SYDNEY, Feb 29 (Reuters) - Stephanie Brown Trafton hit such lows in the years after her “life-changing” discus gold medal triumph at the Beijing Olympics that she considered giving up altogether on going to London to defend her title.
Those dark days are behind her now, however, and the bubbly Californian will go into June’s Olympic trials as defending U.S. champion and determined to shine in her mother’s home city in August.
Trafton Brown was an unlikely winner of the title four years ago, prevailing in a mediocre competition to bring the United States its first gold of the athletics competition with a throw of 64.74 metres, a distance six of her rivals had exceeded that year.
She had hoped to use her Beijing triumph as a springboard to more success but finishing 12th and last in the final at her first world championships in Berlin in 2009 triggered a crisis of confidence.
“I had a fairly decent year in 2009 but then I dropped the ball at the world championships,” the 32-year-old recalled in an interview at the Sydney Track Classic earlier this month.
”That led to an entire year to 18 months of really troubling times. I could not compete to save my life, I could not throw within 20 feet of what I normally throw.
“So being able to come back from that and being at this point where I could win another Olympic medal is awesome.”
Describing the four years since Beijing as “an emotional rollercoaster”, Brown Trafton, who combines her discus throwing with a career in engineering, said she was forced to question the sacrifice sport demanded of her.
“Physically I was okay, which is a blessing because if it was physical I would have more excuse not to do well, but the mental aspects were what was getting me down,” she said.
”For some reason, I didn’t have enough emotional battery store to carry me through.
“I asked myself why I was sacrificing my life and my career to be an athlete. So I took a step back and re-evaluate and decided if I wasn’t going to go for an Olympic championship, I should just quit.”
Ultimately, though, she decided to continue in her quest and the location of the Games was a major factor in her deliberations.
“This is the most excited I’ve ever been about the Olympics just because my family is from London,” she said. “It feels like I have so much reason to be there and bring my career full circle.”
Brown Trafton turned to the discus after an anterior cruciate ligament injury wrecked her collegiate basketball career but the Olympics had always been a dream since she watched American gymnast Mary Lou Retton win gold in 1984.
She finished 22nd at her first Olympics in Athens in 2004 and only just clinched the third and final spot in her event on the American team for Beijing.
There will again be tough competition at the June 22-July 1 U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon and Brown Trafton knows her ticket to London is by no means guaranteed.
“If I can make that team, the rest is going to be icing on the cake, it’s just going to be awesome,” she said.
“I‘m just going to be able to relax and perform in front of what I consider my ‘home’ crowd.”
Making full use of the leverage her 6ft 4in (1.93m) height gives her, Brown Trafton threw 63.23 with her opening attempt in an encouraging first outing of the season at the Sydney Olympic Park.
“I know that this throw, especially for an early season throw, is very good,” she said after pushing 2009 world champion Dani Samuels into second place.
“I‘m going to go back to the training room now to get stronger and even fitter and have a great year.”
Trafton Brown, whose longest throw of 64.13 last year was nearly four metres behind the world’s best, thinks her event is reasonably open again this year and is convinced that winning the Olympic event will take a special effort.
”There’s about five or six people in the world at the moment who could pull it out,“ she said. ”No one’s been dominating at the big meets.
”Of course, Cuba and Germany have excellent athletes that are able to be consistent at a certain level but when it comes to the Olympics, unless you have that spiritual connection and have an outstanding meet and just blow it out of the water, you can’t win.
“It has to be greater than just being consistent at a certain level and I‘m looking forward to doing that again.”
Retaining her title might be a very long shot but if she does, Brown Trafton will certainly not be without a pithy comment to match the “I came to the Bird’s Nest to lay a golden egg” she came up with four years ago.
“Beijing was a life-changing experience for me and fulfilled my childhood dream of not only becoming and Olympian but also being an Olympic champion,” she said.
“Now London’s calling and I‘m going to be calling the shots.” (Editing by Peter Rutherford)
(For the sports blog Left Field go to: blogs.reuters.com/sport))
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