For Minnesota Olympian Smock, a leap of faith

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 25, 2012 - 12:21 PM

The rock-solid confidence of Amanda Smock's dad, who died in 2009, helped her push past disappointment to reach London.

The story has been told many times over the past year, to the point it has become part of Amanda Smock's official biography on the USA Track and Field website. That hasn't lessened the emotional impact she feels every time she hears it, or tells it, or looks at that treasured credential from the 2008 Olympic trials.

Smock, of Melrose, didn't make the Olympic team in the triple jump that year. Her father, Glen Thieschafer, gave her a way to look ahead when he crossed out the "2008" on the credential he wore at those trials in Eugene, Ore. He replaced it with "2012,'' telling his daughter he believed she would get to the Olympics the next time around -- a message he continued to deliver until his death in 2009.

It did not end there. Thieschafer's faith still is symbolized in that credential, which Smock tucked into her bag during last month's trials in Eugene, Ore. With his words alive in her heart, she leapt 45 feet, 9 inches to make the team that will compete at the London Olympics.

Smock is the only American woman who qualified for the triple jump at the Summer Games, which begin Friday on her 30th birthday. She also is the first to acknowledge it never would have happened without unwavering support. Retired U.S. champ Shani Marks Johnson of Apple Valley, who made the 2008 Olympic team while training with Smock, still works out with her. Husband Greg Smock keeps things rolling at home, her employer has allowed her to take a leave and Macalester College has allowed her full use of its athletic facilities.

Her father's presence, too, remains as powerful as ever. When he first suggested Smock should keep pursuing her Olympic goals, she didn't know if she could train for four more years. Stumbling across the credential last year reminded her that he never doubted she would get to London, which strengthened her resolve to make it for the both of them.

"At the trials, I spent a lot of time thinking about him," Smock said of her father, who died at age 52 of cancer. "I'm a person of strong faith, so I know he was right there with me and sharing the whole experience with me. That was his dream for me since forever, and especially since 2008.

"I pulled out [the credential] when I was done and said, 'OK! We did it!' To me, that's a really strong piece of this. On the days when I doubted myself, I would think back on his strong belief in me, how he was always whispering in my ear, telling me I could do it. That is a really cool memory to have and to hold on to."

Since finishing fifth at the 2008 Olympic trials, Smock has won two U.S. outdoor championships and added an indoor title this spring. She trains six days a week at Macalester and has been a full-time athlete since the first of the year, taking a leave from her job with a Twin Cities corporate wellness group.

For several years, Smock has been coached by Michael Eskind of Boston, who guides her workouts via computer and phone. She did much of her training alone until last fall, when Marks Johnson began joining her. The two trained together at the U during the leadup to the 2008 Olympics, a partnership that helped Marks Johnson make the team for Beijing.

Marks Johnson now is married and has a 15-month-old daughter, but she wanted to help Smock achieve her Olympic ambitions. Even on the hottest days this summer, they have met at Macalester to practice triple jumping, with Marks Johnson providing camaraderie, support and technical advice.

"In 2008, it would have been hard for me to do it without her," said Marks Johnson, who also coaches young athletes in the area. "Last fall, I told her I wanted so badly for her to make the Olympic team that I would train with her if she wanted. It's been very, very fun, and she's worked so hard. I'm so proud of her.''

Marks Johnson has always praised Smock's technique. Now, she said, Smock has added more strength, and experience has made her a better competitor.

A three-time NCAA Division II champion at North Dakota State, Smock reached new heights last year when she made the U.S. team for the world championships. It took her several tries to meet the qualifying standard, but she persisted and jumped a personal-best 46 feet, 6¼ inches to earn a place in the field. Though she did not make it past the initial round, Smock said she learned how to prepare mentally and physically to perform on the world stage.

She also has learned how to deal with heartache. Greg Smock, who also competed in track at North Dakota State, said the only time he saw his wife doubt herself was in 2009, when her father died and Marks Johnson retired. But she soldiered on.

He occasionally trains with Amanda, too, though he laughed at his inability to keep up with her. Her strength and confidence are peaking, he said, and she remains one of the most determined people he knows.

"That year after the [2008] trials, it was tough for her," said Greg Smock, a patent attorney. "She looked at her dad's credential every day, and in the back of her mind, I think she always felt she could do it. When she did it in Eugene, it was very emotional."

It will require a Herculean effort for Smock to reach the podium in London. No American woman has won an Olympic medal in the triple jump, and her best mark in 2012 -- the 45-9 she leapt at the trials -- is nearly 3 1/2 feet short of the world's best this year, recorded by Ukraine's Olha Saladuha.

That jump, though, propelled Smock to a trials victory and on to the Olympics. During her victory lap, she stopped to embrace the friends and family who had come to see her -- including four of her dad's sisters, who had driven hours to surprise her.

As sweet as that was, Smock feels certain she has more to achieve, just as her father believed.

"I feel like this is going to mean more and more as my life goes on," she said. "It's so special to be able to train at an elite level and grab your dreams. Right now, I feel an incredible amount of excitement and gratitude toward the people who have supported me. I just feel so blessed."

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