Check out the story that is going to be our centerpiece in Thursday’s Santa Cruz Sentinel sports section. Maggie Vessey begins her push for a spot in the Olympics in the 800 meters on Friday at the US Olympic Track and Field trials in Eugene, Ore. The Finals are Monday, and she would need to not only reach them, but finish in the top three for a trip to London.
By Jon Gugala
Everyone knew Maggie Vessey.
On a track at Monta Vista High in 1997, Vessey, in her freshman year, burst onto the California track scene by taking third in the 400 meters at the Central Coast Section championships.
“She was — not a legend — but everybody knew what a great talent she had,” says Bill Johnson, who watched her at the section meet that year while coaching sprinters at Soquel High. “She had that beautiful running style that she still has. You saw her and said, ‘Oh my god. She’s really something.’
“And then she didn’t run as a sophomore,” Johnson says.
Why would someone so obviously predestined for greatness would let the fields lie fallow for a year?
“I wanted to be a cheerleader,” Vessey responds via text as she prepared for this week’s U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Ore.
Vessey, a favorite to make the Olympic team in the 800, is making a joke; there was no cheerleading diversion. The real reason lies in the fact her freshman year had clinched it: The track was all-consuming for Vessey, and she had outgrown her current program.
Vessey needed a next step.
The Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League’s rumor mill buzzed like a high-tension power line. Where would the Soquel native land?
Wooed by the strong track program — and, at the time, the only all-weather track in the county — the wagging tongues had an answer.
“She was going to be at Soquel,” Johnson remembers.
It was a big thrill — and a big challenge.
But Johnson and Vessey meshed perfectly. From her junior season, she went from touted prep to proven competitor. She completed her high school career at Soquel with consecutive CCS championships in the 400 meters as well as consecutive state final appearances.
Johnson and the Soquel coaching staff saw Vessey’s promise. They also saw that her future would be in a longer distance.
“It was her style,” he says. “She’s such an effortless runner [and] the 800 meters [roughly a half-mile] is such a beautiful race.
“She was perfectly suited to what she’s doing right now.”
Vessey, now 30, is no longer a high schooler of promise but an internationally feared 800-meter specialist.
After a roller coaster of a collegiate career at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, she spent an injury-plagued first three years as a professional athlete. Then, in 2008, there was a glimmer of promise.
Vessey returned to health in an Olympic year — the pinnacle event in the sport. Her goal, she says, was to just qualify for the U.S. Olympic team trials, the meet from which America’s representatives for the Olympics are picked.
Surprising even herself, Vessey did not merely qualify; she advanced through preliminary and semifinal rounds into the final, where she finished fifth — just two spots away from the Games.
It prompted an existential crisis.
You see, Vessey, to that point, had only dreamed so far. In 2000, after her graduation from high school, her mother took her to that year’s Olympic team trials, held in Sacramento. And that became the goal. To compete at the trials — just to get there — would in itself be the fulfillment of a dream.
The results of the 2008 trials, Vessey says, “showed me that I still had something to give to this sport.”
In 2009, Vessey exploded on the national scene. She began with a come-from-behind win at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, stomping some of the best half-milers in the world. Then she ran an incredible 1 minute, 57.84 seconds in Monaco, at that point in the season a world-leading time. She concluded her year with an IAAF World Championship appearance, ranked second in the U.S. in her event and sixth in the world.
Vessey has since retained her spot as one of the nation’s leading 800 runners. She finished runner-up in the national championships the last two years and placed sixth at the 2011 IAAF World Championships.
But 2012 is an Olympic year. And that changes everything.
“It’s not just about, ‘Oh, I just want to fulfill this dream of being at the Olympic trials,’” Vessey says. “I’m a completely different runner. I’ve made it to the finals of a world championship. [Now] it’s about fulfilling the dream of being an Olympian.”
Let’s put four years in perspective: It’s the dynamic change of a college student, the maturation of a military serviceman, the term of a U.S. presidency.
Vessey entered the 2008 trials as a tourist. She returns on Friday as an athlete prepared to claim what she has spent the last Olympic cycle alluding to. The work has been done.
“Those [workouts] are hard,” Vessey says, thinking back on the last year-and-a-half under Texas-based coach Rose Monday. “Those are workouts where I have tears coming out of my eyes at the end and sweat and snot coming out of my nose.
“It’s ugly. But thankfully when I’m on the track and I’m running, you can feel a different level of strength and so you get a different level of confidence from that.”
Monday watched Vessey race for years before assuming the role of coach in the fall of 2010. She recalls one race in particular where, leading into the last lap, Vessey looked like she had all but given up. Then: “She came on like gangbusters. I thought, ‘Holy crap’ — excuse the expression — ‘this girl can close better than any 800 meter runner in the world.’”
Besides workouts geared toward developing Vessey’s overall endurance, Monday says the biggest tweak has been in her racing style.
“She has never been a natural front-runner,” Monday says, describing Vessey’s style of haunting the back of the pack and then kicking hard in the final 100 meters.
Sometimes it works, Monday says, but it won’t work all the time.
“The goal last year was to have her race and be in the mix so that she still will have her speed at the end of the race, but she’s not going to be coming from so far back,” Monday says.
Four years of maturation culminate in four days and three rounds between Friday and Monday, when Vessey vies for a top-three finish to ensure her Olympic berth. From her fitness to her tactics, she is sharp and peaked.
The 2008 Vessey wasn’t ready to be an Olympian. The 2012 Vessey is.
“Before, when I was training, it was just trying to put myself in the position that I’m in. Every race before was of bigger importance because I was trying to make that breakthrough,” Vessey says. “I have different goals now.”