The future of men’s track senior captain Nick Huber depends on a delicate balancing act. Outside of his ILR studies, Huber trains for the 10 different track events in the decathlon — a grueling, 12-hour overall test of track ability that includes a 100-meter dash, shot put, long jump, high jump, 400 meters, 100 meter-hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1500 meters. The physical variety in the decathlon makes it unique among other events. Rather than focus on one particular set of skills, decathletes spread themselves thin.
“It’s so hard when you do 10 events to get the proper amount of practice time, especially when you are taking 16-17 credits per semester,” Huber said. “We have to be a jack of all trades, but a master of none.”
Yet if Huber can improve on last year’s form — he finished top 10 in the country — and add two odd feet to his long jump — his worst event — he’ll stand a chance of qualifying for the Olympic trials this summer.
Sounds pretty easy.
And if all goes well for Huber and a group of athletes on Cornell men’s and women’s track team, the NCAA national championships this June in Des Moines, Iowa may not mark the end of the season. As the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London approach, a handful of Cornellians — alumni and current students — are training to reduce their times and increase their scores, with the hope of earning a spot on their national team.
“We’re blessed to have some good groups,” said men’s coach Nathan Taylor, who was named head coach of the U.S. Virgin Islands team. Taylor, who attended junior high in the U.S. Virgin Islands and later competed as a decathlete for their national team, will return to coach Muhammed Halim ’08 — a world class triple jumper — this summer in London. As an Olympic coach, he is a busy man. In addition to monitoring the workouts of the athletes on the U.S. Virgin Island team, Taylor is preparing Cornell for the Ivy League championships at the end of February. And though the regular season is the primary objective, Taylor will be pushing athletes toward the times they will need to compete at the Olympic trials this summer at the University of Oregon.
To qualify for the U.S. Olympic team, athletes must place in the top three of their event at the trials and reach the A standard — an internationally recognized threshold time or score. Athletes may also be selected for the Olympics by reaching a lower threshold called the B standard, but the odds are less likely.
The system of qualification is democratic,designed to place all athletes with requisite credentials against one another and determine the competition at the U.S. Olympic trials is particularly fierce, and represents the track meet par excellence for athletes across the nation.
“Some people say that the U.S. Olympic trials is the best track meet in the world,” said Cornell assistant coach Artie Smith. “In some events, several of the best people are fighting for only three spots.”
And while the hyper competitive atmosphere brings out the best results for the entire nation, it offers different implications, depending on the athlete, event and type of experience sought.
“It would be an honor for me to go to that meet and compete alongside some of the best track athletes in the country and the world.” said senior Molly Glantz, a runner who needs to shave two seconds off her time in the 400 hurdles to qualify for the trials. “The experience of going to Oregon to compete would be a great way to end my track career.”
For other athletes on the track team with dual citizenship, the short space on the U.S. team means an opportunity to compete for another country. Senior Daniel Thompson, stands a chance of making the Mexican Olympic team if he qualifies for the B standard this season — a chance he might not have if he stayed in the U.S.
“It’s almost as if you can qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials, you can make anyone else’s team,” he said. “It’s almost that competitive in the U.S.”
Thompson experienced a different world of track when he competed for a club in Baja California, Mexico, last summer. In Mexico, he found a more team-oriented attitude amongst the fans but a much greater burden on athletes.
“In the U.S. we take all-weather tracks for granted,” he said. “Almost every high school in big cities has one, and every college has one. In Mexico, you’re lucky if you’re not training on dirt.”
Athletes lack funding, and must often pay for their equipment and travels from their own pocket, Thompson explained. If he makes it to the Olympics, he may encounter fellow Cornell teammate junior Bruno Hortelano, who took the year off to train with the Spanish Olympic team. A double Ivy League Champion in the 100 and 200-meter dash, Hortelano was selected by Spain for the 4x100 meter relay, and stands the best chance of making the games, barring any injury. But training for the Olympics in Spain is not as team oriented as collegiate competition at Cornell, Hortelano said.
Hortelano trains with only one other person, and misses the positive impact of Cornell’s track team on his workouts in Barton.
“Workout regimens can always change a little from coach to coach, but it’s all about how you mentally tackle a day's worth of track training that will get you through it,” he said.
Despite the individualistic nature of many track events, track athletes depend on camaraderie for personal motivation that they seek both with their own teammates and with their competitors. Huber said that the two day decathlon competition — which includes a series of small meals, a portable closet of shoes for the different events, a good night’s rest and an ice bath — allows athletes to form fleeting friendships.
“We walked around with each other, ate with each other,” he said. “I was walking around with the world record holder in the decathlon, goofing off and hanging with the [other] guys. We kind of build relationships and friendships with each other, even during the time we are competing.”
The Olympic trials occupy an interesting territory for track athletes. Qualifying for the Olympics involves some luck; athletes must avoid injury and run their best race come trials. Although the prestige of the games is unequivocal, collegiate athletes do not build any expectation of reaching the trials into their practice routine and many don’t even make it the primary focus of their season. Hortelano says that his only expectation for the season is to avoid injury. Two summers ago, he suffered from a stress fracture in his tibia that put him on the sidelines for almost eight months.
“I think if I can manage to avoid something like that this season and follow my training program everything else should fall into place,” he said via email. “This is all I can hope for.”
Mental prudence, a focus on individual performance and a team attitude — not dreams of qualifying for the Olympic trials — is the recipe for success.
“In terms of my mentality when approaching this season, I'm just hoping to work on my personal development as an athlete, as I've always done,” Hortelano said.
Cornell athletes looking ahead to the Olympics have more than enough tests to fill a season.
“We have to take it one step at a time. Our first step is Heps, and then we have regionals,” said sophomore Montez Blair, a high jumper who cleared the 7-2’ B-Standard level in December.
Blair, who did not expect to reach this mark until the end of the season, has his sights set on the A standard. In terms of competition, though, Blair is more focused on the Ivy League.
“The third ranked jumper goes to Penn, so I’m going to be seeing him a lo — he’s a sophomore too, so we’re going to be pushing each other a lot,” Blair said.