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Olympic Trials and Tribulations

Tony Cosey's wife won it all with a 5-pound, 12-ounce baby girl

by Matthew T. Everett

Tony Cosey's official Olympic experience didn't last very long. The former Central High School and University of Tennessee middle-distance runner was on the track in Sydney for just eight minutes and 35.25 seconds, finishing 10th in his preliminary round of the men's 3,000-meter steeplechase. The time was well-short of the personal best of 8:21.41 Cosey had run in July to make the United States Olympic team, and left him about 10 seconds short of qualifying for the final held two days later.

It was a disappointing finish to Cosey's best season yet as a professional steeplechaser. Ten years ago, he was a skinny kid from Fountain City who won state championships even though he really didn't like to run. Now, at 26, he's overcome a 1999 season that was effectively lost because of a hamstring injury to become one of the best steeplechasers in the country.

The steeplechase? That's an equestrian event, isn't it?

"I find myself explaining it a lot," Cosey says of his specialty event, which is a track and field version of roller derby or stock car racing. In the steeplechase, a dozen or more runners circle a 400-meter track seven and a half times—that's just under two miles—at a pace close to four-minutes-a-mile. Oh, and they do it while navigating four three-foot hurdles and a treacherous water jump on each lap. At the international level, the steeplechase is run at about 65 seconds for each quarter-mile lap, so it requires the speed and quick leg turnover of a miler. But, because of the hurdles and water jump, a good steeplechaser also has to have the endurance of a true long-distance runner, and sufficient mechanics and technique to clear the jumps.

The only track and field events with greater immediate physical risk may be the hammer throw or the javelin toss, or the pole vault. In stadiums across the world, fans crowd the seats near the water jump to see the action as close as possible, just as they crowd the corners at Bristol Motor Speedway.

"It's kind of like NASCAR on the track," Cosey says. "The falls are the only reason people watch it."

As disappointing as Cosey's performance in the preliminary round was, he had a good excuse. His preparation at Sydney was interrupted by the birth of his first child—a girl, Taylor—in Knoxville just two days before his race.

Taylor's arrival wasn't exactly unexpected, but it was a few weeks early. On Sept. 25, Cosey was in the living room of his house in the Olympic Village, watching a televised Marion Jones win the women's 100-meter final. He was with his roommates—distance runner Alan Culpepper, 400-meter hurdles gold medalist Angelo Taylor, veteran sprinter Floyd Heard, and fellow steepler Mark Croghan—when his wife, Kathryn, called from Knoxville.

"I was surprised, because I wasn't expecting any phone calls. She said she was having the baby, and my first thought—well, my first thought was, 'Is everything OK?'—but then I thought, 'Noooo,'" he says.

"I knew it was four weeks early, so I asked if she was all right, if everything was the way it was supposed to be. She said, 'Yes, I'm at the hospital and they're admitting me.' She said everything was OK, and then we were on the phone for about 30 minutes before she had to go fill out some papers. Then I called my parents to tell them, and I called Kathryn back, and we talked for 40 minutes or so, and then again until 4 a.m., which was about 10:30 a.m. Knoxville time.

"I got up at 9 a.m. to go run, and then I went to bed at 10 a.m. The last 36 hours before the race—I slept 30 of them."

Taylor's birth wasn't the only distraction Cosey faced while he was in Sydney. He stayed in the Village with thousands of other athletes. He and 14 others were crammed into an 1,800-square-foot, newly-built house separated into apartments with temporary walls. Cosey says the quarters were "really nice," but that they seemed unfinished. "They (Olympic officials) knew they needed as many bedrooms as they could get."

While he was there, Cosey met Chelsea Clinton—a friend of Cosey's teammate, American miler Michael Stember, who ran at Stanford. The First Daughter congratulated Kathryn Cosey over the telephone after Taylor was born.

Cosey also met TV personality Katie Couric, baseball legend and Olympic coach Tommy Lasorda, and the one and only Muhammed Ali when they visited the Village. He was able to spend a little time with NBA All-Star and former schoolmate and UT standout Alan Houston, along with other U.S. basketball players.

"I got Alonzo Mourning on video giving me a 'Whaaassuuup,'" Cosey laughs, mimicking—badly—the catch phrase of Budweiser's popular TV ad campaign.

Even if Cosey had made the steeplechase final—even if he had won a medal—Taylor's birth probably would still have been his biggest memory of the Games.

