From the edge of the jumping pit at the University of Minnesota, Shani Marks eyes the line raked in the sand. Leap past it and become Champion of the World. Or, if she's really feeling it, Champion of the Universe.
The make-believe competition is Marks' lighthearted way of injecting fun into her tedious workout routine. Her training partner, Amanda Thieschafer, has just soared a good 4 inches beyond the line. "Here she goes, stepping onto the runway, Shani Marks," Thieschafer calls out in her best sports-announcer voice. "Currently in second place."
"That is not how we play the game," Marks says, laughing. "You're sending me bad vibes."
Marks leans back, inhales and barrels down the runway, jumping first with her left leg, then again, then springing off her right foot with all the force her powerful body can muster.
For four years, the triple jumper from Apple Valley has been training hard, focused on making the 2008 Summer Olympic team. She has spent hours every day lifting weights, running and fine-tuning her form. She has chosen to stay in Minnesota, even though it means being apart from her husband and training via e-mail with a coach a thousand miles away.
Now, the Olympic trials are right around the corner. Marks is a favorite to make the team, but if she does, she is not likely to step onto the podium in Beijing. No American woman has ever won an Olympic medal in the triple jump.
Hope for a medal isn't what has kept her sweating and striving and fighting through two decades of sport.
It is the pure joy of the moment, when she soars over the sand, eager to see how far she can fly.
From the instant she finished fourth in the 2004 Olympic trials, Marks, 27, vowed to pour herself into the chase for the 2008 Games. Along the way, she got married, competed internationally, won four U.S. Championships, maintained a disciplined training schedule without a full-time coach, and tapped deeply into the family support that carried her through two back surgeries.
Her pursuit has dominated her life during the past four years, but has not consumed it. Marks finds her true measure not in meters and centimeters, but in the friendships, fun and faith that enrich her both on and off the track.
"I love jumping," said Marks, who lives in Brooklyn Park and trains at the University of Minnesota. "I love the feeling of flying through the air. And the Olympics would be the ultimate. Who wouldn't try their hardest to get this opportunity?
"But this is just one goal I have in my life. It doesn't define who I am. To me, enjoying the event, enjoying the sport and the experiences, is more important than winning medals or making a lot of money."
That said, Marks has devoted some part of nearly every day since 2004 to earning a place on the Olympic team. Her husband, former Gophers football player Ron Johnson, marvels at the work she has put in on the long road to China.
"She is so dedicated, so strong," said Johnson, a former NFL receiver who now plays for the Cleveland Gladiators in the Arena Football League. "She's had to work for everything she's got."
• • •
The Apple Valley hill where Marks first ran isn't really that steep. It seemed like Mount Kilimanjaro during her first track practice as a freshman at Apple Valley High School, when she had to run to the summit 10 times. After eight repetitions, Marks' legs burned so badly it drove her to tears.
I can't do any more, Ms. Dirth, Marks remembers telling her coach. Geri Dirth gently encouraged her to keep trying.
Those words -- and her budding, never-quit spirit -- got Marks through the workout, demonstrating a perseverance that has defined her career.
"When I was little, I was a gymnast, and I couldn't do a kip on the uneven bars," she said. "I would come home frustrated every day. And my mom said, 'You'll get it. Keep practicing.'
"When I did, I was out-of-this-world excited. It was the first time I learned I could do something if I kept trying."
She still finds strength in lessons from her mother. In May, Gloria Marks drove four hours from Iowa to see her daughter jump at a small meet in La Crosse, Wis.
Shani had not been expecting a bad day. As always, she measured out the distance of her approach: She sprints 121 feet, or 18 strides, before her left foot launches her into the first of her three leaps.
On her second jump, as Shani's 5-year-old niece, Amara, chanted her name, she set a stadium record -- 45 feet, 2 1/2 inches.
Then she began missing. It was as though her mind and body were suddenly out of sync. Twice, Marks bailed out on the final part of her jump and ran through the pit.
Gloria was waiting by the finish line. After the second aborted jump, she watched her daughter slump forward with her hands on her knees, and she recalled the frustrated girl who thought she couldn't make it up the hill.
She cradled Shani's tear-dampened face in her palms and spoke to her quietly: This is not about the Olympics. It's not about the trials or getting a mark. This is about your God-given talent and doing your best with it.
Gloria pulled her daughter's forehead to her own and recited a prayer.
