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WALKING His Life AWAY
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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"That's for you to keep," said Cunningham, "to remind you, the way my silver dollar from my father did for me, never to give up."

Who knows what that silver dollar meant to Al? He left the dining hall with it, ran an easy three kilometers with Tim and 20K race walker John Nunn, then said goodbye to them and Coach Peña. It was 11 a.m. He climbed into his SUV and departed.

No one knows what filled those next eight hours. He exchanged a series of calls with his mother, promising to pick up her cousin in San Diego that evening so the three of them could eat together at seven. At 5 p.m. he told his mother he had to stop at the airport and pick up a friend. Instead he drove toward the mountains. There was a place he remembered.

A light mist fell. He neared Pine Valley, the gorge 45 minutes west of San Diego that he and the other walkers had hiked down three months earlier. His mother called at 6:50 wondering what had become of him. "Sorry, Ma, the weather's bad, my friend's plane's late," Al lied.

"Please, Al, my cousin's waiting," she protested. "Can't you find someone else to wait for your friend?"

For the first time, she heard an odd ring to his reply. "Uh...I'll try," he said. She called again six minutes later. The cellphone, lying near his wallet, rang again and again in his car.

Al began to walk across the bridge. Cars hissed past him on the wet asphalt. Dusk pooled in the gorge below. He stopped not even a third of the way across. He wouldn't need all 450 feet.

Now that the flame was out, the rules made no sense. He looked over the railing. The emptiness went on and on. Both feet left the ground.

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