Former Olympian misses out on hat trick

by Monica Wright

Attending the Olympic trials, as Gopher athletes in four sports have done this summer, is an honor. Making the team is a dream come true.
So far, only one athlete, wrestler Garrett Lowney, is headed for Sydney. But according to two-time Olympian and Minnesota men’s cross country coach Steve Plasencia, this is no reason to call it quits.
“If they’re in the trials today, there’s no reason why four years later they can’t be in the games,” Plasencia said. “It requires different things athletically while developing the rest of your life. It also depends on your sport, for one thing; different sports mature differently.”
Plasencia knows what he’s talking about. After an illustrious career as a distance runner for the Gophers, in which he was a five-time All-American in the 1970’s and still holds several school records, it was almost a decade before he competed in his first Olympic games in 1988.
Between college and the Olympics, Plasencia attended graduate school at the track and field capital of the United States: the University of Oregon. While out West, he continued to run and improve with team Nike.
“I think it took longer to reach the point of thinking about the Olympics,” Plasencia said. “After school, I thought about it, but in graduate school, you tend to deal with reality more, so I divided my focus.”
Olympic reality arrived in 1988 and 1992 when Plasencia represented the United States in the 10,000-meter. He also earned a spot on several World Championship teams.
Following his Olympic career, Plasencia continued to run as a master, setting two American records; one in the half-marathon, the other in the 10K.
But Plasencia also understands the disappointment of losing. In May, he failed to qualify for his third Olympics in the marathon, set to be his last competitive race, putting him into retirement at the age of 44.
“To run in the trials brings back feelings of things you’ve done before and the outside hope that you may be able to do it one more time,” Plasencia said. “But I knew it was for the last time.
“I have a young family and am coaching, so I didn’t put much emphasis on the trials this time, and I knew I’d pay the price. It just reinforced the fact that running at that caliber is a selfish pursuit.”
Today Plasencia stays involved in running through coaching both track and cross country at Minnesota, which brings him close to Sydney through former Gopher athletes and Olympians like Staffan Strand and Benjamin Jensen.
Despite his extensive experience in international competition, Plasencia rarely dispenses advice to the new class.
“If you’re going to the Olympics, you pretty much know what you’re getting into by now,” he said. “They don’t need to talk to me to know.”

Monica Wright welcomes comments at [email protected]