Aretha Thurmond's fourth trip to the Olympics is a team effort
Former Renton High School and University of Washington star Aretha Thurmond will compete Friday in the women's discus qualifying. It's her fourth Olympics, a feat she says she never would have achieved without a strong support system of coaches and family.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Aretha Thurmond fileEvent: Discus
Local connection: Renton High School (1994 grad), UW
Key dates: Qualifying rounds Friday, final Saturday.
Why we care: Competing in her fourth Olympics, she's still looking for her first medal. She was 10th in 2008.
What sounded so grandiose from Aretha Thurmond back in 1991 was actually a gross understatement.
By now, maybe you've heard part of the story, because Thurmond has been around awhile, throwing the discus at such a high level that she'll be competing in her fourth Olympics in London, beginning with Friday's qualifying.
At 14, she lost a friendly bet — a basketball game of "Horse" — to her physical education teacher at Renton High, former Washington linebacker Mark Stewart, and she dutifully trudged out to the track rather than her preference, the softball field.
But she picked up the discus so naturally she came home and had a message for her mom.
"I got my scholarship," she said confidently. "We got this covered."
In reality, Aretha Hill, as she was known before her marriage, was selling herself short. Indeed, she went on to a successful four years at the University of Washington, but she and the discus have been joined at the hip for much longer. She turns 36 in August and isn't even saying she'll call it a career after London.
"I would have never thought (this) journey would be the journey I'm on in life," Thurmond said. "But you know, I've embraced it, and I love it."
After qualifying for her fourth Games last month — one of only 16 U.S. women's track and field athletes to do it — Thurmond was quick to credit her support staff, and in her case, it's even sturdier than that of most track athletes. After her coach at Washington, Ken Shannon, retired in 1997, she spent a period of uncertainty looking for a new one, eventually settling on the throws coach at Auburn, Jerry Clayton.
So she moved to Opelika, Ala., and she and husband Reedus had a son, Theo, in 2007. A year later, her mother Susan, a former project manager at Boeing, indulged a career change and moved to Opelika as well. Eventually, so did Aretha's older brother John, a mortgage broker for Washington Mutual when it bottomed out.
"People often wonder what I think I'm up to," said Susan Hill over the phone from Opelika. "Aretha couldn't do what she does if I didn't do what I do. I take care of (Theo), I take care of the house, I take care of the bills. Training for Aretha is really a full-time job."
Says Thurmond, "This is never a one-person show. There's always a team behind a team, and my team has been tremendous. If I didn't have the support group I have, I would have stopped a long time ago."
It was a long time ago that Thurmond started this pilgrimage. Keith Eager, her coach at Renton, remembers her for a competitive spirit that evidenced itself early.
"A lot of times, you get a young thrower and get them in competition, and they get gun-shy and don't do well," Eager said. "With her, right off the bat, she just flourished."
Shannon found the same attribute at Washington, as well as an athlete who was fun to be around.
"She was a joy to coach," said Shannon, now living in the Methow Valley and helping coach at Liberty Bell High School in Winthrop. "She had a personality. I don't think there was anything that made her unhappy."
Well, one is not meeting her standards. During her stretch of indecision about a coach more than a decade ago, she finished fourth in the Olympic Trials in 2000, or this would be a fifth Olympics. And her mother remembers her throwing at the U.S. nationals 17 days after giving birth in 2007, and being ticked at finishing sixth and missing a trip to the world championships.
Mostly, it's been a steady march. Still, it's been eight years since she accomplished her personal best, a 216-1 heave in 2004. And Thurmond makes no pretense about a certain gap on her résumé.
"I want to go over to London and be on the podium," she said firmly. "I want some hardware. I'm not gonna lie. It's time."
That's a tall task. She was a narrow non-qualifier for the final at last year's world championships, and the medalists in that meet, Yanfeng Li of China, Nadine Muller of Germany and Yarelys Barrios of Cuba, all have bettered 222 feet in 2012.
Eager, an eyewitness to Thurmond's qualifying effort in Eugene, figures it's a matter of orchestrating the perfect confluence of training, weightlifting and plyometrics — "being able to have that all come together that one time, and have the throw of your life."
Shannon drew on a football analogy to describe Thurmond.
"If you're on the 2-yard line, give her the ball," he said. "She'll get it in there."
It's getting late in the game for Thurmond. Medal or no, it's been a long, productive — and inclusive — career.