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Living for the Gold

Fans of the Olympic games won't soon forget the night of Aug. 16, 2008. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt blew away the men's 100-meter field in Beijing, with a blistering world record time of 9.69 seconds, fully 0.03 seconds faster than the record he had set in May three months prior.


Kimberlyn Duncan               Watch LSU-YouTube video

The silver medalist, the world’s second-fastest man, crossed the line exactly 0.2 seconds behind Bolt with a time of 9.89. Bolt’s margin of victory was so great that the seven other sprinters in the race finished with times that were closer together than the gap between first and second place.

It was a performance unlike anything ever seen before at a summer Olympics, and media outlets worldwide responded accordingly, calling his performance “staggering” and “exhilarating.”

The forgotten man was, as often happens, the runner-up. The silver medalist who finished behind Bolt in literally less time than it takes to blink.

That man was Trinidad & Tobago’s Richard Thompson, who just two months prior wrapped up a stellar collegiate career at LSU with NCAA titles in the 60 meters, 100 meters, and 4x100 meters en route to being named NCAA Men’s Outdoor Track Athlete of the Year.

Thompson, who won a second silver medal in Beijing as part of Trinidad & Tobago’s 4x100 relay team, was one of 12 Tigers and Lady Tigers competing on the track in the 2008 Olympics, topping a list that included Muna Lee (USA; 4th in the 200m; 5th in the 100m), Lolo Jones (USA; 7th in the 100 hurdles), Nickiesha Wilson (Jamaica; 9th in the 400m hurdles), Isa Phillips (Jamaica; 9th in the 400 hurdles), and Kelly-Ann Baptiste (Trinidad & Tobago; 22nd in the 100m; 4x100m).


Semoy Hackett                     Watch LSU-YouTube video

If Thompson experienced the next-best thing to the ultimate Olympic elation, former LSU teammate Jones experienced the other end of the emotional spectrum.

Already one of the most decorated track athletes in LSU history, Jones was the top-rated 100-meter hurdler in the world heading into the Beijing games and was the heavy favorite to win the gold medal. Not that she was letting her stature go to her head though, telling the Associated Press at the time, “I don’t believe there’s ever a favorite in the hurdles, just because there’s 10 obstacles. If you hit one of those obstacles, you go from first to third just like that.”

Jones did exactly that in the final when, with the gold medal within reach, she clipped the ninth of the 10 hurdles and fell. By the time she picked herself up and crossed the finish line she was in seventh place, her Olympic dream placed firmly on hold for another four years.

Which brings us to July 27, 2011—an important date on the calendar for Thompson, Jones, and every other Olympic hopeful around the world.

The opening ceremony of the XXX Olympiad, the London 2012 games, is now just 12 short months away. July 27, 2012, will be the official start of the next Olympic games, and with it another entry in LSU’s history book.


Gabriel Mvumvure                Watch LSU-YouTube video

While Thompson and Jones are sure to be back, hoping to improve on their wildly divergent Beijing experiences, there is a new crop of Tigers and Lady Tigers hoping to make their mark in London.

Kimberlyn Duncan, Semoy Hackett and Gabriel Mvumvure were three of LSU’s top performers on the track in 2011, and all are well aware that potentially the biggest track meet of their careers is now just 12 months away.

Three years ago Duncan was a high school junior in Katy, Texas, watching the track and field competition on TV, knowing her soon-to-be college was well represented.

“I recorded [the track events] on my TV, so I was up each and every time that there was something with track,” said Duncan. “I was up watching them. Especially knowing there were LSU athletes out there competing, I was looking at that going ‘I know I’m going to that school, and I’m going to be able to see those people who were once there.’ It was really exciting to see everyone out there running, knowing eventually I was going to be at that school running under that name.”

One sprinter Duncan may have noticed was then-recent high school graduate Hackett, a rising star from Trinidad & Tobago who advanced to the quarterfinals in the 100-meters and ran with Baptiste in the 4x100 relay, where, tragically, Trinidad & Tobago’s stellar team was undone when they dropped the baton during the final exchange.

“Competing in Beijing, that experience was really good,” said Hackett, a four-time All-American. “I was proud to represent my country in the 100-meters and the 4x100-meters.

“I was much younger than everyone else there. I wanted to go there and represent my country and make it as far as possible. I wanted to push myself and really make it among the bigger athletes. Now I’m the same age as everyone at my level of competition, so now it’s more intense for me. My approach to running in London 2012 will be much more intense, much more mentally focused, with much more pressure on me because I want to move on from what I accomplished in Beijing.”

While Hackett was enjoying the experience of competing on her sport’s biggest stage, Mvumvure was watching the games knowing he should’ve been out there competing for Zimbabwe. After qualifying for Beijing 2008, a simple clerical error meant he was not able to join his countrymen in China, a mistake that has steeled the sprinter’s resolve to excel in 2012.

