June 24, 2008
Every day that Tetlo Emmen awakens from a deep, healing slumber from a hard day of training, he has one overarching thought--the Olympic Games. For many individuals the thoughts of making an Olympic team are merely that of playground dreams. However, for those with the god-given talent to run, jump, and throw at levels often beyond comprehension, those few athletes get a chance every four years at Olympic glory and sometimes only once. For Emmen specifically, the opportunity to pursue an Olympic spot and forgo the comforts of a middle class lifestyle that is almost guaranteed with a college degree seemed like an easy decision.
In July 2007, Emmen was living the dream. A true American story, born just outside Los Angeles to a mother from Botswana and a father from rural Idaho, he was competing on the European track & field circuit after a successful NCAA career at UC Santa Barbara. He won the Savo Games 800 meters in Finland, picked up a few Euros and had dropped his time below 1:47 becoming a rising American middle distance star.
Then on the eve of a loaded 800m at the KBC Nacht meet in Huesden, Belgium, his life was turned upside down. His father, Roger Emmen, suddenly passed away from a random heart attack while playing basketball, a sport that he loved. Far away from home, Emmen's mother reminded him that his father would have wanted him to race. In an emotional tribute, Emmen dug deep and tore around the track to a new personal best of 1:46.67 that would stand as the 11th best US mark for 2007. Moments later, he was on his way home to a confusing and half-empty life back in California.
Soon decisions had to be made. Would he continue to train full-time and make a run at the 2008 Olympic team? Where would he train? How would he balance training with making ends meet and being there for his family in a time of great need? Running seemed like such a trivial exercise in personal fulfillment, but yet it could help heal.
Emmen's father, Roger, was never one to find ultimate pleasure in the material world. A US Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana, he was introduced not only to another land, but also his wife. Emmen's parents raised him and his sister with an understanding of different cultures that breed tolerance and with a desire to fight for social justice. A few months after Emmen burst out onto the track scene as a young sophomore by winning the 2005 NCAA Western Regional title at 800m, a profile on UCSB's athletics website highlighted his leadership off the track surrounding World AIDS Day activities at UCSB. He credited his father for giving him the strong, yet calm work ethic to get through a day of training, school, and activism,
In the wake of his father's absence, Emmen turned to running as a release and came to the difficult decision of continuing his pursuit of making an Olympic team. He would return to Santa Barbara to train under Coach Pete Dolan at UCSB, passing up opportunities at elite training centers in order to stay closer to home. Emmen tapped into his father's calm work ethic to get through a day of training and the toil of three jobs; schoolteacher and UCSB track & field assistant coach by day, and bar back by night. It is a situation all too familiar for most Olympic hopefuls falling outside the realm of six figure contracts, let alone the smaller monthly stipends for the lucky ones.
2008 for Emmen has thus far been marked by early season injuries, an iron deficiency, and a seasonal best two seconds shy of his 2007 time. However, these hiccups have all failed to deter his resolve as he continues on through the injuries, the hurdles, and the heartache. And so the story goes for many fringe Olympic athletes. There is only one chance to make this team and for everything that life can throw at you, it must now all go out the window. This Friday, June 27, Emmen will wake up just as he has every day dreaming about the Olympics, except this time he will step onto the track in Eugene, OR at the USA Track & Field Olympic Trials with 30 fellow US 800m competitors looking to turn a dream into reality.
Emmen's story is just one that is lived out daily for the three year's in between the games by athletes silently training in communities across the country and around the world, rich or poor. These are the stories that are told every four years when governments, the polity, and the world's media turn their attention to the Olympic Games to witness triumph over adversity; stories that capture the imagination Olympic year after Olympic year.