton's feat should not be forgotten, no matter how much the gold-medal count grows.

"It's an awesome feeling," she said. "I knew I had a shot at medaling here, but I didn't know it was going to be a gold medal."

Her toss of 212 feet 5 inches was more than 4 feet short of her season-best effort, and she acknowledged the competition was "a little more open" without the favorite, Darya Pishchalnikova, who was suspended by the Russian federation for manipulating drug-testing samples.

It was open for everyone, and Brown Trafton, using the leverage of her long arms and legs, set a standard no one could match.

Yarelys Barrios of Cuba won the silver medal with a throw of 208-9, and Olena Antonova of Ukraine won the bronze with a season-best throw of 205-4 on the fifth of her six tries.

Brown Trafton, one of the youngest throwers, was relaxed all night. Her composure dissolved only after the beribboned medal was placed around her neck and the "Star-Spangled Banner" was played in her honor.

Tears sliding down her face, she sang along with her hand resting over her heart.

"I know that by far this meet was not in the top five this year as far as competitiveness," she said, "but I know that when it comes to the Olympic Games, if you make the finals anything can happen."

It happened for Brown Trafton, who trains on her own at Sacramento City College and works 20 hours a week in information technology services for an environmental consulting firm.

As a child, she watched the 1984 Los Angeles Games and was fascinated by Retton, the all-around gymnastics champion. "I had a Mary Lou Retton leotard that I wore all the time, and I grew out of it quite quickly," she said.

Her height made her gawky and depressed her self-esteem.

"Until I was in fifth grade I hunched my shoulders," she said. "And when I started playing basketball in fifth grade the coaches wanted me on their teams. I said, 'OK, it might be a good thing to be tall.' "

She switched her Olympic dreams and got a basketball scholarship to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, but a torn ACL detoured her again. She had taken up throwing events in junior high and gladly went back to them.

She competed in shot put and discus and made the Olympic team for the Athens Games, where she didn't get out of the qualifying round. She didn't make the U.S. teams for the 2005 or 2007 world championships but improved slowly, earning the Beijing discus berth by finishing third at the U.S. trials.

Although she believes she can still improve her strength and speed, she was good enough Monday to become America's first women's Olympic discus champion since Lillian Copeland triumphed in 1932.

The last American woman to win a discus medal was Leslie Deniz, who won silver at the Soviet-boycotted 1984 Games.

"It's maturity as a thrower," Brown Trafton said of her great leap to the top of the medal stand.

"I have the levers to be an awesome thrower. Maybe even someday be the first world-record holder that's a clean world record. So I would just hope that I can continue to progress and show my real potential."

On this joyous occasion she had only a few regrets.

One was that her husband of three years, Jerry, is a reluctant traveler and wasn't there to share the moment.

Another is that she missed the start of hunting season, though she and Jerry have scheduled their vacation time for a hunting trip.

The last regret is that she has never met the childhood idol who set her on this path to unlikely Olympic success.

"I want to meet Mary Lou Retton, though, please. Somebody hook me up," she said.

"I got too big to be a gymnast, but I'm an excellent discus thrower."

A gold medal-winning discus thrower, in fact, with a special niche in these Games and U.S. Olympic history.

--

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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