Shani headed back up the runway, blasted into her final jump attempt and completed it.
"There you go, my girl!" Gloria shouted.
"The lesson here is that every jump is not perfect," she went on. "But she pulled it out. That is what you have to do in life: pull yourself up, refocus and try again. She learned that as a little girl, and I remind her of that still."
• • •
Lessons like these explain why Gloria and Curtis Marks urged their four daughters to compete in sports. Curtis had been a fine tennis player; Gloria was a cheerleader. Both valued the self-confidence and work ethic that sports can impart, and Kai, Tsehaye, Shani and Kamilah all participated.
Growing up in Apple Valley, Shani excelled in gymnastics and track. But her years of competition took their toll on her back, and by 1998 the pain had grown so great she could not walk down the stairs at church.
Doctors recommended spinal fusion surgery. It would likely ease the pain, but it could have serious ramifications. "We didn't know if she'd be able to walk again," Gloria said.
Shani didn't want the operation. One surgeon had told her she would never compete in track again. Another said she might run, but she would not be able to jump. She had signed a scholarship offer with the U, and she feared the Gophers would not want an athlete with a back full of metal screws and plates.
But coach Gary Wilson urged her to put her life ahead of her athletic career.
She underwent the eight-hour operation before the start of her freshman year. Afterward, her friends came to the house to help her walk again, assisting her up and down the driveway. The doctor, Gloria said, was amazed at how she healed.
Marks took a year to rehabilitate and returned stronger than ever. She competed in multiple events for the Gophers, won five Big Ten titles and became a three-time All-American in the triple jump. When the hardware in her spine began poking through her skin, she underwent a second surgery before her final college season in 2002-03.
After the metal was removed, Marks asked if she could have it. She keeps it in a jar that hangs from the doorknob of her home office -- a tangible symbol of all she had endured.
• • •
Marks didn't intend to keep competing after college. But in her final year, she finished second in the NCAA championships and earned a qualifying mark for the 2004 Olympic trials in Sacramento, Calif.
She had not expected to make the team. Starstruck, Marks could barely focus as she gawked at sprinter Marion Jones warming up next to her. She held herself together to finish fourth -- one spot away from the Olympics. Instantly, she knew how she would spend the next four years of her life.
Marks is easily identified as an athlete; she practically lives in running clothes, and she possesses the thickly muscled thighs of a jumper. The flower girl at her 2007 wedding carried a basket made to resemble track spikes. (The ring-bearer toted the jewelry on a football.)
She does not exude the swagger expected from a person who has won two U.S. outdoor titles and two national indoor crowns in the triple jump. Where other track and field stars sequester themselves in hotels at international competitions, she goes sightseeing and writes blogs to share her experiences with friends at home.
Four years of work have her at the peak of her game; at a meet in Utah in May, she notched a personal record of 46 feet, 8¼ inches, the best jump by an American woman this year.
Marks predicts it will take a leap of more than 49 feet to make the podium in Beijing.
That doesn't matter to a woman who sweats for much simpler reasons. "I've had a lot of great experiences these past four years, working toward this," she said. "I have the rest of my life to work nine-to-five."
Other than Thieschafer, a Melrose, Minn., native who has been her training partner for four years, most of Marks' friends are not elite athletes. She remains close to the teammates from her childhood gymnastics club, her high school coaches and people from all walks of life who are drawn to her energetic and fun-loving spirit.
Johnson met her on their first day on campus at the University of Minnesota and was immediately captivated by her smile. They never work out together -- Marks' chattiness in the gym doesn't mesh with his intensity -- but he admires her dedication.
"Four years she's been doing this, getting up every day to lift, taking care of her own schedule, not making much money," he said. "To do what she's done, you really have to love it."
• • •
Marks might joke around during those Champion of the World games, but her tattered workout sheet, the long scar along her spine and her dinners for one attest to the sacrifices she has made for the triple jump. Six days a week, she and Thieschafer meet at the track behind the U's Bierman Building to work out.
No coach is there to guide them. For the past two seasons, they have been coached long-distance by Michael Eskind of Boston, who sends a workout schedule each week via e-mail.
One rainy, raw May day, Marks raked the heavy sand in the pit as Thieschafer pulled the sheet with Eskind's instructions from her bag. "How many are you doing today?" she asked.
"Ten or 12," Marks replied.
