U.S. TRACK AND FIELD TRIALS: Second-place finish puts Goucher on Olympic team

EUGENE, Ore. -- Duluth native Kara Goucher of Portland, Ore., gained her first Olympic berth Friday night by placing second in the women's 10,000-meter final at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.

EUGENE, Ore. -- Duluth native Kara Goucher of Portland, Ore., gained her first Olympic berth Friday night by placing second in the women's 10,000-meter final at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.

U.S. record holder Shalane Flanagan took over in the final meters to win in 31 minutes, 34.81 seconds, a Hayward Field record. Goucher was second in 31:37.72, while Goucher's training partner, Amy Begley, gained the third spot in 31:43.60.

It was Goucher's moment of glory, and building on those moments has been her strength since Aug. 25.

That was when she did what no American woman has done on a global stage in track and field -- placing third at 10,000 meters in the World Championships in Osaka, Japan. It came in her first try at that level and brought notoriety and expectations.

Goucher, 29, the former Kara Grgas-Wheeler of Duluth, has thrived on success and acheived another goal by making the Olympic team with Friday night's finish in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.


Leading the pack

The race started at 11:20 p.m. Duluth time. Goucher needed to finish in the top three to earn an Olympic berth for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing in August.

Begley, Goucher's training partner, needed at least the Olympic qualifying time of 31:45 and led for a while very early on, then marathon qualifier Magadalena Lewy took over. Goucher and Flanagan stood fourth and fifth as the pack started to string out.

Lewy, Begley and Elva Dryer held 1-2-3, while Goucher and Flanagan were almost side-by-side in matching blue and white racing uniforms with 19 laps to go out of 25.

After two or three more laps, American record holder Flanagan apparently didn't like the slow pace and pulled out. Goucher was in pursuit as they went 1-2 with 14 laps remaining, with a 71.2 second lap. Begley was third as that threesome made a slight gap on the field. With 10 laps remaining, they had pulled completely away.

Katie McGregor of St. Louis Park, Minn., who has an Olympic qualifying time and would be eligible to advance even if not in the top three, stayed behind the leaders.

With three laps remaining, Goucher and Flanagan quickly took off, with Goucher taking a slight lead, her first lead of the race. That remained the same with two laps left. With 500 meters to go Goucher tried to get away, but Flanagan made a comeback to win.

"I don't know what Kara will accomplish on the right day. There are no limits. As long as she is healthy and running well, anything is possible," said Kendall Schoolmeester, Kara's sister and the former Kendall Grgas-Wheeler.


Testing her limits

When Goucher passed Joanne Pavey of Great Britain in the final 200 meters for a bronze medal in Osaka, Goucher's coach, Alberto Salazar, had an inkling of what might happen. So did her husband, Olympian Adam Goucher. Salazar told her so on the way to the track, and his confidence in her has only grown since.

"She's gone from being a top-five runner in the United States to being a top-five runner in the world. She's worked hard at it," Salazar said.

Kara Goucher, 5-foot-7 and 120 pounds, has gradually overcome self-doubt in recent years and punctuated a surging confidence at the World Championships, and has since been on the cover of Running Times and Runner's World.

"I can't describe the emotions I felt when I crossed that line," she said at the time. "It was totally overwhelming. [Later] I walked through the long media line. People were asking me, 'Did you ever think it was possible?' I know now that if you dream big, have faith and believe, that anything is possible."

Since qualifying for the 10,000-meter American team Friday, Goucher is just the second track Olympian from Northeastern Minnesota, and the first in 32 years since Garry Bjorklund of Twig in the men's 10,000 meters in 1976. He qualified on the same track.

Believing, however, isn't always easy when so much depends on having a durable body. Over the years, Goucher has had knee surgery, leg surgery, leg stress fractures, an abdominal muscle pull and Achilles' tendon strain. There also was a meeting with a 40-ton tractor-trailer in 2006 near Portland, as her Chevy Trailblazer got smacked into a concrete wall and was totaled, while she escaped with knee bruises and whiplash.

Runners reborn


But she and her husband have experienced a running rebirth under Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project group since moving to Portland in 2004. Core-strength training has been critical, along with altitude training. The Gouchers spent nearly 7½weeks recently in Park City and Deer Valley, Utah, at 8,300-14,000 feet, training outdoors and sleeping in oxygen tents at night to aid endurance preparation.

"She's in the absolute best shape she's ever been in. She's stronger than she's ever been, hands down," Adam Goucher said. "I fully expect her to make both teams [at 5,000 and 10,000 meters]."

Kara Goucher also has had therapy sessions by phone with Dr. Darren Treasure, a sports psychologist based in Arizona, to improve a positive mental outlook.

"Since 2006, when I ran fast enough to qualify for the World Championships, the reality that I really could make the Olympic team has influenced all the running decisions I've made," Goucher, a 1996 Duluth East graduate, said recently. "I'm not going to the trials for a great experience or to have fun. I am going to continue my quest for my ultimate goal -- which is an Olympic medal.

"In 2000 [in her first Olympic Trials] my goals ended there. Now the trials are another step to my goals -- they are not the end. I believe I will make the team now. Anything can happen, but I am ready to make this team. I know I am good enough and that I am a favorite. All eyes will be on Shalane [Flanagan] and myself, and I won't be hiding in the back of the pack."

All in the family

Goucher's two sisters, both athletes, have seen Kara's competitive side since childhood.

Kendall, 26, also ran at the University of Colorado, was captain of the cross country team and married Bret Schoolmeester, also a Colorado distance runner. Kendall and Bret live in Portland; Kendall is a massage therapist for the Nike Oregon Project and has a 13-week-old daughter, Sophie Jean.


Kelly Grgas-Wheeler, 31, is an assistant women's soccer coach and sports information assistant at Minnesota Duluth. She played soccer at Ottawa (Kan.) University, where she was a three-time team MVP and left as the school's career scoring leader.

"We're all extremely stubborn and strong-minded," Kelly said. "My mom is strong-willed and we were never told we couldn't do something. Kara said in high school she wanted to be in the Olympics."

Patty Wheeler, a 1971 Duluth East graduate, says some of that stick-to-itiveness comes from her late husband, Mirko Grgas. The native of Zablace, Croatia, a soccer All-American at Ottawa University, was killed at 6:30 a.m. on July 2, 1982, in an auto accident by a drunken driver in New York City. He was 34. Kara was a week shy of her fourth birthday.

"Mirko was a very calm person until you got him onto a soccer field, then he was very competitive," said Patty Wheeler, a Victim Witness Coordinator for the Lake County Attorney's Office. "The girls are built strong like him and athletic like him. I know he would have believed in each of them and would be unbelievably proud of what Kara has done in track."

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