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Saturday, June 28, 2008 - Page updated at 06:28 PM

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Steve Kelley

WSU track coach in second place in heptathlon at Olympic trials

Just after 1 o'clock, with people casually roaming around Hayward Field in the dazzling afternoon sun, Diana Pickler cleared her first hurdle...

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Diana Pickler leaps over the bar during the women's high jump in the heptathlon at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field trials in Eugene. Pickler tied her record in the event at 6 feet, ½ inch.

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DAVID J. PHILLIP / AP

Diana Pickler leaps over the bar during the women's high jump in the heptathlon at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field trials in Eugene. Pickler tied her record in the event at 6 feet, ½ inch.

Diana Pickler finished third in the 200-meter portion of the heptathlon, placing ahead of Jacquelyn Johnson.

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ROD MAR / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Diana Pickler finished third in the 200-meter portion of the heptathlon, placing ahead of Jacquelyn Johnson.

Pickler's first day

13.13

100 hurdles

6-0 ½

High jump

38-7 ½

Shot put

24.11

200

3,750

Total points

EUGENE, Ore. — Just after 1 o'clock, with people casually roaming around Hayward Field in the dazzling afternoon sun, Diana Pickler cleared her first hurdle — literally and figuratively — on her inexorable march to Beijing.

"That was pretty cool," she said. "I was thinking about it right before we started and I told myself, 'This is a really cool feeling.' I mean we opened the track and field trials. It's kind of fun starting it off. It's awesome."

The cardboard signs pasted on poles all around the Oregon campus point to Beijing and announce it is only 5,999 miles away.

For Pickler, Beijing and the Summer Olympics are much closer and still so far away.

After competing Friday in the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put and 200, the heptathlete and assistant track coach at Washington State still has a long jump, javelin and 800 to complete before she qualifies for the Olympics.

"I'm in a good spot. I'm happy," she said as she stopped briefly in the interview area.

Pickler is a gamer.

She started the afternoon running a personal best in the hurdles (13.13 seconds) and tying her record in the high jump (6 feet, ½ inch). In the most important meet of her life, she seemed impervious to the pressure.

Pickler finished the day in second place, and because she already has made the Olympic standard, if she finishes in the top three today, she will be going to Beijing.

"It's a nice way to start off with a [personal record] in the hurdles. After you've done that you can kind of take a deep breath and go to work from here," she said. "It's a hard day, but all I have to think about now is the long jump and getting off to a good start in that."

It's quiet in Track Town, USA.

Maybe too quiet.

Where is the prizefight posturing like we saw in 2000 in Sacramento, between Maurice Greene and Michael Johnson? Where is the weeklong buildup of venom that gets unleashed in about 20 seconds?

(OK, maybe some of the sprinters don't like Allyson Felix and Torri Edwards, but overall Eugene '08 is a love fest compared to many other trials.)

Where is the anger? Where are the cold shoulders? Where is the icy divide between competitors that doesn't melt no matter what the track temperatures? Where is the cacophony of complaining?

You know how it goes. "He's cheating but I'm clean." Or, "She's juiced, but I'm all natural."

Eugene '08 also is missing some of the star power of past trials.

There is no Flo-Jo shaving dramatic tenths of seconds off sprinting records. There is no Jackie Joyner-Kersee, running, leaping and throwing herself into record books. No Marion Jones sprinting past the drug-use whispers, qualifying in event after event.

Now that defending Olympic 100-meter champion Justin Gatlin, once and for all, has been banned from these trials, there is almost no finger-pointing. Could these truly be the drug-free trials?

But what the trials might be missing in glitter, this eight-day track-and-field carnival, it will make up for in grit.

Take the 24-year-old Pickler. Originally from the suburbs of Dallas, she is just beginning to realize her potential in her sport. She was runner-up at last year's nationals and finished 25th in the 2007 world championships.

After Beijing, she could have at least two more Olympics in her future.

"I think I've found my niche," said Pickler, a former gymnast whose twin sister, Julie, struggled to a 15th-place finish on the first day.

The Olympic trials are the cruelest, most wonderful event in track and field. Finishing fourth is the most painful place on Earth. One misstep, one tenth of a second, one bad day can ruin four years of training, drain four years' worth of dreams.

And, in an event like the two-day heptathlon, even the smallest edge, like a home-cooked meal, can feel like a huge advantage.

"My mom is amazing," Pickler said. "She has a hotel room with a kitchen. She made us homemade spaghetti last night and she'll do it again tonight, so we won't have to go to a restaurant.

"So I have no concerns going into tomorrow. I'm ready for everything tomorrow. I just have to go out there and get it done."

More than five hours after she cleared her first hurdle in the sun, Pickler finished her day running under the grandstand's shade.

She is 5,999 miles from Beijing, but only three more events from having her trip guaranteed.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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