They settled on 12 jumps each, despite the weather, and wiped a mix of raindrops and sweat from their eyes. Their shoes squished with every stride. Sand caked their legs and stuck to their socks. As one took her turn, the other recorded the jump with a small digital camera.
After each jump, Marks and Thieschafer immediately look at those videos to scrutinize their form. They also e-mail them to Eskind for feedback, and they have saved an archive of hundreds of jumps that they can analyze frame by frame. Because the triple jump is a highly technical event, the smallest adjustment of a knee bend or an arm position or a foot flex can add distance.
Eskind has seen the pair compete in person only a handful of times since he started working with them nearly two years ago. "It's not ideal to be coached [long-distance], and it's not the usual way to do things," he said. "But it works for them because they're so dedicated, and they learn from each other. Shani is incredibly strong-willed and strong physically, which is why things progressed so well for her last year."
Though Marks was invited to train at the Olympic training center in San Diego, she chose to stay in Minnesota. Here, she has a rare combination of an elite partner to train with and a supportive home base. As a former All-America for the Gophers, she has been allowed full use of the U's athletic and training facilities; in exchange, she serves as a volunteer coach for the Gophers' track team.
Workouts might include sprints on the track, weightlifting in the gym, or exercises with an eight-pound ball. Afterward, Marks and Thieschafer scoop ice into a whirlpool until it drops to 50 degrees and soak for 10 minutes to aid muscle recovery.
They don't talk about making the Olympic team, but the idea runs just under the surface of all they do. Their training, though, never devolves into the joyless, pressure-filled grind that can derail an elite athlete.
"It's awesome to train with her, because she's so much fun, and because I can try to mimic the things she does and do them as well as she can," said Thieschafer, a three-time NCAA Division II champion at North Dakota State. "We are so thankful to have each other."
At the end of the day, Marks returns to a quiet home. She visits her husband once or twice a month, and they stay in touch daily through e-mail, text messaging, a Webcam and the phone.
Johnson also is a real estate agent, and his jobs allow Marks to train full-time without worrying about a paycheck. She gets travel funding and occasional stipends from USA Track and Field, plus prize money and some funding from a shoe contract with Nike. She also does personal fitness training and works with young athletes.
"She is very driven," Johnson said. "This is her dream, and if she gets it, it's going to be very emotional -- because everyone knows how hard she has worked for it."
Marks, for her part, views her circumstances more as an inconvenience than a hardship. She and Johnson have promised each other they will not be apart next year, and they are likely to land wherever his football career leads him.
"It's hard to be apart, but we keep the complaining to a minimum," she said. "I don't think of it as a negative, because I'm working toward a goal. I'm doing what I have to do.
"Four years is a lot of time to dedicate to one day, and it's been a long four years. I'm trying to do everything I can to get there. ... And at the end of the day, all I can do is give my best."
• • •
Twice in her life, Marks thought her romance with track might be over. The first time was when she had back surgery.
The second came when she finished 18th at the 2005 U.S. outdoor championships, the low point of her worst season. She threw her spikes into a garbage can and briefly considered giving up.
"That was a hard year because Amanda and I were coaching ourselves, and we didn't have the structure we needed," Marks said. "We were working so hard, but I felt like I was jumping shorter every meet. I was at my wits' end. But as frustrated as I was, I knew it wasn't in me to quit. That's not who I am."
She took a three-month break to clear her head. When the time came to resume training, Marks did so without any soul-searching. This, she remembers thinking, is what I do.
On Friday, she and Thieschafer will begin competition at the trials in Eugene, Ore. The top eight to 12 finishers in preliminaries will advance to Sunday's finals, where the three highest finishers -- provided they have the qualifying marks -- will go on to Beijing.
Thinking about the Olympics would consume her if she let it, she said. Though she isn't looking beyond Beijing at this point, her long list of plans for the future -- coaching, more time with Ron and her family -- allows her to maintain a healthy perspective.
So does the pure bliss of flying through the air, whether toward an Olympic dream or the fanciful title of Champion of the World.
"That's when people mess up, when they think, 'Oh, my God, this is the Olympic trials!'" Marks said. "I want to jump well whether I'm at a U of M meet or the Olympics. That's how I approach it.
"Some of the girls at the competitions are so serious; it's like life or death for them. But this doesn't define me; I wouldn't trade what I have in my life for a world record.
"For me, jumping is my greatest joy."
Rachel Blount • 612-673-4389