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At last, today, he wouldn't need to clang his own bell. His triumph would be in the San Diego newspaper—who knew, might even merit a few lines in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED trumpeting Al Heppner, Olympian. An upgrade, for sure, over SI's FACES IN THE CROWD mention of his NAIA 5K championship in 1997, laminated on a plaque that hung on his wall. Sweeter than his appearance in the "Your Portfolio" feature in USA Today's Money section.
The small crowd filled his ears with the most heavenly music of all as he blew through the 30K mark: "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" Imagine how that would sound when he marched into the magic circle on the floor of the Olympic Stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies. Oh, rest assured, everyone back home would see Al. He'd come bursting out of the stadium tunnel, high-fiving Iverson and swapping e-mail addresses with LeBron, boogying with the Swedish synchronized swimmers and twirling the Canadian gymnasts round and round. He'd be mayor of the Olympic Village by the dawn of Day 2.
Thirty-two K's down. A two-minute lead over Curt and Tim, with Philip, more than a minute behind them, slowing down and about to throw up. All of it, every bit of Al's obsession, worth it now: the 100 miles a week of walking, the interval training so intense that even the 10,000-meter runners marveled at it, the sleepless nights in the $5,000 oxygen tent designed to simulate high altitude and increase red-blood-cell production, the arrows spray-painted on the roads in the neighborhoods of all the friends and relatives he visited out of town to mark his 15-mile routes. All the exhortations plastered on his walls—GET PSYCHED!...BELIEVE IT!...TASTE IT ALL! All the details etched into his daily racing log for years: weight, pulse, heart rate, body fat, lactic acid level, mileage, times, temperature, weather, route location, goals.
Balance? Perspective? The all-eggs-in-one-basket stuff that Jim Bauman, the sports psychologist at the Olympic Training Center, and Al's parents worried about as the 2004 Olympic Trials drew nearer and memories of his 2000 crash returned? Sure, Al knew balance was important. But not too much balance, because somewhere out there some unbalanced sonofabitch who lived and breathed and slept the Olympics even more than Al did was waiting to kick his balanced ass. Somewhere some guy, burrowed even deeper in a tunnel to overcome enormous obstacles and reach the Games through sheer will and wanting, was being videotaped for an up-close-and-personal profile that would make eyes mist in homes across America.
"But what happens if you don't make it this time?" his mother fretted on the phone.
"Don't worry, Ma, this time I can handle it," he replied.
"There's a million other things you can do, Al."
"I have to get to the Olympics, Ma."
"But it's not going to change your life, Al," Tim Seaman chimed in. "I made the Olympics, and look where I'm living—an apartment in the Mexican 'hood."
"I have to get to the Olympics, Tim."