23 July 2008

Captain Leads Military Athletes at Olympic Track and Field Trials

U.S. Air Force World Class Athlete Program Capt. Kevin Eastler led military athletes competing in the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team track and field trials by earning his second Olympic berth in the 20-kilometer race walk.

U.S. Army WCAP Sgt. John Nunn, who competed in the same event with Eastler at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, finished fourth at the trials on July 5, ending his bid to make Team USA and compete in Beijing.

On an emotional Fourth of July at Hayward Field, Army WCAP Capt. Michael Mai, a two-time Olympic Trials competitor, finished fifth in the hammer throw with a hurl of 71.75 meters. His first warm-up throw may have been good enough to make Team USA, but the throws that counted were not long enough.

"I tossed out a 75-meter throw that probably would have gotten me second place tonight," said Mai, 30, of Le Mars, Iowa. "I just couldn't quite get it as far out there as I wanted to when it counted.

"I still got fifth place and represented the U.S. Army to the best of my ability, which is why I'm here," added Mai, who is stationed at Moffett Field, Calif. "It was the best year I've had in all my years of throwing for the Army, and we'll see what the future brings."

Retired Air Force Capt. James Parker, a 2004 Olympian, placed seventh in the hammer with a throw of 69.97 meters.

Earlier in the eight-day meet, Army WCAP Spc. Nathaniel Garcia finished seventh in the first heat of the 400-meter hurdles semifinals. His time of 49.52 seconds was not fast enough to advance to the finals.

Air Force 2nd Lt. Dana Pounds finished second in the women's javelin throw with a mark of 57.83 meters but failed to earn an Olympic berth because she did not meet the qualifying standard.

Air Force 1st Lt. Paul Gensic, the only U.S. track and field competitor to medal at the 2007 Military World Games, placed sixth in the pole vault with a height of 5.5 meters -- 18 feet, ½ inch.

Former Army WCAP distance runner Dan Browne, 33, a 1997 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, doubled in the 10,000 meters and marathon at the 2004 Olympics. He finished 14th in the 10,000 meters at Eugene with a time of 28:42.78.

Eastler, 30, of Buckley Air Force Base, Colo., will be Team USA's only competitor in the men's 20K race walk in Beijing. He was the lone U.S. competitor to meet the Olympic qualifying standard before toeing the start line in Eugene, where a relatively slow pace prevented others from making the team.

Eastler won the early-morning race in 1 hour, 27 minutes, 8 seconds.

Nunn, who finished in 1:30:35, knew he needed to both win the race and meet the qualifying standard of 1:24:30 to secure a berth in the Beijing Games. He took an early lead and separated from the pack during the first two of 20 laps around a 1-kilometer loop outside Autzen Stadium. Eastler and second-place finisher Matthew Boyles of Miami Valley Track Club, however, quickly reeled in Nunn and passed him on the fourth lap.

"I knew he was going to do that," said Eastler, who won by more than a minute. "He needed to get a standard today, so it was expected that he was going to go out on pace. I wasn't in shape to do that today, so I just kind of let him go to see what happened. It's just a lot of pressure on an athlete to try to do both – win and get the standard – so he had a lot of pressure. I just wanted to stay strong and see what happened."

Having already met the qualifying standard, Eastler merely needed to finish the race to earn a trip to China – unless three other walkers beat him and met the standard, which nobody did.

"My only plan was to go out on a solid pace of between 4:20 and 4:25 per kilometer," said Eastler, a 1999 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. "That's about what I ended up and it worked out."

Nunn said he felt ready for the challenge, but his legs did not cooperate.

"No one went with me [early], which is what I expected, because most of them were just racing for place," Nunn said. "So I figured I would walk it alone, but I've walked the time alone before by myself. I got into the race and things just weren't holding; it wasn't sticking. The first couple kilometers were OK, and then things slowed and I just couldn't get my turnover going. Quite honestly, I don't really have an answer for why. Some days it's on and some days it's not.

"When they passed me," he continued, "I hung with them for just a little bit and I guess I just couldn't get my legs to move. By around six kilometers, I realized it was going to take a lot to try to fight back and get the time that I had already lost. At that point, I figured let's just try to get among the top three. ... It was a shock for me – not quite at all what I fully expected. I've had good speed workouts and good distance sessions. It's hard, because 2012 is a long ways away."

Nunn's coach, Enrique Pena, a seven-time Olympic race walk competitor/coach, seconded that sentiment.

"He was ready to walk under 1:24, for sure," Pena said. "But I don't know what happened with John. It's disappointing for him and for me. He can do it, but sometimes things just don't work out."

Nunn thought of the future while choking back the tears of four tough years of training since he finished 26th at the Olympic Games in Athens.

"I'd really like to at least be a two-time Olympian and take the next four years and train to be in contention in the world," said Nunn, 30, of Evansville, Ind. "This is horribly disappointing, but the sun comes up tomorrow. We'll go on – go home and hug my daughter and keep living and enjoy life and realize there's a next time. It's four years away and that's a long time, but it gives me four more years to focus on my daughter (Ella, age 4) and my training – two things I love.

"It's been an incredible honor and a very humbling experience to be given the chance to train for the Olympics full-time with military support and to wear the Army's singlet," he said. "It's always nice to hear 'Go Army.'"

Likewise, Eastler said he could not compete on the international level without military support.

"I couldn't do this without the Air Force, that's for sure," he said. "To compete at this level, you need to train full-time and be dedicated to it. I don't think I could do it any other way."

Now he must compete against the rest of the world's best walkers.

"I had so much focus on today that I'm going to have to sit back and talk with my coach and come up with a game plan," Eastler said. "We'll just have to see how the body holds up."

After competing in the 2007 World Track and Field Championships, Eastler was slowed by persistent pain in his abdomen and underwent sports hernia surgery in December.

"I found a good therapist, trained through some pain, and finally got back," he explained. "I was a little tight today, but I mostly got rid of it."

He also is nagged by knee tendinitis.

"My body's kind of telling me this is the final season, so, yeah, this is it for me after this year," said Eastler, who hopes to improve upon his 21st-place finish in Athens at Beijing. "It's going to be tough for me to do that on my own again – to recreate such a good result. I'm sure going to try, but it's going to be an uphill battle given the injuries I've had."

By Tim Hipps
Special to American Forces Press Service

Tim Hipps works in the U.S. Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command Public Affairs Office.

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