Of his heat race, he says, "I got out where I wanted to be, kind of in the middle of the pack. The pace wasn't too terribly fast, actually about the same pace we ran at the trials, so I was comfortable through the first four laps. But about the fourth lap I started falling off and basically I was trying to hang on. I kicked in pretty good at the end, but when they made their move my legs were dead. I was spent."

Cosey said before the Games that, if he could get to the final, anything could happen. To make that final even harder for him to watch, Kosgei's winning time was 8:21.43, nearly identical to the personal best that Cosey ran at the Olympic Trials.

A good performance from Cosey could also have given a much-needed boost to American distance running. The last time an American won gold in the steeplechase at either the Olympics or the biannual World Championships was the 1952 Games in Helsinki, when FBI agent Horace Ashenfelter surprised the field with a world record time of 8:45.4. There have been some solid performances since then: American record holder Harry Marsh, now retired, made four Olympic teams and ranked number one in the world three times, and Mark Croghan finished fifth in the Olympics in 1996. Both Marsh and Croghan have run under the benchmark time of 8:10—the only Americans ever to do so—that separates the merely international-class steeplechaser from true championship-caliber runners. But neither has managed to crack through the steel wall of dominance established by Kenyan runners in the event since the late 1960s.

At Sydney, Kenyans won gold and silver, and the third Kenyan runner, world-record holder Bernard Barmasai, finished fourth. No non-Kenyan has held the world record since 1978. If Kenya could send more than the allotted three athletes to the event, they could conceivably sweep the entire final.

"The Africans have blown the lid off of it," says Doug Brown, Cosey's coach at UT until 1995. Brown held the American record in the steeplechase in the 1970s, and made two Olympic teams in the event. "Eight of the 10 fastest times every year are from Kenya, and they've really raised the bar. The world record used to be 8:05. Now it's 7:55. A lot of other countries have been involved in other distance races, but the steeple is exclusively Kenyan."

Croghan has been the best American steeplechaser of the last decade, but he's now 32 and is probably reaching the end of his career. That leaves Cosey, six years younger, among the handful of athletes who could claim the title of best U.S. steeplechaser in the next couple of years. He may never be a serious medal contender—but he may very well be the best in the country in just a few years.

That's a pretty good position for a local kid, who only started running after he beat the Gresham Middle School record for the fitness mile run. Then he started chasing that record's former holder, Brad Higdon, a Central High standout who lived just down the street from Cosey's home in Fountain City. In his senior year at Central in 1992, Cosey set a still-standing state record in the 1,600 meters—the high school equivalent of the mile—of 4:11.9. But he still wasn't sure then that he even liked to run. "In college, even if you were really good in high school, you're training harder and you come to a crossroads," he says. "Because it's so time consuming, you learn to love it or you continue to hate it and you quit."

By his sophomore year at UT, Cosey had committed to the steeplechase. The race originated in Great Britain sometime in the 19th century, when track officials there tried to simulate the up-and-down, over-and around demands of cross country running on a flat 400-meter oval.

"Cross country had always made more sense to me," Cosey says. "You're getting somewhere, even if you're just running a circuit around a park or a golf course, instead of just running circles around a track. When I heard about the steeplechase, it seemed like the next best thing. But if I hadn't found it, I wouldn't be running now."

He's made steady progress, finishing fourth in the NCAA championship meet his senior year (and fifth in the longer 10,000 meters), then placing 10th in the 1996 Olympic Trials. He's made international cross country teams, and finished fifth in the steeplechase at the Goodwill Games in 1998. He's sponsored by Adidas, allowing him to train without the demands of a full-time job, but he still works 30 to 40 hours a week—at least when he's not on the international pro track circuit during the summer—as a financial advisor with the American General Financial Group.

Both Brown and George Watts, UT's head cross country coach and an assistant on the track team, think Cosey's got a good shot at getting even better. "The steeplechase always seemed to suit him well," Watts says. "He's got speed and strength, and he's a very good technician. That he made the team was a huge accomplishment, but the first time internationally, at that level, it's hard to break through. But now we have the World Championships every two years, and this was valuable experience. Tony's always been a guy, when he has a setback, he bounces back quickly."

In fact, the disappointment of the Sydney games might be a key to making him better. "It was disheartening," he says. "But that's what keeps me training. That bitter taste keeps me going."

October 19, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 42
© 2000 Metro Pulse