Clark-Riley aims to bring home an Olympic medal

Published: Tuesday, July 1, 2008 at 11:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 1, 2008 at 11:55 p.m.

EUGENE, Ore. Hazel Clark-Riley wanted no surprises in Monday's 800-meter final at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials at historic Hayward Field.

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Hazel Clark-Riley, a former University of Florida standout, crosses the finish line to win the women's 800 meter final at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Ore., Monday.

The Associated Press

A two-time Olympian in the lightning-quick, two-lap event, Clark-Riley knows what can happen if you get into traffic as runners try to gut it out in the final 200 meters.

You may fall, get trampled and watch your Olympic dream crumble. That almost happened in Saturday's quarterfinal heat when four runners fell to the track, including Clark-Riley's training partner, Kameisha Bennett.

Fortunately for the four women who took the spill, meet officials allowed all of them to race in the final, meaning Clark-Riley would have 12 rather than eight competitors to contend with in a race that determines who gets to race in the Olympic Games in Beijing.

Like she did in her previous two heats, Clark-Riley used her superior strength to lead from the gun in the final. The result: a third trip to the Games.

Even though she wasn't in the Saturday semifinal heat where the four women fell, Clark-Riley watched the pile up, and she knew she would be racing the same women in the final.

"The fall made me feel like I needed to separate myself," she said. "I'm going to get away from the trouble. I've been doing some very tough workouts. I knew I was strong, and I felt I could hold on at the end.

"It takes a lot of courage to lead a race. To go wire-to-wire is a tough way to win a race. I really put my heart out there, and I felt like whether I won or not I could get top three racing that way, and stay on my feet. It was a safer way to run."

"What's it like to be back on top?" a reporter asked Clark-Riley minutes after the final. In truth, Clark-Riley's been on top since her days when she won five NCAA 800 titles for Florida, and now six has U.S. titles since she turned professional. At age 30, Clark-Riley is a seasoned veteran in the track world, part of the Olympic Ambassador program.

"It's a great feeling," Clark told the reporter. "This is my third Olympic trials. I made three teams, twice I've won (the trials). That's a big deal. It's really hard to do that in this country."

The front-running Clark-Riley tied up in the closing meters of the final, but by then her lead on runner-up Alice Schmidt was comfortable. Clark-Riley won in 1:59.82 to Schmidt's 2:00.46. Bennett was third (2:01.2), but her time failed to meet the Olympic "A" standard, meaning fourth-place finisher, Nicole Teter (2:01.3), who bettered the standard of 2:00.0 in an earlier race, made the team.

Bittersweet news for Clark-Riley, who was hoping to go to China with Bennett, who she trains with in Knoxville. Bennett, who is married to Miami Dolphin tight end David Martin, was in the race just 16 months after giving birth to her second son.

"I told her she's come a long way," Clark-Riley said. "She had a baby last year. For her to be here is such an accomplishment. She's my training partner. She's been a big support to me."

In the final, Clark-Riley tightened up in the closing meters. "I was hurting," she said. "I was tip-toeing, but I had this will, gutting it out, and I was like, 'I am going to make it to the (finish) line in first no matter what,' and that's what I did."

In 2000, Clark-Riley was third at the trials, but didn't advance to the Olympic final. She won the 2004 trials and went to the Olympic final, finishing 7th. She' hoping the third time will be the charm. She wants to win a medal in Beijing. "That's the plan. I'm going for it. I want to bring (a medal) back to this country."

The key to winning an Olympic medal is "eliminating mistakes," Clark-Riley said. Avoiding being boxed in, not racing in outside lanes, which adds distance to your race, and being ready to run any kind of race, be it "a slow and kick" or an "out fast and hold on," she said.

"I think the key is putting yourself in position at all times to win. You just can't make mistakes in the Olympic Games where everyone's going for it. You're running with the best in the world."

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