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Thursday, May 31, 2012
Erica McClain takes triple leap of faith

By Michelle Smith

STANFORD, Calif. -- This story may not have a happy ending. Erica McClain knows it. Sometimes she cries over it. The rehab she's done on her severely damaged right ankle, the work she's put in, the pain she's endured may end up being for nothing.

"I've told my parents to be ready, that on June 25 at 7 p.m., I'm either going to be overjoyed and crying, or a complete mess," McClain said.

June 25 at 7 p.m. It is McClain's designated time to compete in the women's triple jump at the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore. It will be the moment when she knows whether the journey of the past 15 months will have been fruitful or merely frustrating.

"There are moments when I ask why this happened to me," McClain said. "A lot. But I brush them off really quickly. I just have to accept that it happened and I have to commit to it all the way. 'Woe is me' just slows you down. It's not helpful."

March 7, 2011, is an important date on McClain's calendar, as well. It is the day McClain was practicing at her alma mater, Stanford (where she won three national championships), making her run toward the triple jump pit, when her foot hit the edge of the sand pit and her ankle rolled 180 degrees, the sole of her foot facing upward as coach Edrick Floreal reached her in the pit.

It was a horrifying injury, the bones of her tibia and fibula protruding through her skin, sand from the pit lodged in the open wounds. It took emergency medical personnel 40 minutes to get her out of the pit -- they had to phone Stanford Hospital to get permission to give her morphine -- as Floreal held on to her, telling her it was not so bad.

She would spend five days in the hospital and endure two surgeries to clean the wound and repair the damage. One doctor told McClain she would never compete again, saying she'd be "lucky to be a good couch potato." Another doctor left the door open to competing.

And she has tried to barge right through it.

The past 15 months for McClain, a member of the 2008 Olympic team, have been about healing, rehabbing, training and doing it all through sometimes-intense "constant" pain. She continues to rehab three to five times a week, taking painkillers so she can train. A recent ultrasound showed that there is sand in the area around the still-healing injury.

"It's irritating the muscle tissue and there's nothing I can do about that," McClain said.

A hamstring injury in the past few weeks has set her training back.

"I'm not as far along as I thought I would be," McClain said. "I tried to compete [two weeks ago] and I was in a lot of pain. I couldn't sleep the night after because every time I moved my foot, pain would shoot through the ankle. The ankle has a mind of its own. Sometimes it's just cranky. I tell people that it throws temper tantrums."

McClain's father, Kevin, who said he would never tell his daughter not to pursue a comeback, has learned to really listen to her when they are talking on the phone.

"She'll be talking about what's going on, all the things she's doing, and she'll say that it hurts to walk, let alone jump, and it's very matter-of-fact," Kevin McClain said. "It's a glimpse for me about how hard this is, how hard she's working.

"You don't want to see your children in pain or stress. You want to take it away and make it better. She's bearing this a lot better than I think I could."

Her practices and meet performances have been as up and down as a roller coaster. Some days good, occasionally great. Other days, in Floreal's words, are "terrible, pathetic."

McClain, who was the best female triple jumper in the country before her injury, jumping a personal best of 47 feet, 1/4 inch, has not yet met her Olympic 'A' standard (for automatic qualification to the Olympic trials) or her Olympic 'B' standard (a provisional qualification).

"I've never been in a position like this before," McClain said. "A month away from the trials and I don't have any standard ... I don't know."

Time is indeed getting short. The fact that her fellow U.S. triple jumpers have not advanced much in her absence gives her a chance if she can pull off a good performance.

Floreal said it has taken a long time for McClain to get rid of the memory of what happened to her, to fully extend herself physically and mentally.

"When she reaches the point where she can jump far enough to be similar to where she was when she got hurt, she has to ask herself if she can convince herself to be as aggressive as she needs to be," Floreal said. "It's mental."

McClain agrees.

"I have to stay strong and understand that it will probably come down to the day [at the trials]," McClain said.

McClain's training time admittedly has been divided. She has gone to rehab sessions at the NASA Ames complex in nearby Mountain View, undergoing a rehabilitation process that uses the Vasper system, which is based on cooling and compression. Chilled water cuffs are attached during a 20-minute workout, allowing the body to build up more lactic acid, which aids in healing.

She has worked as a personal trainer to make ends meet, though her friends at the NASA facility have chipped in to sponsor her through the Olympic trials. She lost her contract with Nike last November, but got it back in April. And she has served as an assistant track coach at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino.

Kirk Flatow, the track and field coach at Monta Vista, saw an article about McClain in the San Francisco Chronicle and wondered if she would be willing to talk to his athletes about overcoming adversity.

"For some of these kids, their big adversity is that their parents won't let them go out or their girlfriend dumped them," Flatow said. "I saw how well Erica was dealing with what happened to her, how positive she was."

He gathered about 50 members of his team in a classroom and McClain spoke to them. By the end, McClain, Flatow and many of the athletes were wiping away tears.

"Everyone has something to overcome that may come at a very inopportune time," McClain said.

Flatow said he developed an immediate fondness for McClain and invited her to coach his jumpers. Her first day at practice, McClain walked out to find 20 kids waiting for her instruction.

"When I came to speak with them that day, they didn't have any triple jumpers and then there were all these kids," McClain said. "It was really cool and really impressive. And they worked so hard. I was teaching them this new thing from the ground up, and it refreshed my mind. I had to go back to fundamentals. It helped me."

A little more than a dozen athletes stuck with it through the season, one reaching the section finals.

Flatow said he let McClain take the lead in determining how much time she could spend with his team.

"I think the world of her, and I want to share how fabulous she is with the other kids I care about," Flatow said. "But I don't want to get in the way of her goals, either. But she is the elite athlete and I would have understood if she wanted to cut back."

Floreal views McClain's coaching stint as something of a distraction from her Olympic training.

"In a way it's been helpful and it's been harmful," Floreal said. "In an Olympic year, you have to be selfish, and she's done so much that takes her away from her training. She needs to get focused now. She needs to go into the tunnel and concentrate solely on being an Olympian."

McClain vowed that if she does not make the Olympic team, she will continue to work toward the 2013 world championships in Moscow. From there, it's on to business school. She is hoping to return to Stanford, and hoping to return to coaching at Monta Vista.

And in the moments after 7 p.m. on June 25, she will find a way to be happy, no matter how things turn out.

"The big-girl thing to say is that I will be happy that I'm even competing again," McClain said. "I drive sometimes and I think about it and I just start crying. It's just a stressful situation to be in. It's just the unknown. But I think I'm just going to be relieved.

"I'm trying to be real. If I don't make the team, there are going to be reasons. But it's not going to be because I didn't give it my all."