Marks becomes first Gopher women’s track athlete to make U.S Olympic team

Living away from her husband and coach paid off for the Apple Valley native, who qualified for the Olympic team in the triple jump last week in Eugene, Ore., becoming the first Gophers women’s track athlete to qualify for the games.

Trevor Born

For an Olympic athlete, Shani Marks spends a lot of time on her computer.

Her coach, Michael Eskind , lives in Boston and has to e-mail training schedules. Her husband, former Gophers football player Ron Johnson , plays for the Cleveland Gladiators of the Arena Football League and the two communicate mostly through e-mails and instant messages .

She could’ve moved to Boston to train, or to Cleveland to be with her husband, but Marks said she just couldn’t leave Minnesota, where she’s lived her whole life.

“It hasn’t always been fun,” Marks said, “but since it’s an Olympic year, I knew that I should stay here where I’ve been having success and had support. I didn’t want to make too many changes.”

It paid off for the Apple Valley native , who qualified for the Olympic team in the triple jump last week in Eugene, Ore., becoming the first Gophers women’s track athlete to qualify for the Games .

Each day, Eskind e-mails a training regimen to Marks and her training partner , Amanda Thieschafer . The two follow his instructions, videotape their jumps and e-mail that video back to get feedback.

“It seems really weird and nontraditional, but it’s been a blessing to us,” Marks said. “We had no structure before he started coaching us. I think Amanda and I are dedicated enough to get it done, but we didn’t really know how to structure our workouts.”

“It’s definitely not an ideal situation, but for us, it works pretty well,” Thieschafer said.

Meanwhile, Marks and Johnson, who have been married for just more than a year , stay in touch by phone and Internet, and also use “a lot of frequent flyer miles.”

“It’s been really tough on us, but we’ve made it work somehow,” she said. “He has to be away to follow his dreams and goals, and the same goes for me. We’re making the sacrifices now so, hopefully, we eventually won’t have to do that anymore.”

But living away from her husband and coach isn’t the only thing Marks has had to overcome.

After graduating from Apple Valley High School in 1998 , Marks was debilitated by back pain to the point where she nearly couldn’t walk , and she underwent spinal fusion surgery that summer.

The first doctor the Marks family consulted said she would never run track again . A second opinion didn’t rule out the possibility, but highly doubted it.

“I think they’d be a little surprised to see where I am now,” Marks said.

She had to undergo a second surgery before her senior year to take out some pieces of metal from her back that were – “as gross as this sounds,” she said – poking out of her skin . That year, she earned All-American honors and won the team’s “Tough as Nails” award.

“My real goal coming in was not to screw her up,” said women’s track coach Matt Bingle, who took the job the winter before Marks’ senior year . “I don’t think I did.”

At the Olympic trials, Marks set a personal record with a jump of 47 feet, 2 inches . Her goal is to make the final round of the Olympics, which she guessed would take a jump of about 47 feet, 6 inches .

No American woman has ever made the final round of the triple jump, let alone won a medal in it. Making it to the finals would probably mean breaking Tiombe Herd’s American record of 47 feet, 5 inches , but Marks said she’s confident that she can add a few inches onto the qualifying jump she made in Eugene, where “the heat really took over.”

“These next six weeks, I’m just focusing on going into the Olympics with confidence that I can jump further than I ever have,” she said.

Marks leaves for Beijing July 29 and will bring just six people: her parents, husband, two sisters and best friend, Jamie.

Everyone else will have to settle for e-mail.