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Gary Smith
July 26, 2004
For race walker Albert Heppner, making the 2004 U.S. Olympic team was all-important—perhaps, in the end, too important.
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July 26, 2004

Walking His Life Away

For race walker Albert Heppner, making the 2004 U.S. Olympic team was all-important—perhaps, in the end, too important.

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Had he failed to take enough liquids and carbohydrate gels, underestimated the effect of temperatures climbing from the 40s into the 60s on a course with no shade? Or was he just recovering for a kilometer or two, girding for the home stretch?

Al slowed even more. On came Curt, chewing at the gap. On came Tim, catching a second wind and deciding to go for it all. By the 34th kilometer, it was written all over Al's flesh: He'd miscalculated. At 35K, Curt and Tim went by him as if Al were planted in the asphalt.

The world around him began to whirl. He crept the next five kilometers, and then the horror of 2000 flashed before his vacant eyes. Philip, seemingly out of the race minutes earlier, stormed past him into third place...again. "C'mon, Al, go with me," Philip implored, his heart aching this time for Al. But Al couldn't. No one, until afterward, would realize how much pressure he'd heaped on himself, how much energy had been consumed by the Olympic flame that burned within him.

Curt won in 3:58:24, the only walker to slip in under four hours and qualify for Athens. Then came Tim, Philip, Sean...and finally Al, staggering home fifth in 4:23:52, bending over at the finish line, being kissed on the back by a race official whose heart was broken too, then staggering into a blanket that someone held open for him, sagging onto a stretcher, trembling with dehydration and disbelief that his dream had slipped away again.


Yes, Al, Yes.

You still have a shot, a helluva shot, everyone at the training center reminded him. There's the World Cup in Germany in May, and if you don't get your four-hour race there, then Wisconsin-Parkside will hold a 50K and you can try again. There are still two slots open, Al! Keep your chin up! You can still go to Athens!

Al nodded, said little. He didn't tell them that there was nothing left inside him, nothing left at all. Everyone was relieved that he didn't seem quite as distraught as he had been in 2000.

His father encouraged him all he could, then left California and flew back home two days after the race. His mother remained at his condo. On the third day, he mustered a smile as he headed out the door. "I'm going to train with Tim, Ma," he called. He met Tim at the Olympic Training Center dining hall for a breakfast with California congressman Randy (Duke) Cunningham and Olympic candidates who'd received federal scholarship money to attend college and graduate classes.

The congressman had heard about the race. He rose and told a story of a silver dollar his father had given him to keep in his pocket as a reminder never to give up, and how that coin and his father's admonition had helped him survive a drill sergeant who took him to his breaking point at flight training school in Pensacola, Fla., and later during harrowing moments as a fighter pilot over Vietnam. He concluded by rolling silver dollars across the table to Al and Tim.

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