For serious track and field junkies, there's nothing quite like the pilgrimage to the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. Every true sports fanatic can understand the experience of traveling to a place that brings goose bumps to your arms just by walking into your favorite athletic shrine, and for track nuts everywhere, Oregon's legendary Hayward Field is the Boston Garden, Yankee Stadium and Churchill Downs all wrapped into one.
Hayward Field is hallowed ground, the perfect setting for the best track meet in the world not called the Olympic Games. Every four years, the best track athletes in America show up there for 12 nerve-jangling days and nights that will decide who will represent the USA at the Olympics. Only three per event get a ticket, and it's why you will find billboards all over Eugene that tell you the cruel reality of the American trials.
"Track Town, U.S.A. Where you can get fired from your job for showing up .03 seconds late."
Yet if you look beyond the captivating anxiety at the top of result charts, you just might find one of the hidden joys of the U.S. trials buried deep in the fine print of the statistics page. It's down there in that fine print where you just might be able to forecast Olympians of the future. The Olympic trials aren't always about the here and now. Sometimes they are a fascinating glimpse into the future.
That's why Bethany Buell is in Eugene this weekend. Local track nuts might remember her name. Back in 2009, Buell was a high school All-Metro from Rockwood Summit who won back-to-back Missouri Class 4 state pole vault titles in her junior and senior years. She's 20 years old now, a red-shirt sophomore at the University of South Dakota, and this is her test run at Olympic glory.
"I just want to soak everything in," she said.
She's one of those kids who could be lost in the results pages by most folks because even though she's coming off a third-place finish in the NCAA championships with the best vault of her career (14 feet 5¼ inches), she's probably four years away from being a legitimate Olympic contender.
"It would be a pretty big jump for me to get there this year," said Buell. "It's not impossible, but it's going to have to be a really good day (to get into the top three). For me, 2016 is the target, which is why I'm (in Eugene) to take in the experience, learn as much as I can and have a ton of fun."
Buell's best vault ranks as the 11th best in the U.S., but she is in the apprentice stage in her craft. While she has improved rapidly since taking up the event, improving by a foot every year, before she can move into the international class she will have to reach the 16-foot level to challenge for Olympic medal contention.
Her coach at South Dakota is two-time Olympian Derek Miles, who saw her potential when he recruited her and envisioned a diamond in the rough he could work with and turn into something special.
Miles saw the power and speed that she developed from gymnastics and running the sprints and hurdles and how those natural abilities flowed so easily on the vault runway. Back as a 16- or 17-year-old, Buell began to formulate her first Olympic dreams.
"I made it a goal in high school to make it to the Olympics," she said. "I remember my mom asking me what I wanted to do with this when I first got into track, and I told her I definitely wanted to go to college for it and eventually I want to go to Olympics. But it wasn't until this year when I was able to qualify for the trials that it really became a reality."
So she is in Eugene, just one step closer to that goal, but she knows this trip is more of a fact-finding mission.
On Friday, Buell got a bit of unexpected experience when Eugene was bathed in an all-day downpour, scrubbing the two preliminary rounds, allowing all 29 competitors to advance to Sunday's finals. That means she will have to adjust to a longer day of competition, but it will allow Buell to experience the drama of some of the biggest audiences of her competitive life (a crowd of more than 21,000 is expected at Hayward Field). She will also get the opportunity to watch some of her more experienced competitors grind through the rather long day.
"There are no expectations," Buell said. "I want to do well of course, but it's more about the experience. I think it's just being more comfortable with the entire environment. I want to become familiar with the runway, with how the entire track is set up. All of that is really helpful (for the future). You have to remember, I have never run at (an international style) meet, only NCAAs. So I get to see how they set things up. Everything that happens now is all new for me and that's kind of fun.
"Then I also get to mingle with all those great athletes that are here. It will be a lot of fun."