“I’ve thought about London a lot,” Mvumvure said. “I was supposed to go in 2008 to Beijing, but there was a mixup with my papers, and I couldn’t get a visa in time. I told myself that I would never, never in my life be left out of the Olympics again. It only comes every four years. I’m really looking forward to London 2012, and that’s where my focus is. I’m not just trying to get over there and compete; I’m trying to get over there and make my mark.”

Mvumvure just completed his senior year at LSU, capping a collegiate career that saw him win a national relay title and earn All-America honors three times. No longer tied to LSU’s training regimen, the track “free agent” plans on preparing for the London 2012 games by taking his talents to … Baton Rouge.

“I’ll start fall training around September or October,” he said. “I have to put everything I have and everything I’ve learned into it considering I won’t be at LSU any more. I’ll probably still be out here practicing though.”

That Mvumvure would choose to stay in Baton Rouge and continue to train at Bernie Moore Stadium does not make him unique among LSU’s track and field alumni. Many former Tiger and Lady Tiger stars make LSU their training base, including Olympians Thompson, Jones and Lee.

By staying in Baton Rouge, not only do they get to run on Bernie Moore Stadium’s new surface (the same type they will compete on in London), but they also have access to some of the best track coaches available. With a background in coaching sprinters, LSU head coach Dennis Shaver has produced 18 Olympians and four Olympic medalists, and knows a thing or two about getting the most out of an athlete. Assistant coach Debbie Parris-Thymes, who coaches the women’s sprinters, was an accomplished track athlete in her own right and competed in the 400-meter hurdles for Jamaica in the 1996 and 2004 Olympic Games.

Between the expert coaching staff and the highly decorated alumni who return to Baton Rouge to train, there is no shortage of experts for LSU’s potential Olympians to turn to for advice.

“They offer wonderful insight,” Duncan said. “Just to be around Olympians and people who have been around the top, you automatically have an advantage because they’ve been there and they know what’s going on and what to do. So if you’re not understanding something or don’t know what to do they can help you get to the elite level that you’re trying to get to.”

“My first year at LSU, I trained hard, but I wasn’t used to most of the stuff I learned here,” said Hackett, who transferred to LSU after winning 10 national championships in two years at Lincoln University. “Knowing how to do it now, I’ll push myself much more. The Olympic year is a significant year for an athlete. I’ll push myself to master every technique and every drill that I have learned so far so I can improve my sprinting.”

For Duncan, the least internationally experienced member of LSU’s trio of Olympic hopefuls, the coaching provided by Shaver and Parris-Thymes transformed her from a high schooler struggling to get scholarship offers into one of the world’s best 200-meter runners in just her sophomore season. In her second year wearing purple and gold she won three NCAA titles; ran three of the 10 fastest outdoor 200-meter times in NCAA history; finished the indoor season ranked No. 1 in the world in the 200-meters; and was a finalist for the Bowerman Award, collegiate track and field’s equivalent to the Heisman Trophy (she’ll find out if she won or not in December).

Her 2011 season made fans of not just her coaches, but also her teammates, who are expecting big things in 2012.

“Kim is young, but age is not a matter,” Hackett said. “Allyson Felix came second in the Olympics when she was 18, and Kim is 19 now. She can go out there and run to the best of her ability and make it to the [Olympic 200-meter finals].”

While Duncan and Hackett will have their 2012 season shaped by LSU’s schedule, Mvumvure, who represented Zimbabwe at the IAAF World Junior Championships and the All-Africa Games prior to enrolling at LSU, has the world at his feet. Shaver will likely have some input into deciding which meets Mvumvure will enter, but as long as Mvumvure can continue to produce quality times, he can pick and choose where he wants to run.

“What I look for as far as selecting meets is competition because you run faster with competition,” said Mvumvure, who plans on beginning his 2012 outdoor season at the LSU Alumni Gold meet. “At the same time, I try to look at different weather conditions; I don’t want to go to a track meet where it will be windy and cold because it’s really hard to run fast in those types of conditions. It’s mostly competition and the weather conditions.”

No matter what route they take to get there, the ultimate goal for Mvumvure, Duncan, Hackett, Thompson, Jones, Lee, et al., in 2012 is the same: first, qualify for London; then, blow the world away.

They all have storylines readymade for TV: can Thompson overtake Bolt as the world’s fastest man? Can Jones win the gold medal she richly deserves? Can Hackett improve on her own 2008 efforts? Can Mvumvure unleash his talent on the world’s biggest stage? Can Duncan ride her collegiate success to the medal stand?

Tune in 12 months from now to find out.

 

Photos: Eddy Perez/University Relations
Videos: Frank Bourgeois/University Relations