Sacramento Bee Article-Dragila blames poor performance at the OLY Games on the Shoes

By John Schumacher – Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PST Sunday, October 31, 2004

Stacy Dragila headed to Athens with high expectations. She came home devastated.
Jamie Nieto entered the Olympic Games dreaming of a medal. He set a personal record but finished in the most heartbreaking place of all: fourth.

Derek Miles hoped to soar high in Greece. He didn’t quite get there, leaving with a tinge of disappointment and a touch of hunger.

The three Sacramento-area track and field standouts experienced varying Olympic emotions but returned home from the August Games with one unifying thought.

This is no time to walk away.

At 33, Dragila isn’t ready to stop pole vaulting, even if other desires beckon. The 27-year-old Nieto talks of Beijing, site of the 2008 Games. And Miles, 32, suspects he, too, might have another four years in him.

Two months after their Olympic experiences, the trio looks back at what happened. And wonders what might lie ahead.

The fire still burns. Which means retirement and starting a family will have to wait, but don’t ask Stacy Dragila for how long.

“I thought I would do that after this year, but because things didn’t go the way I’d hoped, I still have some passion to do some things,” she said.

“I don’t want to know when the end is going to be. Two years, for sure. And (then) if it’s fun and I’m healthy, what’s two more years? Beijing is definitely out there. It’s not a definite.”

The whole script changed on that depressing day in Athens. The pioneer of the women’s pole vault, who set an American record of 15 feet, 10 inches in June, couldn’t clear a measly 14-51/ 4 in Olympic qualifying.

And yes, it was the shoes.

The personable Dragila provided input for the shoe’s design. She’s also the spokeswoman for it. So when Nike rolled it out before the U.S. Olympic Trials in Sacramento, Dragila decided to make the switch.

Her old jumping shoes were a little loose in the heel. The new pair, reinforced to last longer, felt nice and snug at first.

She wore them the week before the Trials but three days before qualifying felt “a little Achilles’ flareup.” She cruised through qualifying, clearing 13-111/ 4 on her first attempt, and won the Trials final with a 15-7 effort.

“I just attributed it to stress, being at the Trials, not sleeping as good as I probably should,” said Dragila, the former goat roper and Placer High School track standout. “I never thought it was the shoe.”

By the time she arrived in Crete for the U.S. Olympic training camp, though, both Achilles’ tendons were bothering her. She couldn’t do her normal workouts and during qualifying discovered she couldn’t make a full approach on the runway.

“I was trying not to panic,” said Dragila, who brought her husband, Brent, with her to the Games. “I made the first height (14-11/ 4). It was kind of pathetic, but I made it. I thought, I’ve done it before; I can do this again.”

But she couldn’t. She said coach Greg Hull looked “like a deer in headlights.” And while she suspected her step might be off, U.S. teammate Kellie Suttle had already been eliminated and fellow American Jillian Schwartz was having her own problems on another runway.

“I wasn’t going to ask them to help me,” Dragila said. “I just knew I was doomed.”

Doomed, she admits, by her own hand. Or shoe.

“When you’re a fine-tuned athlete or sports car, you don’t change the wheels,” she said. "I wish somebody had told me. I don’t blame anybody but myself.

“I shouldn’t have tried to break in something new in a crucial time of training. In hindsight, looking back, stay with what you’ve got.”

Or face the consequences.

“It was pretty devastating,” she said. “I’m just ready to get back and prove myself. I feel like I should have been on the podium in Athens.”

Dragila admits she didn’t deal with her Olympic disappointment very well for a few weeks.

“I wanted to scream at the world, scream at my coach,” she said. “I probably did, both of them.”

She jumped once in Belgium, clearing 14-0 on Sept. 3. Then she returned home to Phoenix to start the healing process.

Dragila could walk, ride a bike or even climb a mountain without pain. But when she put a bouncing step in her stride, she felt pain.

So she’s made the rounds of physical therapy and acupuncture and has recovered enough to begin light workouts. She plans to start jumping again in a few weeks, with her focus now on the 2005 World Championships next August in Helsinki, Finland.

“That’s kind of my Olympics all over again,” she said.

She said she’s eager to bond more with Hull, to whom she committed by moving from Pocatello, Idaho, to Phoenix in April 2003.

And while Russians Yelena Isinbayeva and Svetlana Feofanova, the gold and silver medalists in Athens, are the only women to clear 16 feet, Dragila remains in pursuit of a higher barrier.

“I still have a passion for this,” she said. “Five meters (16-43/ 4) is out there for me.”

How long will she pursue it? When Dragila visited the White House with her U.S. Olympic teammates last week, she said she flashed President Bush a “four more years” signal.

We should find out if that happens Tuesday night. The answer on Dragila will take longer to surface.

T he easygoing, friendly kid from Valley High School and Sacramento City College keeps receiving congratulations for his personal-best 7-8 high jump in Athens.

But it’s a medal Jamie Nieto really wanted.

