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Race Walker dying?


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  • Race Walker dying?

    I was just over at the USATF site and saw that a race walker died about a week ago. He was only 29. What was up with that? Sad.

  • #2
    Re: Race Walker dying?

    It is indeed extremely sad. I think this article says it all:

    Race walker with Olympic dream commits suicide after poor event
    Monday, February 23, 2004

    By Bernie Wilson, The Associated Press

    SAN DIEGO -- A loss in a grueling qualifying event left him physically exhausted and filled with what a friend described as a numbing sadness, but Albert Heppner still had a chance to win a spot on the U.S. Olympic race walking team.

    Heppner had finished a disappointing fifth in the 50-kilometer team trials Feb. 15 in suburban Chula Vista, Calif., pulling away from the pack way too early and then fading, leaving him sprawled on a cot afterward, spent and despondent.

    In two months, though, there would be another opportunity for one of America's top race walkers to qualify for the Athens Games. Everyone in the small, tight-knit race walking community knew this 29-year-old Army specialist was competitive enough to do it.

    Instead, Heppner's Olympic quest ended sometime in the middle of a rainy, foggy night, when he apparently drove to one of the tallest bridges in San Diego County and jumped 450 feet to his death. His body was found in a thicket of sagebrush and manzanita at the bottom of a rocky gorge early Thursday morning. The California Highway Patrol said it was a suspected suicide.

    Heppner, a college graduate from Columbia, Md., who was described as fun-loving and outgoing, didn't leave a note or a hint of why he did it.

    "Sport isn't supposed to be that serious," said Vince Peters, national chairman of the USA Track & Field Racewalk Committee who considered Heppner a friend.

    Friends marveled that Heppner seemed to know everyone at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, even the athletes in other sports. Now they're struggling with the sad end of a promising life.

    "I love Al and we're all crushed," said Tracy Sundlun of San Diego's Elite Racing Inc., which managed the race last week. "It's a shame, because he had everything. He really had everything."

    Heppner's teammates tried to fathom why he would kill himself even though he apparently knew he could still qualify for Athens in the grueling 31.1-mile event if he met the 4-hour standard at an international meet in May in Germany.

    Curt Clausen, the only walker to earn an Olympic berth after winning the race in 3 hours, 58 minutes, 24 seconds, said Heppner called him hours after the race, looking for advice. Teammates knew Heppner was down, but then again, they had all had bad races in the quirky sport in which the racers swivel their hips and pump their arms as they scoot along. Plus, they had always seen Heppner bounce back.

    "It's not rational," said Clausen, now a three-time Olympian. "What's striking to me is that he placed that much importance on the outcome of one race, or on him making the team, that he'd lose sight of the bigger picture. Life's precious and too short. It's not a life-or-death sport. There were so many people here who would help and support him."

    An effort to reach Heppner's parents in Maryland was unsuccessful.

    Heppner's life seemed to be defined by trying to reach the Olympics. After failing to qualify for the 2000 games, he told the Columbia (Md.) Flier: "I am extremely competitive, and I always have been competitive to the point where it is probably not healthy. Good for an elite athlete, but makes it even more devastating to me when it does not work out."

    A year later, he stopped by his old high school to work out on the track.

    "We talked a couple minutes about racing and the Olympics," said Vince Parnell, athletic director at Howard High. "He gave me a signed picture. He was very proud of his accomplishments."

    Heppner's funeral was today in San Diego, followed by a private burial.

    Sgt. John Nunn was a longtime friend of Heppner and the two were in the U.S. Army's World Class Athlete Program. They were soldiers, yet as top athletes, were granted time away from the grind of the military to try to qualify for the Olympics.

    Nunn, who competes in the 20-kilometer race walk, worked a water station last week and was surprised Heppner broke from the pack so early, after just 10 kilometers.

    After practice Wednesday morning, they each said, "See you later."

    When Nunn got a call at 12:30 a.m. Thursday that authorities had found Heppner's unoccupied SUV along Interstate 8 in the mountains east of San Diego, near where the teammates had once gone hiking, he hoped for the best but feared the worst.

    "You shouldn't take it to the point of jumping off a bridge," the soft-spoken Nunn said. "But at the same time, you cannot tell an athlete to relax and chill, because he's put his whole life on hold, working for at least four years to make it happen."

    Heppner's time of 4:23:52 was 25 minutes slower than his personal best.

    "He was sad," Nunn said. "Being so close and tasting the trip over there, knowing that, 'All I have to do is do this,' it can be extremely disheartening, if you allow it to be."

    Race walking is probably more mentally demanding than any other track discipline, Sundlun said. Walkers have to go as fast as they can, but can't run. Their lead leg must be locked when hitting the ground. The 50K event is 5 miles longer than a marathon, and the pack went past the 26.2-mile mark at 3:20:00. That's faster than most people can run a marathon.

    Sundlun said he wishes that somehow, somebody could have known what was going through Heppner's mind in the days following his disappointing finish.

    "Clearly this wasn't a spur-of-the-moment deal," Sundlun said. "He had to drive an hour to get there."