The Spokesman-Review : interns

Friday, May 25, 2007

Stef: Rare Display of Courage

Eugene, Ore. — Some of the top track and field athletes in the nation convened in Eugene, Ore. this weekend to compete in the NCAA West Regionals. Many of these athletes are legends in the making. Some, like Oregon's Rebekah Noble and Galen Rupp, are the names we'll be hearing at the Beijing Olympics next year.

But when I left the track this evening, the image that resonated in my head was not one of Rupp sprinting to the tape, arms raised in triumph, or of Stanford's Theresa McWalters' come from behind win in the Women's 5000m as she passed Brigham Young's Whitney McDonald with about 40 meters to go down the homestretch of the bell lap.

The image that stuck with me was one of Portland's Amie Dahnke, pale cheeks flushed, rail-thin body wavering as she half-jogged and half-stumbled over the finish line, almost two minutes after McWalters' first place finish.

To me, the fact that Dahnke had even finished was a miracle in itself.

With five laps to go in the 25-lap, 5000m race, Dahnke, had already fallen at least a half-lap behind everyone else. She was dead last by more than 100m, and every time she passed the pen where I was standing with all the journalists, it seemed to me as if she was looking wearier and wearier.

At the 4000m mark, I watched as Dahnke — a Spokane native who graduated from University High School in 2004 — fell farther and farther behind the pack, and I couldn't help but feel bad for her. She was running so slowly she seemed to practically shuffle. Her fists were clenched as she ran, and her face was set in a worried grimace. She no longer appeared to be able to run between the lines the delineated the first lane. Instead, she swayed and wavered into Lane 2, and looked as if she didn't even know she was there.

"I bet she's gonna drop out," I remarked to a fellow journalist. He agreed with me.

"She can't even stay between the lines anymore," he said.

We watched as Dahnke approached the far curve closest to the athletes' holding pen, to see if she would just stop running and walk off the track, just as I'd seen a couple of other laggards do in the men's 5,000m race fifteen minutes earlier.

But to my surprise, she kept going. Her steps were small and measured, and each time she passed the spot where I was standing, the pained expression on her face made it evident that she was struggling. But Dahnke kept running.

On the bell lap, McDonald and McWalters easily lapped Dahnke, and so did the rest of the pack.

My heart went out to Dahnke as she crossed the finish line where the other athletes stood around panting in exhaustion after having finished the race. And I thought she'd just stop and throw in the towel right there.

But once again, Dahnke kept going.

She shuffled past all the bent over atheletes. And it became evident that she was determined to complete the last lap even if it killed her.

I didn't see her come in because I'd turned my attention to the times being announced over the PA. But I did notice that she'd eventually clocked in at 17:52.78. To put that in context, McWalters finished the race in 16:04.92.

Upon to that point, my interest in Dahnke extended only as far as a mere fleeting respect for her tenacity in finishing that race. The magnitude of her courage didn't quite hit me until after I'd left Hayward Field and was walking past the athletes' cool-down fields to get home.

As I walked through the gate separating both fields, I caught sight of a tall, lanky figure decked in Portland's purple-and-white uniform, standing at one corner of the cool down fields crying.

Dahnke was sobbing. She was just standing there, holding her hands to her face and crying in a gut-wrenching manner that conveyed every ounce of the exhaustion and disappointment that I imagined she must have been feeling. One of her teammates came over and hugged her. And as I stood there watching Dahnke cry into that other girl's shoulder, I was suddenly struck by a much deeper respect for her.

As a sportswriter, my gut instinct is to always look out for the winner because I'm trained to believe that that's what matters Get the quote from the guy who wins because he's the one people want to read about in the paper tomorrow.

But at that moment it hit me that it must have been infinitely harder for Amie Dahnke to finish that race — to continue on that final lap knowing that everyone else was already done — than it had been for Galen Rupp to cruise to the tape triumphant.

Dahnke had staggered in so far behind the rest of the field that her result had already ceased to matter. She didn't have to finish that race. But she did anyway, regardless of the fact that she looked dangerously close to passing out throughout the last two laps.

She finished even though it took her just about everything she had.

And that to me is the stuff that real champions are made off.

When I got home, I Googled her and realized that her post-race breakdown probably resulted from acute disappointment. A month ago, Dahnke had run that very same race in 16:51.55.

My greatest regret is that I didn't stop to talk to her this afternoon. I just kept on going. Because as I stood there watching her collapse in disappointment, I decided that I didn't need that story. Not then. Women's track is not my beat, and Dahnke is not a Duck, so there was no reason to put her in our paper anyway. I decided that after that draining race she'd earned her right to some sort of privacy.

But I was touched by her courage nonetheless.

2 Comments:

  • Hey Stef

    After a few years of having this happened, I just want to say thank you so much for writing this piece. As a fellow journalist I know what it means to write about the off-beat story and am touched by the fact that you found inspiration in my race.

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    By Blogger The Retail Cynic, at 11:36 AM  

  • I just happened upon your blog. I'm from Spokane and down here in Texas and really miss it some days. I ran high school cross country with Amie and she is such a class act. She has always been gutsy and I always admired her so much. That was such a cool article to read, I feel so bad for Amie and its so easy for me to picture how Amie must of looked in that race even though I raced with her over 6 or 7 years ago.

    Thank you!
    Kellie

    By Anonymous Kellie anderson, at 8:24 AM  

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