“More than anything, I’m sad,” he said. "It was nice to get a personal best. My overall goal wasn’t accomplished. Everybody came to me afterward, ‘You did a great job.’ But it wasn’t enough for me.

“I think I’ve created a monster for myself. This gives me the drive to jump even better.”

Nieto won the U.S. Olympic Trials here with a 7-73/ 4 leap. But it was teammate Matt Hemingway who brought home a medal from Athens, earning the silver.

If Nieto had cleared 7-83/ 4 - he grazed the bar on the way down with his right calf on his final attempt - he would have battled Sweden’s Stefan Holm for the gold medal. But despite clearing the same height as Hemingway and the Czech Republic’s Jaroslav Baba, Nieto wound up fourth because he had more misses.

He competed in five meets after the Olympics, never jumping higher than 7-51/ 4.

“After the Games, I was a little distraught,” said Nieto, who brought his mother, Crystal Day, with him to Athens. “You were just in the biggest competition of your life, and then to go to a regular track meet. … You just don’t feel like that.”

Nieto said he did enjoy the overall Olympic experience, plus last week’s U.S. team visit to the White House.

“It was cool,” Nieto said. “We did a tour of the White House, saw the dog. He (President Bush) landed in a helicopter and came in and did a speech, real formal. Everything was timed out perfectly.”

Between the Olympic Trials in his hometown and the Olympic Games, Nieto knows he has lifetime memories to cherish.

“It was just a surreal experience, both ways,” he said. "Sacramento, it was definitely great to win in my hometown, and the crowd.

“The Games, actually competing, being in the thick of things, making Stefan Holm sweat, making these other guys sweat … even though I didn’t win, I felt like I was the best jumper that day. That I’m happy about.”

Nieto has resumed training, eager to compete in the upcoming indoor season before focusing on the runup to the 2005 World Championships.

Beyond that, Beijing beckons.

But Nieto knows a lot can happen in four years. So he consulted hurdler Allen Johnson, at 33 one of the grand old men of the U.S. track team, on how to keep going strong.

"He said, ‘I’ve been doing the same thing since high school: stay consistent and stay healthy,’ " Nieto said. "I’m going to take it a year at a time. I’m looking to 2008, but you never really know what’s going to happen.

“All I can do is train hard. If I’m still healthy and doing well, I’ll be there.”

His countrymen, Tim Mack and Toby Stevenson, finished 1-2. Derek Miles would have loved to have joined them on the medal stand, but you never know what you’re going to get when you sprint down the runway with a pole in your hands.

Just ask Dragila.

Miles, the laid-back, lanky pole vaulter from Bella Vista High School, finished third at the Olympic Trials and headed into the Games feeling healthy and ready to soar. But it didn’t happen.

Hoping to improve on his personal best of 19-1, Miles instead settled for a clearance of 18-101/ 4, good for seventh place.

“I kind of left Athens a little hungry,” said Miles, who cleared 19-01/ 4 at the Trials and in a meet in Zurich, Switzerland, three weeks before the Games.

“I knew I was jumping well enough to jump 19-2 or 19-4. I couldn’t get into the groove.”

He needed three attempts to clear 18-81/ 4 in the Olympic qualifying round. In the final, he nearly cleared 19-2 on his final attempt, nicking the bar on the way up.

“That was my best jump of the night,” he said. “I’m a little disappointed. … It could have ended up a lot worse.”

Miles, who brought his parents, John and Vicki Miles from Citrus Heights, and his wife, Tori, to Athens, said he savored his time in Greece.

“Everything was just kind of an eye-opening experience,” he said. "Let’s go see what the village looks like. Just go with the flow and take the experience in.

“It was really fun.”

Miles concedes the days before the men’s pole vault - held near the end of the Games - were nerve-racking.

But after reaching the final, he felt the tension lift.

“It was kind of like being on the runway without a whole lot of pressure,” he said. “I for sure wanted to have an American sweep, but I was more concerned about wanting to jump higher.”

Now, Miles focuses on continuing his pole-vaulting career. That means staying in Jonesboro, Ark., where he trains under legendary coach Earl Bell and works as an academic adviser at Arkansas State University.

And it means making some technical changes in his ongoing quest to vault higher.

“I’m going back to the drawing board,” Miles said. "I’m tired of just jumping 19 feet. Tim Mack and Toby Stevenson, they’re both jumping 19-8. All of a sudden, they both PR. That opened a door for my thinking.

“There’s something I’m missing. I’m just taking a long, hard look at what it is.”

Miles then started talking about getting his center of gravity on top of a bending pole instead of underneath it.

“I want to get on top of that ride,” he said. "It will define whether or not I become a 6-meter (19-81/ 4) jumper, whether or not I can get my energy on top of that pole.

“Pole vaulting is one of those types of sports, some people figure it out, some people just retire having never figured it out.”

Miles hopes he falls into the former category, staying healthy enough to catch a ride that carries him all the way to 2008.

“For sure, I’m fired up,” he said. “Let’s go another four.”