Upon returning from the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials for track and field, Glen Thieschafer gave his credential badge to his daughter, Amanda. On the back, he had inscribed a simple message: 2012.
A well-loved gymnastics coach in Melrose, Minn., Glen Thieschafer had taught Amanda what it meant to be tough and strong and resilient. His lessons stayed with her after he died of cancer in 2009, at 52 years old. When Amanda first saw his message, the 2012 Olympics seemed too distant to even consider. Next week, with her dad's encouragement still pushing her, the triple jumper is poised to make a huge leap toward that goal when she competes at the track and field world championships in Daegu, South Korea.
Amanda Thieschafer -- now Amanda Smock -- won the U.S. outdoor triple-jump title in June by flying a personal-record 46 feet, 2 inches. It took her five more competitions over a grueling four-week period to reach the qualifying mark for the world meet with another personal best of 46-6 ¼. That reinforced Smock's belief that at age 29, she can still travel farther in her sport -- something her father never stopped believing.
"My dad was the first person to teach me about mental toughness and determination,'' said Smock, of Minneapolis. "Hands down, he was my biggest fan. And he was the guy who was always feeding my brain with the thought that I had more in me, that I hadn't reached my potential.
"When I saw 2012 on his badge, I thought, 'Four more years. I don't know if I can train that long.' But he thought I could do it. And now, it's right around the corner. And I feel really good about my potential to make the Olympic team.''
She's already helped a friend get there. Smock trained for several years with Shani Marks, the Apple Valley native and former Gopher who made the U.S. Olympic team in 2008. The two triple jumpers spent day after day on the track at the U, playing a game they called "Champion of the Universe" as they supported each other's pursuit of excellence in one of track's more esoteric events.
Smock has trained by herself the past two years, practicing her jump technique on the track at Macalester College. Last year, Smock said, she battled loneliness and motivational slumps as she adjusted to going solo. Now she plays "Champion of the Universe" alone, laying a measuring tape on the track so she can compete against herself and strive to go farther every time.
Since 2008, the year her father served as her athlete-support person when she finished fifth at the Olympic trials, much had changed in Smock's life. She was married in 2009 to Greg Smock, who competed on the men's track team at North Dakota State when she was jumping for the Bison. Her father died four months later. She got a Ph.D. in exercise physiology at the U and helped start a business that develops corporate health and wellness programs.
Through it all, Smock kept plugging away in the triple jump, finishing sixth at the U.S. outdoor meet in 2009 and fourth in 2010. After so many years of being agonizingly close to the podium, she never lost her belief that she could still dig a little deeper -- something she felt even more keenly after winning her first U.S. championship in her sixth appearance at the outdoor nationals.
As satisfying as it was to win, Smock couldn't help but feel disappointed that she missed the minimum qualifying standard for the world championships -- 46-3 ¼ -- by a little more than an inch. She chased the mark without success at three meets in Europe and one in New York; exhausted and frustrated, she went to San Diego on Aug. 6 for one last attempt.
"I was trying too hard," Smock said. "Even if I had a good jump, if it wasn't (46-3 ¼), it didn't matter. I needed to make it about the effort I was giving and not the number.
"I wasn't able to do that until San Diego. I had just done three competitions in 10 days, and I was drained. All I could do was just give my best effort. When they called out (46-6¼), I thought, 'Are you kidding me?' I was shocked and surprised, but I wasn't going to question it."
So a year in which Smock has added more than 13 inches to her personal best will continue. So will her career. She notes that she is just hitting the prime age for women in her event, just as the Olympic dreams her father had for her are starting to feel very attainable.
"When I got that [personal record] at the meet in San Diego, it wasn't a very good jump," she said. "That's another little thing that feeds my brain, telling me, 'There's more.' I have a strong, strong feeling I can still jump farther. I'm hugely excited about the upcoming year."